Snowmobilers need to police their bad apples

  A recent story in my local newspaper, headlined "Snowmobiler says riders endure hate" made me sit up straight. The article quoted Clark Collins of the Idaho-based BlueRibbon Coalition, who said that snowmobilers have become victims of a campaign "akin to any other hate campaign against ethnic or religious groups."

Mr. Collins' comments interest me because I strongly dislike -- hate is such an ugly word -- many of the people on snowmobiles I encounter. I hoped the article would shed light on the internal conflict I feel over my negative feelings, since I'm a snowmobile rider myself.

Mr. Collins and his coalition provided an easy explanation for my dislike: My mind has been poisoned by propaganda sent out by environmental organizations. Since I don't belong to any environmental organization, this reasoning doesn't work for me.

No, my dislike is based on personal experience. I work as a caretaker for a Girl Scout camp, located at 9,200 feet in Utah's Wasatch Mountains. The nearest plowed road is five miles and a couple of thousand vertical feet away, so my family and I commute by snowmobile during winter. At the camp, one of my main duties is maintaining the safety and integrity of the camp, and this involves keeping out intruders.

Most of the year, this is an easy task. During winter it's a nightmare. No matter how many No Trespassing, No Snowmobiling signs I post; no matter how many sign ropes I string from tree to tree, almost any weekend brings a handful of snowmobilers riding right through the middle of camp. Yet these snowmobilers have thousands of acres nearby where they can legally ride.

Every snowmobiler who approaches one of my No Trespassing signs unknowingly participates in an informal survey I'm conducting. They sign my survey with their tracks left in the snow. A snowmobile track turning around at the sign gets a checkmark in the Snowmobilers-Are-Law-Abiding-Funseekers column.

A track that drives right past the sign, which can mean moving a sign and lifting a rope to pass by, gets a checkmark in the Snowmobilers-Are-Lawless-Private-Property-Abusers column. So far this winter, abusers outnumber the law-abiders eight to one.

I'd like to ask a few follow-up questions for my survey, but I rarely get the chance. When at the sound of approaching snowmobiles I walk out my front door and wave someone over, most riders look right at me as they hit their throttles and accelerate past. The few who stop are usually apologetic and agree to turn around, though I am dumbfounded when they all try to pass off riding past a clearly visible No Trespassing sign as an honest mistake.

Occasionally, I get on my snowmobile and chase down the trespassers. This invariably leads to the kind of nasty encounter that cements my dislike for this group. I'd quote a few gems from the verbal abuse I've heard, but no newspaper would print them.

Though I've been threatened in my two winters here, I've avoided having to duck a punch. My predecessor, a woman standing all of 5 foot 4 inches, wasn't so lucky. She was physically accosted on several occasions by trespassing snowmobilers who didn't want to hear that they couldn't ride on private, posted property. Once, a 6-foot-something man choked her and threw her to the snow, while his father watched from another snow machine. Snowmobiler encounters, she said, drove her from the job after five years.

I want to believe the majority of snowmobilers are responsible, law-abiding citizens, as Mr. Collins claims, and not the arrogant boors he says environmentalists make them out to be in an attempt to poison my mind. As it turns out, I make up my mind largely based on what I experience, and what I've seen are obnoxious people contemptuous of private-property rights.

If Mr. Collins and his BlueRibbon Coalition really are interested in reducing snowmobile conflict, they might turn their efforts inward. Never mind that Collins couldn't cite any specific example of the hate mail he alleged, or that the Salt Lake Tribune article found a link from the BlueRibbon Web site to a columnist deriding environmentalists as "Satan's servants," who "should be beaten senselessly and ultimately exterminated." The hate-campaign rhetoric is unproductive at best and sadly absurd at worst.

It's also a slap in the face to ethnic and religious groups that are victimized by hate campaigns. Until snowmobile-user groups rein in their abusive members, they will continue to make themselves easy targets of negative stereotyping, and they will continue to lose ground in their fight to improve their public image.

Mark Menlove is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado ( He lives and writes in the mountains above Park City, Utah.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at