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 todays snowmobiler is to take on several
mega-corporations as well as a sizeable chunk of the tourist
industryand 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 wasnt 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?!
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, youre
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
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 snowmobiles 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 havent
given much consideration to snowmobiles or the trails they
ride over. Why would you? Youre not there in the winter
months and youve never really cared for snowmobiling.
And certainly, from three or four hundred kilometres away
youve never been bothered by the noise. However, while
youre 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
Ontarios 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 its growing
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 watersheds ability
to regulate its own pH level, resulting in a long-term alteration
of an entire ecosystem.
Central Ontario has been called
the provinces 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 cashdiscretion 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
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
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. Its 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 dont 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
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 manufacturers 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
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
cant even count change. Im guessing a
certain Park official learned the meaning of irony the day
the snowmobiler complained about the gate-keepers
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, theyd 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,
isnt 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, youll 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 dont like to
serve yourself at the gas station, youve 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 cant
lift 176 pounds. Its 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? Its
not easy to picture, but if youre able, I can guarantee
you that it will be an eye-opening experience.
Ask several snowmobilers if theyre
concerned about the negative impact their actions have on
the environment. Then, to get the same reaction, ask several
counterfeiters if theyre 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, its
no wonder that responses like everybodys 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, theres
no way on earth that the white flag is going to drop anytime
soon. Like cigarette smokers, well 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 wouldnt 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 were 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 theres no recourse. Theres only the stipulation
that the gasoline be discharged from a gasoline driven machine.
But dont 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, hes going to demand payment. He always does.
In all fairness, though, its
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 dont 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 dont care what the facts or lack thereof
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: