It was fortunate that I could ski faster than my friend Mark Tokarski, because, like a 200-pound mosquito in a red stocking cap, he was pursuing me, belting out this incredibly annoying whining sound: "YEEEEENNNNGGGHHHH." Foolishly, as we shushed along cross-country trails on the Bitterroot Divide, I had commented what a rare pleasure it was to hear the sound of snow plop from over-laden pine branches, rather than the whine of snowmobiles.
"Do you want me
to make that noise, so you feel at home?" Tokarski asked, and
without waiting for a reply, launched into his impression of a
snowmobile engine. I rewarded him at the top of the pass with a
Regrettably, real snow
machines are not so easily dealt with. Advocates claim snowmobile
use in Montana went up 73 percent in the last decade, and U.S.
sales doubled between 1992 and 1996. Powerful new machines, no
longer prone to sinking in deep powder, go virtually anywhere there
is snow cover - even areas that are officially closed to
Snow machines are not
entirely a bad thing, I sometimes reflect. I wholeheartedly support
recreational use of our public lands, and folks ought to enjoy the
great outdoors in winter. As the International Snowmobile Industry
Association once commented, "The sport of snowmobiling has acted
... to greatly mollify the sedentary nature of winter activities."
I'm sensitive to the charge that
environmentalists want to lock up the West and make it into some
kind of huge, empty preserve where, clad in polar fleece, we can
freely seek hot springs, quaint cappuccino shops and a mate with
the right kind of trust fund. Still, I believe we could do worse to
the West; we could turn it into a 50-million-acre amusement park
with a Wall Drug in every town, jetboats on every river, and
snowmobiles on every mountain.
For a glimpse of
this nightmare, take Wallace, Idaho. At first glance, it looks like
just another small town on I-90. But it is much more, or much less,
depending on your perspective. The town's boosters tout Wallace as
"the world's largest snowmobile destination," featuring 1,000 miles
of ATV trails. Silver Country Inc., a local public relations firm,
describes the area as "the Waikiki of the 21st century ... a
recreation preserve ... the world's largest Eco-Disneyland."
"Picture yourself going back
to a time straight out of a Clint Eastwood Western," the company
says in one brochure. "Where horses were tied up in front of the
saloon, now parking is reserved for Arctic Cats, Yamahas and Ski
Doos ... From Lookout Pass you can open up the throttle on a
55-mile loop deep into the Montana wilds, and right up to the front
of Old West casinos."
suggests, is making your own rules and conquering the backcountry
without ever getting off your butt. Driving a machine through
America's last wildlands is a shorthand claim to outdoor skills,
self-reliance and other frontier virtues. Instead of spending a
lifetime in the woods, now all it takes to become Jim Bridger is
the money to rent a Yamaha Wolverine 4x4.
technology is allowing snowmobiles and ATVs to invade territory
they couldn't get to in the past. Sales are also up. Trail-legal
ATVs that go 60 miles-per-hour now outsell street motorcycles, and
snowmobile sales are soaring.
If the ORV/theme
park experience were simply one choice of many available in the
West, its rise would be less disturbing. Unlike hikers, hunters,
equestrians and others who prefer "quiet trails," however, ORVs do
not complement existing use, they replace it. In a 1994 University
of Montana survey, 91 percent of trail hikers said walking is
incompatable with motorcycles, and three quarters of cross-country
skiers couldn't stomach the presence of
Yet the state of Montana spends
nearly $1 million a year promoting ATV and snowmobile use, and an
astonishing 58 percent of national forest trails in Montana are
open to some type of motorized vehicle.
are acting out our national myths astride snowmobiles, if we accept
that driving an incredibly pollutive machine through the last
wildlands of the lower 48 is "freedom," then we are dooming
ourselves and our children to a future as consumptive,
insubstantial and debilitatingly mindless as those very
In the same way that sharing a family
meal is more rewarding than eating a TV dinner, real engagement
with nature yields unexpected benefits. Hiking and skiing the
Bitterroots, one may learn, over time, patience and strength,
caution and confidence, and the satisfaction of accomplishing
difficult physical tasks. One has the opportunity to surprise a
bear, smell the vanilla odor of Ponderosa bark, learn how to handle
a canoe or quarter an elk.
These rewards are
neither instant nor guaranteed, but they have been an invaluable
part of human experience from time immemorial. We are fools to
throw them away for a blaze of adrenaline and a haze of blue
John Adams lives in