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Know the West

Should the Forest Service be blamed for a snowmobile wreck



About 10 o’clock one February night in 1996, Michigan tourist Brian Musselman was snowmobiling on a groomed trail in Gallatin National Forest near West Yellowstone, when another snowmobiler "blasted over a 17-foot jump" and slammed into him, according to the Great Falls Tribune.

The wreck left Musselman with severe brain injuries, and it raised questions about snowmobiling’s risks, and who should be responsible for them. Ruling in January on a lawsuit filed by Musselman’s family, U.S. District Judge Don Molloy found about $11 million of blame to spread around; he assigned most of it to the snowmobilers, and about $4 million to the Forest Service.

Although the Forest Service had posted 45-mile-per-hour speed-limit signs on portions of the 140 miles of groomed trails on the ranger district, it should have taken more safety measures on the steep hill, the judge said; another wreck had occurred there earlier, and it was a well-known hazard.

Molloy’s verdict could be felt around the West. The Forest Service has few trails with speed limits, no intensive snowmobile management, and few snowmobile cops to enforce regulations (HCN, 1/19/04: Can skiers and snowmobilers coexist?). The agency could never eliminate all hazards; instead, it may cut back trail-grooming programs — a prospect that worries Alan Brown, a leader of the Montana Snowmobile Association. "That could radically affect where people can go snowmobiling."

Snowmobile groups believe that, in general, drivers should take responsibility. The Forest Service is considering an appeal.