Battle for the Backcountry


Backcountry skiers hate the sound of snowmobiles tearing through the woods; snowmobilers hate the sound of skiers whining about their machines. Now tensions between the two camps are sky high, thanks largely to a controversial new mandate that could lead to the banning of snowmobiles in most National Park Service (NPS) lands by 2002¿2003.

Citing concerns about wildlife habitat, vehicle emissions, and noise pollution, the NPS announced last winter that it would tighten its enforcement of existing rules on snowmobiling, which would essentially phase out the sport in popular destinations like Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks. Skiers are looking forward to some peace and quiet in those areas; snowmobilers are outraged.

"The Clinton administration wants the people out of the parks," said Ed Klim, president of the International Snowmobile Manufacturers Association. "It...will turn our parks into cloistered preserves where the public is not invited."

Park Service officials claim the snowmobile industry hasn't done enough to reduce noise and hazardous emissions. The mandate followed suggestions from the Environmental Protection Agency that a ban on snowmobiling would be the only way to ensure cleaner air.

Skiers may be getting the upper hand in the national parks, but elsewhere they've taken a bruising. In April, arsonists torched two backcountry yurts near Sun Valley, Idaho, a hotspot of recent skier-'biler tensions. Though the Blaine County sheriff's office has no leads, many local skiers believe snowmobilers started the fires, which did $20,000 in damage. In another incident last spring, five snowmobiles reportedly ran roughshod over the Nordic trails at Ashcroft Ski Touring Center near Aspen, Colorado.

Whether incidents like these indicate growing frustration among the country's snowmobilers isn't clear. But the NPS mandate faces stiff opposition in Congress, and many snowmobilers are hoping that a Republican administration would put a stop to it. The battle rages on.

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