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Snowmobiling and environmentalists

Posted on Feb 2, 2014

Considering I took my first trip down the snowmobile trails of Chautauqua County while at the controls of a snowmobile this weekend I thought it was time to talk about the issue of snowmobiling and the environmentalists who oppose it in general terms. This has cropped up less than I thought it would after we launched the “Nature at Your Fingertips” winter trails cell phone tour at the beginning of the 2013-2014 snowmobile season. Anyone on the trails – hiking, running, skiing, or so forth – can use and enjoy our mobile tour for free. However, the focus is engaging Chautauqua County’s snowmobile community, and in that effort we teamed up with the Chautauqua Lake Snowmobile Club to establish the tour on over 200 miles of their winter trails located in the westernmost part of the county.

So what are the problems to the “environmentalist”? First of all let’s remember that I, someone who would be labeled an environmentalist, conservationist, biologist, and so on, had never ridden a snowmobile before yesterday. The basic objections to linking the promotion of snowmobiles and environmental education that we have heard from a very low number of people are common and seem to me to be superficial and not fully thought out. Snowmobiles are indeed loud and being gas powered they do pollute, two areas that have improved over time thanks to technology and a concerted effort to reduce both. Yes, they run over the land and leave a mark while often passing through forests or other habitats. That seems to be the summation of the complaints.


Ready to hit the trails and enjoy Chautauqua County’s winter woodlands and picturesque views

Snowmobiling in Chautauqua County alone is said to be a $20 million industry and I would surmise it is actually far more than that, especially in a season with the trails open for prolonged periods. The Chautauqua Lake Snowmobile Club alone has over 2,300 members. There are literally tens of thousands of people in this area in all of the clubs and groups combined who are passionate snowmobilers and many more that flock to the county from neighboring states. They have an investment, economically and emotionally, in preserving and protecting the land they ride on. If they abuse it they will lose it, period, whether it is private or public.  They enjoy being outdoors and in the environment for hours on end. They follow the weather and talk about conditions of the habitat they’re passing over. These people are environmentalists wearing a different mask – in this case, a helmet – even if they do not fully know it themselves.

We want to make them realize how much is actually out there in and around these trails in all of the seasons of the year. We want them to see the natural resources they are riding by are incredibly important and that Chautauqua County has abundantly wealthy habitats. Connecting all of the people who care about our lands for one reason or another makes the effort put towards protecting and preserving them even more effective and much stronger. My time snowmobiling with our Conservation Technician Elyse Henshaw along with her husband and her father was tremendously fun. They were excellent teachers and we had a sensational afternoon on the trails running through the world in a different way than I had ever experienced. I get it. And like Elyse, I now get it from both sides of table.

In my home state of Connecticut creating trail systems like the ones in Chautauqua County would be impossible because we have developed far too much of the land and have lost the chance to preserve the vast majority of natural resources. Yes, I am going there – snowmobiling helps to save enormous tracts of land for conservation and makes productively managing it necessary. Running a sled over carefully groomed, pre-established and safe trails during specific “open” times when there is an acceptable amount of snow on the ground does very little to harm the earth other than occasionally churning up a bit of dirt. A ski, mountain bike, dog or even someone’s shoe could do the same. What animals are being disturbed in the middle of a frigid snowy winter day in New York by some noisy sleds on already existing trail systems covering a small percentage of the overall land? Very few, and even fewer of any conservation importance. If it were the middle of the summer it would be a problem but that is obviously not the case. Worrying about a species like White-tailed Deer is fretting too much in the grand scheme of things as our environment is to the point of a triage effort, not to mention what they do as a species to our forests is sometimes damaging and can be catastrophic.

RTPI and stop signs

One of our strategically placed signs, this one near Alder Bottom WMA

Pollution? That is a black hole of sorts…have you been on a plane recently? Do you drive a vehicle that runs off something other than gasoline? If it’s electric, do you receive power from only renewable sources? How about your house? Do the sports you enjoy watching or participating in have a 100% beneficial impact on the environment? I write about climate change nonstop in this space and am fully cognizant of the sweeping changes we need to make basically a century ago in order to save our planet from spiraling out of control. Systematic changes are needed, not the removal of people on some snowmobiles when they are and can be environmentalists of another sort. Excluding entire classes or groups of people from our environmental circle by shunning or deriding them is a fantastic way to ensure that we will never have a unified force or voice to make substantive and complete alterations to our power plants, grids or transportation systems, to continue to expand conservation and best management techniques and practices, and so forth.

We are going to keep connecting our neighbors, friends and family to the environment and conservation through education and by any means necessary, and I hope you will, too. Making even one person a passionate and enthusiastic environmentalist can far outweigh the cost of a little more noise and gas.


Scott Kruitbosch
Conservation & Outreach Coordinator

Photos © Scott Kruitbosch