Thrillcraft are Taking Over Wild Places, More Wilderness will Help

Picture this: You’ve broken trail up 1500 vertical feet of deep powder, high in the Beartooth Mountains, and reached the summit. All the world lies at your feet as the sun sinks into a sea of snowy peaks. You soak in the silence, the splendor, the serenity. You rip the skins off your skis, grin at your partner, and drop in…

Those were the days. In the 1980s, backcountry skiing out of Cooke City, Montana, provided access to endless untracked snow on moderate terrain. The snow falls soft and deep all winter in Cooke. I would go with friends every winter for fresh tracks and quiet mountain adventures.

Equipped with leather telemark boots and 215 cm skinny skis we explored the ski potential of Miller Mountain, Mount Henderson, Crown Butte, Fisher Mountain, Mount Abundance and Scotch Bonnet Peak. We earned out turns with sweat and muscle power, and nearly every run was untracked and deep. The possibilities for more runs were endless.

Granted, it was thanks to snowmobilers we had a packed road to ski in on. Snowmobilers rode around the lower basins and over Lulu and Daisy passes, leaving the snowy chutes to us. Not a big deal.

Good luck finding any untracked snow north of Cooke now. Cooke City has become Mecca for snowmobilers. Extreme riders on high-powered “sleds” (snowmobiles) race up every slope in a frenzied, suicidal activity called “high-marking”. And high-marking is no longer enough, now it’s massive jumps and flips, all requiring tons of noise. The shriek and stink of two-stroke engines permeates the once-remote mountain basins. To escape the racket and find any untracked snow to ski you would need to trek about 9 miles in to the Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness. Here machines are prohibited (though trespass into the Wilderness by snowmobilers is a common occurrence in this remote terrain).

Now imagine you are a wild animal – let’s say a wolverine. Your kind has been nearly exterminated in the lower 48; just a couple hundred hang on in high, remote mountains, where there is still plenty of spring snow to raise your kits in deep dens. You need to avoid people and their howling machines because you are wild, and you know people mean trouble. They will trap you, shoot at you, try to run you down. Many will leave you alone but some will not. They idolize you as a super-animal, all while invading your last wild habitat and failing to protect you.

Every year it gets harder for you to find these last remote places. You need to travel to find a mate, to find food, to find animal carcasses you can eat to survive. But the humans are everywhere. You are mostly relegated to certain areas where the humans, for some reason, come in lower numbers and travel slowly, without mechanized assistance. If you are a wolverine, the wild world is shrinking. Fast.

Everywhere we go, we have an impact on wildlife. Pedestrians and people on horseback can cause wild animals to flee or avoid travel routes. Any kind of human presence is a problem for wary animals like lynx or wolf that have learned through hard experience that people bring guns and attitudes. Thus the habitat becomes less valuable, harder to use.

Naylor and Wisdom (2009) found that elk feeding and resting behavior was impacted by all types of human use, but motor vehicles and mountain bikes had the most impact, hikers the next most, and horseback riders had the least. Elk are well known to avoid roads, as are grizzly bears, even when roads are closed.

But mechanized recreation – anything involving machines with wheels and or motors  – has an even heavier impact on the land and on the wildlife. Dubbed Thrillcraft by author George Wuerthner (see his book on the subject) these are motor vehicles designed primarily for recreational use. People on machines can use their mechanical advantage to cover more ground, go faster, further and longer. People on machines often have guns or traps or other means to kill animals, such as the vehicle itself.

And the machines keep getting more powerful and more nimble. Think powerful, high clearance four- person UTVs – Side by Sides – that can drive just about anywhere; supercharged snow-bikes capable of quickly reaching the highest snow covered ridges; motorized mountain bikes capable of 60 miles without a charge; and souped-up “personal watercraft” blasting across lakes and bays at 40 miles per hour. The sky is not off limits either – many of our national parks are already besieged with scenic air tours via helicopter. Heli-skiing is expanding and is already spread all over Western Canada and parts of Alaska.

This stuff is selling like hotcakes in the Pandemic. Sales of outdoor gear, from Nordic skis to full-size RVs, has skyrocketed and many manufacturers can’t keep up. Try buying a mountain bike or a snowmobile.

Any limited resource, like untracked snow, peace and quiet, backcountry or front country campsites, or trailhead parking spots, is maxed out or unavailable. The Pandemic has ramped up pressure on public lands like never before, with Covid refugees crowding trails, parks, lakes, rivers, campgrounds, and lodges.

Indoor and organized sports are unavailable or uninviting, so people are fleeing to the outdoors. Snowmobiles tear everywhere in the winter forests and mountains. Motorcycles roar up the single-track trails, kicking up rocks. Four wheelers grind up what were once narrow trails. Side by sides loaded with helmeted thrill seekers run in unruly mobs through the desert, crushing smaller wildlife that can’t get out of the way.  And as people get more demanding and less discerning about their activities – everyone wants to do something cool and Instagram-worthy – there are more kinds of machines out there than ever. It’s harder and harder for someone seeking a quiet, non-mechanized recreation experience to find it.

The Forest Service classifies new motorized toys as “emerging recreational technologies.” Yet they have no coordinated policy for determining if a new kind of toy will be allowed on public lands. Despite all the different kinds of machines out there, with new ones being invented all the time, the only type of machine they have an official policy for is electric bicycles.

Forest Service Statement on Electronic Bicycle Use:

“Emerging technologies such as e-bikes are changing the way people enjoy their visits to national forests and grasslands. Today, more than 60,000 miles of trails and roads on national forests and grasslands are currently open to e-bike use. As use trends change with time and new technologies, the way we manage lands to ensure their long-term health and resilience must change as well. This is why we are closely examining our policy to identify ways to expand access (emphasis added) for Americans to enjoy these recreation opportunities on our forests and grasslands in ways that meet user needs while continuing to protect forest resources.”

That’s right, they want to expand access for motorized machines on our public lands. The policy does nothing to address the growing impact of these expensive toys, nor the problem of e-bikes appearing on nonmotorized trails. It does not call on the industry to help police the use of the machines. It does not promise more monitoring of ebikes nor a blanket policy for where they can or cannot be used.

While these machines – electric bicycles – are legitimately excellent for use in towns and cities, they do not belong on backcountry trails unless the trails are specifically open to motor vehicles. But the Forest Service has no system for checking or monitoring whether a bike is motorized or not. Motors can be disguised inside the frame. This is unfair to legitimate users of the trails.

There is a burgeoning variety of e bikes available, including powerful mountain bikes that are basically electric motorcycles. They come with names like Rambo and The Weapon. In some ways these are worse than regular dirt bikes because you can’t hear them coming. They sneak up on you. Granted the racket of motorcycles is a real buzzkill too.

Electric vehicles in general are a positive trend, with obvious benefits of being quiet and non-polluting. One problem with them is they move stealthily. Mountain bikers in Montana have been mauled and killed by grizzly bears they surprised or actually collided with.

Snowbikes, or Timber Sleds 

Take a powerful 25 cc + dirt bike. Strip off the wheels, put a large track system on the back, and a wide ski on the front. Turn this beast loose in the mountains with a rider amped on Red Bull. To me this machine typifies the rise of machines and the ongoing invasion of the remotest backcountry. Mark Hoffman of Crazy Mountain Extreme said, in the December 12 2019 Missoulian, that he had seen twenty per cent of the Crazy Mountains on his snowmobile. Now he plans to see the other eighty per cent on his timber sled (large parts of the Crazy Mountains are closed to motorized recreation).

Snowmobiles, too, keep getting lighter, faster, and more powerful. Here’s a quote from a Ski-Doo add:  “Ski-Doo’s 2020 Summit SP makes it possible for a rider to ride longer, go further and push harder. It’s ultra-responsive to rider input for effortless handling, and packs instant power delivery for conquering intimidating mountain terrain.” Some of these machines are specifically designed for the crazed and dangerous activities of high-marking and jumping and flipping.

Yet More Noisy Toys

There’s also a wide variety of up and coming motorized toys, some of which will catch on while others won’t.  Electric surfboards, drones, helicopters, jetboards, jetpacks, jetsuits, electric wingsuits, passenger drones that fly themselves and carry people, motorized exoskeletons, motorized scooters, mech suits, motorized skateboards, Oneboards, even a flying motorcycle. In this video clip, a motorcyclist surfs big waves in Tahiti. So much for communing with the ocean spirits.

And then there is this. The E Hang Passenger Grade Autonomous Aerial Vehicle. You think drones are loud and annoying?

If you want to see something truly spooky check out the Prosthesis Exoskeleton.

Side by Sides 

This sounds so pleasant – going motoring while you have fun, side by side. But these things are the assault weapons of motorized sports. For about twenty grand you can get what is basically an extremely powerful and nimble mini-jeep that can go nearly anywhere on or off road. Desert routes, once the province of slow-moving jeeps, are now mobbed with these beasts. You can also retrofit them with tracks to run on snow.  Check out the Yamaha Wolverine. Yep, it’s named for one of the animals it is displacing. You can rent a tracked one for $375 per day!

Run Rudolph Run

It’s not just peace-loving, stressed out humans who are being displaced by machines. Wildlife such as elk, moose, grizzly bears, wolverines, lynx, mountain goats and bighorn sheep all avoid noise and commotion caused by loud, fast-moving machinery. They are forced to expend hard-won calories fleeing from mechanized humans. Most of their former habitat is already been taken over by humans, with cities, roads, highways, subdivisions, malls, industrial parks, etc. etc. Some, like black bears, coyotes, raccoons, and deer are adapting by becoming urban, nocturnal animals that scavenge off humans or eat the animals that eat human food like gardens and landscaping. Others have a much harder time adapting.

I’ve personally spoken with snowmobilers who boasted about running down coyotes with their machines and beating them with clubs. It was a sport for these guys. It also got them fired from their snowmobile instructor positions at the guest ranch where I worked.

The only sure cure for this endless assault on wildlife and wild country: Shut out the machines. The best way to do that is with designated Wilderness. In Wilderness, machines are illegal. No motors of any kind are allowed. No helicopters may land. No bicycles at all are allowed. Nothing with wheels can travel there. But humans and animals can go anytime, as long as they travel under their own power.

Other designations that close areas to motorized machines are helpful. State lands in Montana do not allow motorized recreation. The Forest Service has a nationwide Off Road Vehicle Rule that says motor vehicles can only go on routes that are designated open. They can and have closed many routes to motor vehicles and or bicycles. The Forest Service can also declare an area Recommended Wilderness which means they will manage it similar to designated Wilderness.

Gallatin Yellowstone Wilderness Alliance has a solid proposal for over one million acres of new Wilderness on the Custer Gallatin National Forest in Montana. This forest has some of the finest, most remote habitat for wildlife in the Rocky Mountains, basically extending the wildlife friendly zone of Yellowstone Park to the north, though with hunting allowed. Please stake a look and support this proposal. Give our wild lands and wild animals a chance.

Phil Knight is an environmental activist in Bozeman, Montana. He is a board member of the Gallatin-Yellowstone Wilderness Alliance.

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