Rangers Hot on the Snowmobile Trail
Paul Hale edged his snowmobile up to a sign marking the Mokelumne Wilderness and its 105,156 acres of pristine bowls, ragged peaks and snowy canyons.
It was tempting, but not worth crossing into territory where motorized vehicles are forbidden. Smart thing too because the law was watching.
In an effort to catch snowmobile scofflaws plowing ever deeper into the wild in search of untracked snow and solitude, the U.S. Forest Service has launched a ground and air assault.
For the last month, rangers on snowmobiles have prowled the borders of the wild that sprawls over three national forests in eastern California, while spotters in planes coordinate from above.
With high-powered machines and a dose of extreme sports fervor, there’s little terrain where snowmobilers fear to tread. And that’s getting them in all kinds of trouble.
Nearly 20 citations -- with penalties ranging from $500 to $5,000 -- have been issued in the Sierra Nevada near Lake Tahoe this season, a trend across the West as snowmobiles plunder virgin snow in the sacred turf open only to travel on foot and ski.
Hale, who has been motoring in the area for 15 years and leads off-trail tours, knows the boundaries well enough to steer clear. On a recent day, he drove to the border to show a guide he was training. Two rangers lay in wait behind a rock.
“There are hundreds of thousands of acres without going into the wilderness areas. Why would you need to?” Hale asked. “There’s a lot of testosterone and adrenaline flying out here.”
Hale welcomed efforts by law enforcement to restore some peace to the wild after a winter with little done to monitor the trails and rein in a handful of rogues.
This year, the patrols were in jeopardy after a state commission that has funded the program through registration fees and gas taxes rejected grants sought by the Forest Service based on complaints by cross-country skiers about noise, pollution and the speed of snowmobiles.
Forest officials anticipated that with no money for grooming, policing and marking wilderness boundaries, more riders would stray into the backcountry.
The view from above supports that conclusion.
In the first flight of the season over the Eldorado and Humboldt-Toiyabe forests, no snowmobiles were sighted in the wilderness, but they had left their mark.
The expansive undulating landscape was scarred with the looping penmanship of snowmobile tracks: Great ribbons swooping up steep bowls; unmistakable indentations running across ridges; and prints circling through groves of pine trees.
All this would have been unlikely 20 years ago when snowmobiles were limited in range and versatility. Today, more powerful, lighter machines can scale steep slopes, float across deep powder and cover sweeping landscapes. Snowmobiles are being used to shuttle skiers and snowboarders to untouched snow on isolated slopes.
The result can be deadly. Snowmobiles throughout the West are sometimes marooned from civilization or buried in avalanches.
Snowmobilers accounted for nearly half the avalanche deaths in the United States in recent years, more than backcountry skiers and snowboarders combined, according to the Utah Avalanche Center.
“It won’t be long before we read about someone getting stuck in an avalanche over here,” recreation officer Anthony Botello said as he pointed from the patrol plane to evidence of “high marking,” where snowmobiles had competed to leave the highest tracks in a steep bowl.
While Botello searched from above, five rangers on snowmobiles motored on the edge of the wilderness looking for riders flouting the law.
Since the Forest Service scraped together money to resume patrols, more than a dozen riders have been caught in this wilderness. Five were cited after leaving tracks within 8 feet of a wilderness boundary sign. A father and son who slowed down to read a sign and then looked over their shoulders before disappearing out-of-bounds were ticketed when they returned.
Similar citations have been issued in other states. Eleven Minnesota residents were ticketed in January in Wyoming’s Teton Wilderness. Last year, several snowmobilers were caught in wilderness near Steamboat Springs, Colo.
In the highest-profile case, race-car driver Bobby Unser was fined $75 after he got lost in a blizzard in Colorado in 1996 and abandoned his machine in the wilderness. He said the Forest Service targeted him because he was a celebrity, but the U.S. Supreme Court upheld his conviction.
The problem in California may be magnified because of its swelling population, the Sierra’s proximity to highways and a relatively sunny, warm winter that compacts the snow and makes it easier to travel longer distances.
California also has the most wilderness land in the nation outside of Alaska, making it harder to watch over.
Wilderness areas were established by Congress in 1964 as a sanctuary from commercial activities and motor vehicles “where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” With some exceptions, the remote lands remain largely untouched except by hikers, skiers and explorers on horseback during summer.
But those who have spent years in the backcountry say the peace is being disturbed by the roar of snowmobiles.
Marcus Libkind, who has written five books on ski tours in California, regularly sends letters to the Forest Service lodging complaints about reckless, rumbling snowmobiles. His escape from the city with just skis, a backpack and a friend or two is increasingly becoming a more crowded affair.
“You go out and you hear this drone of a snowmobile, it’s just not what I’m out there to experience,” Libkind said. “You come to a meadow and the snowscape is just completely torn up by snowmobiles.”
Libkind, founder of Snowlands Network, which advocates for human-powered recreation, wants the Forest Service to close more areas to snowmobiles and step up its ground forces. He questioned the wisdom of spending $200 an hour to rent a plane to patrol from the air.
As serious as the Forest Service is about keeping the backcountry closed to snowmobiles, Botello said, it would be unreasonable to close whole sections of forests because of a few miscreants.
He defended the air patrol as the best method for surveying the area and said that anyone who sees the plane circling above and the patrols on the ground probably thinks twice about crossing the line.
“One of the critiques is we’re not out there where these renegades are, we’re putzing around the trail,” Botello said after the flight. “Look at the area we covered. No way could we ever cover that on a snowmobile.”
Not only would it be impossible to patrol the entire wilderness by snowmobile in a few hours, it also would be unethical. The Forest Service wants to obey the rules it enforces -- and not leave another set of tracks behind.