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Environmentalists, snowmobilers face off; They prepare for battle on use of off-road vehicles in national park system


GRAND LAKE, Colo. -- An arctic gale was blowing in Squeak Creek as Ken Todd roared down from the Continental Divide, bucking his snowmobile through drifts on a road in Rocky Mountain National Park.

It was a motorized tableau that a coalition of environmental groups would like to erase from the National Park System. In a midwinter attack, the coalition, called the Bluewater Network, has petitioned Bruce Babbitt, the interior secretary, to ban snowmobiles from the 28 places among the National Park System's 378 that allow them. In the Northeast, snowmobiling is allowed only in the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area in Pennsylvania and Acadia National Park in Maine.

But the environmental coalition, representing an estimated 1 million members, is butting helmets with about 2.5 million Americans, the estimated number of people who ride snowmobiles every winter.

Todd, pulling his machine out of a drift here, flipped up his helmet visor and bellowed over the wind, "The extremists would have the parks shut down to everybody."

Whether or not the environmental groups succeed, their petition highlights sharpening conflict between snowmobile riders and cross-country skiers on public lands. In national forests, not part of the park system, managers are zoning land for motorized or nonmotorized use. Here in Colorado, this recreational segregation has come as snowmobile riders have expanded their reach with more powerful machines.

In addition, public lands managers and the public are growing less tolerant of the noise and air pollution from off-road recreational vehicles.

Thirty years after they first became popular, snowmobiles are still so noisy that they are sold without horns, and their emissions are dirtier than the blue smoke pumped out by 1950s automobiles. A modern snowmobile also emits roughly 225 times the carbon monoxide and 1,000 times the hydrocarbons and nitric oxides of a modern car, said Russell Long, executive director of Bluewater Network.

In a warning to snowmobile manufacturers, California adopted pollution targets for personal watercraft in December, calling for 75 percent reductions in emissions of hydrocarbons and nitric oxides by 2001.

"Many of the personal watercraft manufacturers also make snowmobiles," said Charles Emmett, an engineer for the California Air Resources Board, a state agency charged with controlling air pollution. "So it is likely that they can adopt the same advanced technology."

In moves that can cut hydrocarbon emissions by one-third, snowmobile manufacturers are shifting to biodegradable oils and to gasohol, said Edward J. Klim, president of the International Snowmobile Manufacturers Association, a trade group based in Haslett, Mich.

Pub Date: 2/14/99

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