Will snowmobiles become a target? | SierraSun.com
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Will snowmobiles become a target?

Leo Popoff, Sierra Sun

Are snowmobiles going the way of personal watercraft? A few years ago, there was a great deal of unhappiness at Tahoe with personal watercraft. The unhappiness centered on noise, nuisance to other boaters and safety.

But, somewhere on the way to a Tahoe Regional Planning Agency ban on personal watercraft, it was discovered that they were also serious polluters of lake water. Many people, especially cross country skiers and snowshoers, are also unhappy with snowmobiles. Allegations are similar to those charged against personal watercraft. They’re noisy and disturb the serenity of the back country – and perhaps they bother the wildlife. They’re a nuisance to skiers and snowshoers. And they sometimes cause damage to vegetation if the snow is not deep enough. For many of these reasons, newspapers have reported, the U. S. Forest Service is proposing to ban snowmobiles in selected areas of the Tahoe Basin.

The National Park Service has already prohibited snowmobiles in many parks and monuments. Recently, according to news reports, it also decided to ban snowmobiles from Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks. A Yellowstone Park spokesperson is quoted as saying that snowmobiles are being banned because they “have been shown to harm wildlife, air quality and the natural quiet of these parks.”

That prospect is causing a lot of heartburn for snowmobilers and local townsfolk. Snowmobiles are the way most folks travel in the park during the winter. And, there is a substantial business activity catering to snowmobilers.

I’m frequently asked if snowmobiles contribute to pollution in the Tahoe Basin. Because I couldn’t find data about that issue, I haven’t written anything about it. And I still don’t have data about snowmobiles in the Tahoe Basin. However, considerable work was done by the Park Service and the U.S. Geological Survey before the Yellowstone and Grand Teton decisions. Part of that work concerned pollution, and we might get some hints about potential Tahoe problems from that effort.

The Associated Press reported that National Park researchers had compiled data about air pollution from snowmobiles. The researchers found that nearly all the air pollution in Yellowstone is caused by snowmobiles. Snowmobiles, they found, “emit 100 times as much carbon monoxide and 300 times as much hydrocarbons as do automobiles.”

USGS scientist George Ingersoll looked into another aspect of snowmobile pollution. He reported his research in the USGS Water-Resources Investigations Report 99-4148, entitled “Effects of Snowmobile Use on Snowpack Chemistry in Yellowstone National Park, 1998.”

Ingersoll gathered snowpack samples at 28 sampling sites in and around Yellowstone Park. Earlier, he tested collection and analytical techniques at two locations in Colorado. Elevations of the sampling sites were higher than 6,000 feet.

Some of the Yellowstone sites were near heavily used snowmobile routes. Others were as far as 20 kilometers from snowmobile routes. Samples were collected during March 4 to 24, just before the 1997-1998 snowmobile season ended at the park. The snowpack started to thaw shortly after the collections were made.

Researchers took precautions not to contaminate the samples. They wore Tyvek suits and latex gloves. Top layers of snowpack collections were discarded to avoid contamination by workers. Bottom layers were not sampled in order to avoid contamination from dirt and forest litter.

Ingersoll used ammonia and sulfate (found in gasoline engine exhaust) to trace the spread of pollutants from snowmobiles. And the results showed that snow close to snowmobile routes contained more of these compounds than does snow at more remote sites. For example, concentrations near Old Faithful were some five times greater than at Tower Falls.

Concentrations of organic gasoline components, toluene, benzene and xylenes correlated well with the spread of sulfate and ammonia, according to Ingersoll. And the relative concentrations found in snow were similar to that found in gasoline engine exhaust. Gasoline sold in the Yellowstone area doesn’t contain MTBE, yet Ingersoll found it in the snow samples.

Snowmelt flowing into Yellowstone streams contained the same products found in snow. However, concentrations in the streams were lower than drinking water standards and therefore not a health hazard. Nitrate concentrations were not greater near snowmobile routes but that might have been expected. Nitrates are formed at a distance from exhausts.

And because there are so many sources of nitrates around the world, they are ubiquitous in the atmosphere. What might this mean about pollution by snowmobiles in the Tahoe Basin? It does show that air and snowpacks can be contaminated to some degree by snowmobiles. Yet, snowmobile traffic in the basin isn’t as intense as it is in Yellowstone. Also, winter automobile traffic in the basin is obviously higher than it is in Yellowstone.

So, the bottom line seems to be that pollution at Tahoe from snowmobiles might be important, and it might not. We won’t know how significant snowmobile pollution could be until someone, like the USGS, investigates the problem here.


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