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Snowmobiles, Cell Phone Tours and the Environment

Posted on Feb 4, 2014

Full Disclosure: I once owned a snowmobile, when I resided in a remote Alaskan Inuit village 350 miles from the nearest road. I fully understand the convenience, even the necessity, of “snow machines” in such places, and I freely admit it was a fun way to get around. I also “get” the economic boost that snowmobilers and their organized groups give our region; that most snowmobilers are respectful of the environment; and that our “Nature at Your Fingertips” field test of cell phone tour delivery has the potential to reach a population that otherwise never even heard of RTPI.


However, I prefer quiet, self-propelled forms of outdoor recreation: especially snowshoeing, cross country skiing, hiking, and kayaking. In this way I can be close to the ground or water, get out into the country with field journal and binoculars, experience and record the sights, sounds, textures, and smells – the particularity – of what the natural world is offering my senses that day. Enjoying nature in winter in this way almost always means co-existing with snowmobilers. Mostly I’m fine with that. Sometimes I even use their trails, stepping off to the side and waving as they roar past.


Other times I have to admit it’s not so easy. Among my favorite places on earth is Allegany State Park, a shining jewel of our public commons. Its ski touring trails are among the best in the Northeast. I love to ski those trails and when I stop for a breather, listen for the soft wiry notes of chickadees and kinglets and maybe, on a very lucky day, the deep-throated “crock” of a raven. But so often those sounds of the wilderness are polluted with the whine of snowmobiles – their noise pollution can be heard over a several-mile-wide corridor on either side of a trail. And it’s not just the noise it’s the smell; sometimes the stink of snowmobile exhaust, many times more polluting than that of any modern car, is inescapable. I have even seen, on some occasions, a layer of snowmobile exhaust hugging the ground around Red House Lake.


No, I really don’t understand what users of off-road vehicles – ATV’s, snowmobiles, dirt bikes and the like – find recreational, and I’m sure many of them would not understand what is so interesting about bird watching. Thank goodness we’re not all alike; I realize nature appreciation can take many forms. But, to me, there simply is no comparison between noticing nature in winter quietly on foot and riding helmeted through it on a snowmobile.


The question of whether snowmobiles and their trails are good, bad or indifferent to wildlife or ecosystems in general is a good one to debate, but I’ll not respond to it here. Let it simply be said that ringing enthusiasm for snowmobiling is not shared by everyone at RTPI.


Come spring, following this test of OnCell technology, RTPI will use what we learn and apply it to other projects and audiences, such as sites featured in a new digital edition of our Natural History Atlas of the Chautauqua-Allegheny Region and the boyhood haunts of Roger Tory Peterson. Stay tuned.


Mark Baldwin

Director of Education