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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Snowmobiles in Alaska: Boon or Menace?

Air Date: Week of

The growing number of snowmobilers is threatening to transform Alaska’s back country. Johanna Eurich (YUR-ick) went to the Upper Susitna (sue-SIT-na) Valley, one of the state’s popular snowmobiling areas, where she found two communities taking very different approaches to the machines.


KNOY: You'd think Alaska would have plenty of room for skiers and dog mushers and snowmobilers, but only so many people can use the limited number of trails that run through the state. And the growing number of snowmobilers is threatening to transform Alaska's backcountry. Johanna Eurich went to the Upper Susitna Valley just south of Mt. McKinley, the continent's highest peak, which is now one of the state's most popular snowmobiling areas. She found two communities taking very different approaches to the machines.

(A snowmobile revs up)

EURICH: If you've got a snowmobile, the place to go in the Upper Susitna Valley is the Petersville Road in Trapper Creek. There are wide open muskegs and gentle hills running right up into the glaciers flowing out of the Alaska Range. It's spectacular country, and it was quiet and relatively inaccessible until bigger, better snow machines brought it within reach of a weekend jaunt.

(Snowmobile motor)

EURICH: On weekends the parking lots fill up with pickup trucks from the city hauling two or more snow machines each.

BECKMAN: Her name is Zeena, and she's a 1994 Summit 583. And she rides great. Cheapest recreation I could do. (Calls to others) Okay, you guys ready to ride?

(Engines start up)

BECKMAN: Music! Music to my ears! (Laughs)

EURICH: Marianne Beckman drives off in search of fresh powder. The rush of snowmobilers has brought an economic boom to Trapper Creek, where B&Bs and lodges often make more in the winter, catering to snow-loving Alaskans, than they do in the traditional summer tourist season. Snowmobiling has transformed the way of life here. Gone is the community of dog mushers who once made the area a sled dog center. Iditarod veteran Bill Hall is one of the few who remain. He and a couple of others maintain 200 miles of trails in the hills to train their teams.

(Dogs bark)

HALL: Snow machines and dogs can't really coexist on the same trail system. One snow machiner screws it up for everyone. As the snow machiners come, we go further out -- so we have a piece of land further out, and that's just the way it is.

(Dogs bark)

EURICH: Every winter for the last few years, some musher has lost a dog in a snowmobile accident. For protection, Mellen Shea now pays a neighbor to ride a machine in front of her dog team when she mushes to her cabin.

SHEA: It's so sad to go up there now on a holiday, and open the door, and hear, like, a swarming, buzzing nest of bees. It's nonstop. We are four miles off the Petersville Road area, but you can hear that all the way, a constant one after another -- zoom, zoom, zoom.

(Snowmobile engines)

EURICH: It's noisy because riders are using residential trails to get out to open country. To lessen the disturbance, Trapper Creek plans to build a recreational trail designed to avoid backcountry cabins and subdivisions.

CROSBY: Now it's just a matter of continuing it on the ground, and that takes time and money. And not everybody has much of either right now.

EURICH: Linea Crosby is president of a snowmobiling club. She says Alaska is 20 years behind other snow communities in the United States and Canada in building winter trails. While they want a better trail system, Alaska's snowmobilers want to avoid some of the more restrictive measures that have limited riders in other states from exploring open country. Unlike some parts of the Lower 48, it's unlikely Alaskans will support banning snow machines. They're just too useful.


EURICH: Across the river from the Petersville Road is the tiny, quaint village of Talkeetna, population 600. On Main Street, snow machines gas up alongside cars at the town's only gas station. The urban gloss has been scraped off these snow-gos. They are smaller, older. Some hold sleds with gear and groceries. Many riders are backcountry residents in town doing errands before heading out to their homes in the woods. No one calls these machines snowmobiles. They're snow machines, reflecting their utilitarian purpose. But residents look across the river at hordes of recreational snowmobiles, and worry Talkeetna may be the next destination.

ROBINSON: We're very fearful we're going to end up looking like a mini-Petersville.

EURICH: Pam Robinson chairs the Talkeetna Community Council Trails Committee.

ROBINSON: I don't think too many people in the community are excited about that idea, even those that snow machine on a regular basis. I don't think they're real fond of becoming a big playground for a lot of other users, either.

EURICH: The community council has no real power to keep snowmobilers away. Talkeetna is so tiny it doesn't even have a town cop. It does have a reputation for aggressively defending its privacy. It has used its limited clout to keep the crowds away, even when it meant turning down a proposal to host the state's board sled dog race. Residents feared recreational snowmobilers building trails for sled dogs would later use those same trails to access the backcountry. This winter, rumors for an ad campaign promoting Talkeetna as a destination for snowmobilers resulted in an anonymous flier advising riders to go elsewhere. But these efforts may not be working. A new lodge has been promoting winter weekend getaways to Anchorage residents, and now Steve Mahay, a local businessman, has opened the door to recreational riding by starting a small-scale backcountry tour operation.

MAHAY: I haven't had too much opposition against it. Of course, I've been avoiding all the public meetings on it, so that always helps.

EURICH: Steve Mahay thinks if Talkeetna did more to welcome recreational snowmobilers and provided trail maps, there would be fewer riders getting lost and ending up on private property. But some residents fear maps would attract more riders and more problems. Others worry about any increase in winter tourism. Talkeetna already has a robust summer season with village streets crowded with climbers, sightseers, fishermen, and rafters. Big game guide Rob Holt puts up with the frenetic summers to enjoy the winter's quiet.

HOLT: I don't want to see it anywhere approaching what's happening in summer. And I don't care who they are. (Laughs) I don't care if they're skiing or snow machining or what. I don't think it's necessary to have year-round tourism and year-round crowds.

WOMAN: See you.

(A man laughs)

EURICH: At Nagley's, Talkeetna's historic log cabin general store, Laura Nelson works the counter and complains about out-of-town snowmobilers.

NELSON: Oh, we hate them. (Laughs) We do. They're intrusive. They are obnoxious. They are disrespectful. . .

EURICH: Her list reads like a rap sheet for recreational snowmobiling. Yet she, like others all over snow country, is not immune to the seductions of the sport. Snowmobiles have made getting out in Alaska's winters far less daunting than it was in the days of prospectors and homesteaders, or even a few short years ago.

NELSON: I am a little bit of a hypocrite. I mean, I had an opportunity to take a snow machine across the river last year, and I danced around behind the counter like some child who had just seen the Beatles or something, some teenage girl.

(A snowmobile engine revs up)

EURICH: While Talkeetna tries to find the political tools to protect the peace and quiet in its backcountry, the nature of the community itself is changing. More people are moving in, many of them from the city, bringing with them their snowmobiles. I'm Johanna Eurich.



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