Surprise: Snowmobiles aren’t completely evil

  There’s no question: They stink, they’re noisy, and they scare wildlife. Snowmobiles are truly obnoxious. But while I applaud Yellowstone’s contested ban on snowmobiles, I’ve had to rethink my own stance. For as much as I dislike the smelly machines, snowmobiles have their place.

As a cross-country skier, I’ve never really cared for snowmobiling, especially the engine-gunning, testosterone-fueled style that includes roaring up steep slopes. However, I have the luxury of skiing around the corner in Glacier National Park, where snowmobiles are prohibited even on snowy roads.

As Yellowstone’s overuse problems mounted in the past decade with air and noise pollution, I saw little redeeming value in the machines’ use, particularly in sensitive ecosystems. And my dislike of their racket deterred me from exploring Yellowstone’s geysers in winter, a remarkable sight, so I’ve heard.

Rude, errant snowmobile drivers certainly perpetuated a dislike of their sport. Last Christmas, without asking permission to ride on our property, neighboring snowmobilers, eyeing fresh snow in our several-acre meadow, flattened the entire field with their tracks. Apparently, when snow covers private property, boundary lines no longer exist. Virgin snow is there for the sacking, regardless of whose property it’s on.

But lately, I’ve had to tweak my tune a bit. Instead of a black and white attitude, I’m developing a grayer one.

Recently, I’ve taken to long-distance cross-country skiing on groomed snowmobile roads in Montana’s Whitefish Range, maintained by the local snowmobile association. Now, I can no longer lob all snowmobilers in the boorish department, having met several courteous drivers who slowed down to pass us, and others who stopped to see if we’re okay, apologizing for their clamor and stench. Our local snowmobile association is to be commended for their educational efforts in promoting consideration in the backcountry. How can I rail at such civility?

Ironically, as a cross-country skier, I need snowmobiles. Most small Nordic areas groomed for classic and skate skiing rely on snowmobiles, the work horses that set parallel tracks and lay down corduroy. How can I object when I glide effortlessly with first tracks on a buffed-out trail through deep timber at a local Forest Service-maintained Nordic area?

In the backcountry, I can’t begin to count the number of times I’ve prayed for a solid snowmobile track to ski as we broke trail endlessly through deep snow, while dusk dropped on us too early. A few weeks ago, miles from a trailhead any direction, we found ourselves slogging through heavy snow, slowing our pace to the point where we needed to ski — impossibly —10 miles in eight minutes to reach our destination on time, where my husband waited at the trailhead.

As we rounded each corner, we hoped for the marks of at least one recent snowmobile. We even longed for one of the stinky machines to pass by, so we could send a message to my worried husband. Finally, one packed track lined the route, left by a lone snowmobiler whose firm trail sped us on our way. The driver doesn’t know it, but we thanked him for several hours, even while skiing the last five miles in the dark.

And what if we’d required rescue by the Nordic ski patrol? Most likely, given the route of our trip, they would have searched for us with nothing other than a snowmobile.

This past fall, I found my snowmobile relationship taking another twist when a friend discovered a cheap Arctic Cat with ski trail-grooming equipment for sale. Locking all past resentment in the closet, we purchased the 25-year-old smoke-belching two-stroke wonder, just to groom a ski trail on our own property. Once a week, I drive the malodorous monster, pulling a track-setter around a three-kilometer route, This creates the way for a quiet, fresh air workout on skis. Have I sold out now?

Well, snowmobiles aren’t always bad, but they still don’t belong everywhere. Not in Yellowstone National Park, or in grizzly bear corridors, or sensitive watersheds, but on trails where the impact is not so devastating. I think it possible to share trails with considerate snowmobile drivers. Thoughtless, engine-revving speedsters, however, should inhale their own exhaust.

Although I will never find sport in riding snowmobiles just for fun, I can no longer chuck them wholeheartedly into the realm of the evil empire. But in support of my own lungs and ears and the wildlife residing around our meadow, I should look into purchasing a quieter, less pollution-causing four-stroke for my own use. If nothing else, it might ease my conscience.

Becky Lomax is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She is an outdoor educator in Whitefish, Montana.

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 [email protected].

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