'Thrillcraft' leave a polluted, contentious wake

  • Personal watercraft in Cooney Reservoir, Montana

    Ken Blackbird/Billings Gazette
  • Making waves: Jet boat in Hells Canyon

    Mike Handy

"What we ought to do is establish parks for motorized recreational use, and shove all the ATVs and all the jet skis in there and let 'em run over the top of each other and break each other's eardrums," says Ric Bailey, the outspoken director of the Hells Canyon Preservation Council, a coalition of commercial and private boaters based in Joseph, Ore. "They ruin everyone else's experience."

Bailey is not alone in his distaste for motorized water toys. From the coast of Washington to the Snake River in Wyoming, communities are slapping restrictions on power boaters and jet skiers, saying they are noisy, dirty and dangerous. But motorheads are fighting back, and it remains to be seen whether Western waterways can be kept quiet for long.

The conflict is most fierce in the Hells Canyon Recreation Area on the Oregon-Idaho border, where jet-boat use has swelled 500 percent in two decades. The canyon is a popular playground for thrill seekers and sightseers alike. Jet boaters wind through churning rapids in the 71-mile stretch of the wild-and-scenic-designated Snake River, and tour boats carry camera-toting crowds through the canyon's calmer sections.

While the Forest Service has regulated "floaters'" -- rafters and kayakers -- in the canyon for years, it has turned a blind eye to motorized users, says Mary O'Brien, a policy analyst for the preservation council.

Last October, O'Brien stood in the Hells Canyon Wilderness Area more than 5,000 feet above the Snake River. A single jet boat, a mile away, was all it took to shatter the silence, she says. "Supposedly, you're in the wilderness -- right next to these jet boats roaring by with no limits on numbers, no limits on noise," she says. Her group has sued the Forest Service for failing to regulate jet boats.

Forest Service officials had proposed some motorless days in Hells Canyon this summer (HCN, 11/11/96: Through Hells and high water). But they backed off at the last minute because private landowners feared they wouldn't be able to reach their land. "Jet boaters would say we're allowing one user group exclusive use," says Forest Service spokesman John Denne. "What's fair about that?"

Ric Bailey calls the private-lands issue "a complete fabrication. Every single year we wait with bated breath for their newest excuse not to control jet boats. It's a stupid little game the Forest Service is playing with the public, and we don't think it's funny any more."

It's no game, says Art Seamans, a boat manufacturer in nearby Lewiston, Idaho, and a member of the Hells Canyon Alliance, an umbrella organization composed of private and commercial floaters, power boaters and buisness concerns. As a Forest Service employee in the 1970s, Seamans wrote the first management plan for the Snake River. "We're talking about livelihoods, money and competition," he says. "The commercial floaters would like it if there were no commercial power boaters up here."

Seamans now builds welded aluminum jet boats that he says are much quieter than earlier models. "The older boats were noisy. The new boats have changed a whole bunch," thanks to new muffling systems and insulated engine compartments, he says.

Seamans and other jet-boat aficionados have caught the ears of Idaho's congressional delegation. Sen. Larry Craig and Rep. Helen Chenoweth have introduced a bill that would prohibit the Forest Service from declaring any motorless days or reducing jet boats in the canyon below current levels (HCN, 2/5/96: Power to the powerboats).

Debate humming around the region

About 400 miles upstream, a similar dispute is playing out on the Snake River outside Jackson, Wyo. In March, the state Fish and Game Commission banned all motorized watercraft from an eight-mile stretch of the river, saying jet boats powering upstream created a hazard for kayakers and rafters in the canyon's rapids.

"There was overwhelming public support for the issue," says forest supervisor Bernie Holz. Gov. Jim Geringer signed the rule into law in May despite the pleas of a small but persistent group of power boaters and some state legislators.

In Lake Tahoe, planners invoked an even more dramatic ban. They ordered all carbureted two-cycle, or "two-stroke," engines off the lake by 1999. Two-strokes are notorious for spewing 25 percent of their gasoline into the water unburned. The rule will ban not only jet skis but also sailboats and fishing boats with outboard motors. Even police patrol boats will be outlawed (HCN, 2/17/97: Boats may get bounced).

While the original intent was to ban only Jet Skis, purely from the water quality point of view, "we really couldn't discriminate," says planner Colleen Shade. "No one argues that unburned fuel doesn't go into the lake, not even the industry."

But in Olympic National Park in Washington state, officials recently announced plans to allow jet skis on parts of Lake Crescent. The move elicited an outcry from national environmental groups. "The very values we created the parks to protect will be lost if we don't stop these things in their tracks now," says Phil Pearl of the National Parks and Conservation Association. "What do we want our parks to be, places of peace and quiet, or motorized playgrounds?"

Glacier and Everglades national parks, in Montana and Florida respectively, have already banned jet skis. Pearl's group is trying to extend the ban throughout the park system, which is no small task, he says, as the jet-ski industry is well-funded and aggressive.

North of Olympic National Park in Washington's San Juan Islands, motorheads shot down a jet-ski ban imposed last year. San Juan County Commissioner Rhea Miller, who supported the ban, says jet skis "take away our economic lifeblood" by running off the eagles, seals and whales that bring tourists to the islands. "We're dealing with sewers and growth," she adds. "We cannot finance a whole squadron of people to go chasing personal watercraft."

A Superior Court judge overturned the ban, questioning the county's authority to exclude state-licensed watercraft. The county appealed the case to the Washington State Supreme Court in May. Miller hopes a decision later this summer will put an end to the controversy. "We can't stand up to the kind of money available to industry," she says.

Help may be on its way, as the Environmental Protection Agency and national environmental groups are pushing "thrillcraft" manufacturers to clean up their acts. The EPA has told the industry to reduce emissions from jet skis, or "personal watercraft," by 75 percent by 2006. Meanwhile, the San Francisco-based Earth Island Institute is suing 16 manufacturers for building machines that dump cancer-causing fuel into California's drinking water. The group has also sued the EPA, asking for even tougher rules for industry.

The industry is feeling the heat, and many manufacturers are working to develop cleaner, quieter water toys. But not everyone thinks technology will provide a quick fix, as a ballooning crowd of recreationists vies for pinched space in the West's water.

In Hells Canyon, jet-boat builder Darrell Bentz says floaters will have to live with the noise. "They've got other rivers they can run on. They've got the vast majority already," he says. "But Hells Canyon has never been a wilderness river. This river needs to be shared."

The reporter is a former HCN intern. Assistant editor Greg Hanscom contributed to this report.


  • Contact Ric Bailey with the Hells Canyon Preservation Council at 541/432-8100, or
  • Contact Sandra Mitchell with the Hells Canyon Alliance at 208/342-2826.

Copyright © 1998 Danielle Desruisseaux

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