The Country Connection The Pinecone Forest Country Roads Maps Country Cabin Books
The Country Connection Magazine Story

AddThis Feed Button
AddThis Share Button

We acknowledge the financial support of the Government of Canada through the Canada Magazine Fund for the creation of this website.

Illustration by Tim Yearington

The Well Groomed Trail

by Michael Enright

They scream up and down your country road and it drives you to the brink. From your front window you saw 16 in the last pack, as if counting them were a diversion from the seething that has buried itself into your bones. However, pursuant to the need for no further aggravation, you choose to take no action. After all, to take issue with today’s snowmobiler is to take on several mega-corporations as well as a sizeable chunk of the tourist industry—and that would likely translate to a short journey down a dead-end road.

You drop the curtain and back away from the window, grunting at the irony in having paid more for your house because it wasn’t the one on the dead-end road. In fact, the exquisite portrait of tranquillity that was so vividly painted by the real estate agent and framed in the promise of peaceful seasons now lies at your feet, a shattered covenant. Then, as if on cue, precious solitude is once again blown away by the aggregated roar of high-revving, two-stroke snowmobile engines. And as the last one disappears over the hill and around the corner, you shake your head in angry disbelief. Why did I wave back?! Again!

Today, there are approximately 175,000 active snowmobilers belonging to the Ontario Federation of Snowmobile Clubs (OFSC).(1) And if your home is on a rural road that just happens to link the trail, you’re probably convinced that every one of them knows the colour of your front door. In fact, as loud as most of these machines are, you might think that noise pollution ranks highest on this particular totem of transgressions, but think again. And think, “toxic shock.”

Anyone residing in the central region of the province can attest to the increase in snowmobile activity over the past 10 years. And like any dynamic increase in an activity which heavily compromises the environment, the ramifications are all too likely to be swept under the carpet. But regardless of manufacturer claims of improved efficiency, snowmobile engines, by way of their very design, continue to dump a staggering 25 to 40 percent of their gasoline and oil out the tailpipe and directly onto the snowpack.(2)

The average distance driven by each of the approximately 175,000 active snowmobilers last year was 1,102 miles(3), or 1,763 kilometres, for a total of 308.5 million kilometres. A well tuned machine will travel approximately 250 kilometres on one tank of gas. Most machines are equipped with a 40-litre tank, which translates to a collective 49.3 million litres of fuel. Of this amount, one third, or 16.4 million litres, is dumped unburned over the lakes and trails of Ontario. This is not the burned fuel coming at you in the form of smoke, stink and noise. This fuel is merely transported by the snowmobile from the service station to the trails, where it is then dumped and allowed to begin its nasty business.

Because the noise and stink tend to assault the senses more harshly than the hard to see gas and oil spilling from the tailpipe, many people fail to appreciate the snowmobile’s role as a major and very unique contributor to water pollution.

In fact, other than a few lines on a map that a neighbouring cottager once showed you, indicating where the trail crosses your bay, you probably haven’t given much consideration to snowmobiles or the trails they ride over. Why would you? You’re not there in the winter months and you’ve never really cared for snowmobiling. And certainly, from three or four hundred kilometres away you’ve never been bothered by the noise. However, while you’re shovelling the walk in Toronto or scraping ice from your windshield in Burlington and dreaming of summer days at the cottage, there are man-operated machines being driven across your bay, depositing startling amounts of gasoline and oil.

In terms of understanding the problem, however, this is merely the tip of the iceberg.

As spring warms the air, millions of litres of gas and oil are simultaneously released into Ontario’s forests and lakes where entire biological communities in aquatic systems are collapsing. In fact, due to the increase in snowmobiling over frozen lakes, scientists are turning up the volume on their concern for the now annually occurring “toxic shock.” And it’s growing exponentially.

The fuel deposited by snowmobiles over the winter months becomes “locked” into the snowpack. The toxic effects of accumulated pollutants are dramatically magnified during the first few days of spring when they are released during snowmelt. The result is a condition known as phototoxicity, wherein tiny water organisms absorb the chemicals in the fuel and become sensitive to light. Simple daylight then easily kills the organisms, triggering a disaster felt all the way up the food chain.

“We know these chemicals are as toxic as narcotics in the water,” said Peter Landrum, toxicologist with the federal Great Lakes Research Laboratory in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The organisms in question are the food of small fish, which in turn become the prey of larger species such as lake trout, water birds such as herons and loons, and shore-feeding mammals like racoons, all the way up to eagles and bears. When these tiny organisms die, so does the food chain.

The impact of spring-released pollutants can also severely affect surrounding watersheds. Acidity fluctuations disable a watershed’s ability to regulate its own pH level, resulting in a long-term alteration of an entire ecosystem.

Central Ontario has been called the province’s favourite playground, and with good reason. It is. But at some point during our preoccupation with promoting tourism, and our absorption in protecting the tourist dollar, we allowed an “anything goes” policy to creep in and take root. Ours has become a playground without rules; bring cash—discretion optional.

Even the most bored school kids sitting in science class walk away with a basic understanding of the affects brought about by pollution. And given that between 25 and 40 percent of the gas and oil used in snowmobiles is discharged unburned, they only need to move down the hall to math class to have their eyes opened to the potential disaster.

Problem: If, on the average, 175,000 Ontario snowmobilers each purchased 280 litres of fuel last year (required to travel 1,763 kilometres), how many litres were purchased? Answer: 49 million litres.

Problem: If one third of the total amount of fuel purchased is discharged unburned onto the snowpack, how many litres did snowmobiles dump into the environment last year? Answer: 16.3 million litres

Problem: Considering all the indisputable scientific proof, why do the Canadian and U.S. governments allow this atrocity to continue? Answer: Taxes on 10.6 billion dollars.(4)

That, having been calculated, brings us to a two-fold problem. The first is that statistics and numbers of such magnitude do not easily translate to an appreciable concept. It’s difficult to imagine exactly what 16.3 million litres of fuel must look like. The second is that neither school kids nor adults seem to be interested in statistics. The kids are bored with them and the adults are fed up with them.

As adults, however, we know that the damage caused by snowmobiles is in no way affected by ignorance or a blind eye. Statistics simply don’t care about our perceptions and attitudes.

The U.S., with its larger population, has offered the interested Canadian a look into our own inevitable future. A good study sample would be that of the problems created by snowmobiles in Yellowstone National Park.

One thousand snowmobiles visit the park every day, producing 3 million pounds of carbon monoxide annually,(5) yet plans to phase out snowmobiles in the park over the next three years have been met with opposition, the strongest coming from persons who financially gain from snowmobile activity.

Kevin Collins, National Parks Conservation Association legislative representative, thinks that snowmobile pollution in the park is dramatic and disgusting. He says that regardless of manufacturer’s claims, snowmobiles are neither clean nor quiet. He also says that it is unacceptable that the park should have to pump fresh air into its west entrance gatehouses because the snowmobile exhaust is so overwhelming.

Snowmobile engines emit a number of pollutants, including aldehydes, 1,3-butadiene, benzene, and other polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). Even in doses well short of fatal, all are believed to cause deleterious health effects in humans and animals.(6)

As if to illuminate the point, in his article entitled “Yellowstone Winter Blues,” Dan Egan states that “Park officials point to snowmobiles and their ‘deplorably dirty’ engines as the reason park gate-keepers complain of dizziness, headaches and nausea. They say the engine smoke makes workers so dopey they sometimes can’t even count change.” I’m guessing a certain Park official learned the meaning of irony the day the snowmobiler complained about the gate-keeper’s inability to make correct change.

To their credit, however, I believe that if the average snowmobiler saw someone dumping gas and oil into the snow, they’d likely be outraged into action. To actually witness 22 gallons of gasoline being purposely poured over the trail, whether it be forest, lake or open field, would test the elasticity of self-control in the best of us. But given that is the average amount of gasoline and oil each of the 175,000 snowmobilers dump every year, the hypocrisy, or at the very least, the irony, isn’t exactly lost.

To gain a simple but clear idea of the concentration of the gas and oil that is dumped into the Ontario environment by snowmobiles every year, a small bit of mathematics is required. There are 49,000 kilometres of trails throughout Ontario(7) over which approximately 16.3 million litres of fuel is discharged (one third of the approximately 49 million litres purchased). After a quick exercise in division, you’ll find that 332 litres of gasoline and oil are dumped over each and every one of the 49,000 kilometres of trail.

Even if you don’t like to serve yourself at the gas station, you’ve probably pumped gas into your vehicle at one point in time. Based on that experience, how long would it take you to pump 332 litres? I can save you the time. It takes about 11 minutes. And how far is the convenience store from your home? One kilometre? At 50 km per hour then, you would have to travel the distance to the store more than eight times while pumping gasoline out the tailpipe as fast as the average gas station pump to equal the amount of gas spilled on each and every kilometre of the trail.

In short, 22 gallons of gasoline and oil are dumped 175,000 times every year. And for each snowmobiler to dump 22 gallons of fuel, it would almost require that it be done from a machine. Most people can’t lift 176 pounds. It’s beyond comprehension that snowmobilers are permitted to dump 15,400 tonnes of gas and oil over the same terrain year after year after year.

Last summer, three hot kids convinced me to buy a small, above-ground swimming pool. Once erected, I began to fill it. While doing so, I was surprised at the length of time it took to pump 4,000 gallons of water into the pool (12 foot diameter, 3 foot deep). I clicked on the calculator hiding in the old grey matter and began to play with a few numbers. What I came up with was that I would have to fill 962 of these pools with gasoline and oil to equal the amount dumped on the snowmobile trails every year. Can you picture 962 swimming pools lined up in a row? It’s not easy to picture, but if you’re able, I can guarantee you that it will be an eye-opening experience.

Ask several snowmobilers if they’re concerned about the negative impact their actions have on the environment. Then, to get the same reaction, ask several counterfeiters if they’re concerned about the negative impact their phoney bills have on the economy. Behind each of those expressionless faces is a mind attempting to sniff out the agenda behind the question.

People quickly become defensive when they believe their rights are being challenged. We see it in every sector of every society. And, when the soundness of rationale in granting a particular right is challenged after the fact, it is difficult to amend, let alone reverse; even in the face of new and very clear data. Often, the consideration of long-term effects is omitted due to insufficient data. And in this case, the explosive growth in the popularity of snowmobiling would have been impossible to predict. In fact, considering the recent growth in snowmobiling, it’s no wonder that responses like “everybody’s doing it, so what harm can come of one more?” have become commonly used forms of deflection. But, after 175,000 uses, that excuse begins to wear a little thin.

Now is the time to face reality. Numbers are numbers and facts are facts. Irrefutable information is out there. Everybody knows the proof is poisoning the pudding. The argument is finally over. Finished.

Wait as you may, though, there’s no way on earth that the white flag is going to drop anytime soon. Like cigarette smokers, we’ll probably find that many snowmobilers would rather learn to live with the mark of a leper than give up the violation. Why would they stop? Who wouldn’t want their cake and eat it too? We may have easily deflated all the counter-points used in the defence of operating a snowmobile, but we’re still unable to prevent their access to the last frontier in the land of absolution; Rightsville, Ontario. This a land in which one is invited, even encouraged, to dump as many gallons of gasoline and oil into the environment as he or she can. And there’s no recourse. There’s only the stipulation that the gasoline be discharged from a gasoline driven machine. But don’t even think about getting caught throwing a cupful of the same gasoline over the side of a canoe. That would be illegal. You would be charged, ridiculed and shunned. Such an act would be totally outrageous and completely unacceptable, even to those legally dumping enormous amounts into the same water.

Such an odd land. Rights without limitations or consideration. A land of contradictions where 10.6 billion dollars buys the right to promote the destruction of the very land that helps generate the 10.6 billion dollars.

However, the piper has a long memory and impeccable accounting skills. And one day very soon, he’s going to demand payment. He always does.

In all fairness, though, it’s difficult to lay the entire blame on the snowmobile operators. They may have no reason to doubt the statements published by the International Snowmobile Manufacturers Association (ISMA). “As for the environment,” says John Monarch, president of a Colorado ecological consulting firm whose comments are published by the ISMA, “there are no studies to prove snowmobiles affect the environment. There may be evidence that sleds have been in the area, but no evidence that the environment has been harmed. The special interest groups don’t want to accept the fact that snowmobiling occurs on the snow and, with few exceptions, do not affect vegetation or habitat. Whenever I deal with environmental issues, I find that they have an opinion and are pushing an agenda and don’t care what the facts or lack thereof show.”

Agenda? I wonder what agenda the poisoned gate-keepers at Yellowstone Park are pushing.

The fact of the matter, agendas or not, is that we all believe that which we choose to believe. And if believing the rhetoric put out by the ISMA helps to create a guilt-free ride, then that is exactly what the snowmobile operator is going to believe. However, in my opinion, the agenda of the ISMA is somewhat more than obvious. The statement that there are no studies to prove that snowmobiles affect the environment is beyond ridiculous:

    1.) Ingersoll, G.P., J.T. Turk, C. McClure, S. Lawlor, D.W. Clow, and M.A. Mast. “Snowpack Chemistry As An Indicator Of Pollutant Emission Levels From Motorized Winter Vehicles In Yellowstone National Park.” In Press, 1997.
    2.) Wetterson, R. “Environmental Impact Of Snowmobiling,” Edited by R.W. Butler, P.S. Elder, H.N. Janish and B.M. Petrie - Conference on Snowmobiles and All-Terrain Vehicles, University of London, Ontario, Canada, pages E-10 to E-13.
    3.) National Park Service. “Air Quality Concerns Related to Snowmobile Usage in National Parks,” U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service Air Resources Division. February, 2000.
    4.) Greer, T. “Environmental Impacts of Snowmobiles: A Review of the Literature.” Masters Project. University of Oregon. 60 pp.
    5.) Wanek, W. J. and L.H. Schumacher. “A Continuing Study of the Ecological Impact of Snowmobiling in Northern Minnesota (Final Research Report).” The Center for Environmental Studies. Bemidji State College, Bemidji, MN.

Almost every country in the world has seen the issue of rights and their protection transcend that of a necessary measure to become a constitutional malignancy, void of accountability. But as a society with a history of willingly sacrificing large chunks of the environment for the illusion of profit, it is difficult to protest with an effectively genuine voice.

There are far too many of us standing ever-vigilant of the right to pollute for pleasure; standing ever-vigilant of the right to sacrifice earth, water and air to the gods of creature-comforts. And what happy gods. I can just see them up there, pushing and shoving for a position at the mortal’s altar of self-sabotage. They must find our negotiation skills predictable and weak. Sated gods, receivers of stolen property, snickering up their sleeves while they appease the foolish mortal with ephemeral moments of pleasure. And still, we stand, like unwitting warriors in a war run by anonymous generals, ever-vigilant of the right to destroy ourselves.

(1) Ontario Federation of Snowmobile Clubs (OFSC), “2000 Ontario Snowmobiling by the Numbers”
(2) The United States Environmental Protection Agency confirms that approximately one third of the fuel “consumed” by two-stroke engines (which power snowmobiles), enters the environment, unburned, “out the tailpipe.”
(3) OFSC, “2000 Ontario Snowmobiling by the Numbers.”
(4) Yellowstone Net Newspaper, April, 1999.
(5) Yellowstone Net Newspaper, April, 1999.
(6) Environmental Protection Agency, “Motor Vehicle-Related Air Toxins Study,” 1993.
(7) OFSC, “2000 Ontario Snowmobiling by the Numbers”

This is an original story, first published in The Country Connection Magazine, Issue 38, Winter 2002. Copyright Michael Enright.

Editor's Note: Consider that this story relates to the state of the industry prior to 2002, and that significant changes have been made to the technology since then.



Reach us at Pinecone or write Pinecone Publishing, 691 Pinecrest Road, Boulter ON K0L 1G0, Canada • Phone: 613-332-3651
Copyright 201
5 Pinecone Publishing, all rights reserved. Web construction by Zylstra Design