It's a machine many people once loved to hate.
The early models were noisy.
Many were dangerous.
Those were the first words of the 1980 article which appears below -- and here is a picture of one of those dangerous early models.
Compared to today's sportsters, I'd say this old Polaris looks positively benign.
This article is a blast from the past containing buried treasure for who would find if of interest to know more about the early history of snowmobiling in Yellowstone National park and what Derrick Crandall was doing before he became the President of the American Recreation Coalition and before America's federal land managers starting eating out of his hands.
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December 19, 1980
By RON KOEHLER, United Press International
The snowmobile. It's a machine many people once loved to hate.
The early models were noisy. Many were dangerous.
With few public trails set aside for snowmobile use, early enthusiasts
blazed paths in the wilderness, scattering wildlife, trampling whatever
got in their way.
Legislation was introduced in a number of states to limit or outlaw
snowmobiles. Snowmobiles were barred from most state or national parks.
Among landowners, snowmobiles were as popular as motorcycle gangs.
But the snowmobile has refused to go away.
Although annual sales now average 200,000 units per year -- less than
half of the industry peak of 500,000 in the early 70s. The industry
says more people try snowmobiling each year.
Snowmobile resorts have cropped up throughout the snowbelt. They have
helped rejuvenate the winter economy of small towns from the Rockies to
the Great Lakes.
The transformation of the snowmobile from outlaw vehicle to family
sport machine is the result of an industry drive to improve both its
product and its tarnished image.
Funds invested in research and development made the machines safer and
quieter. The industry lobbied for favorable legislation and public
trails for riders. Grassroots organization brought enthusiasts into
clubs that combined fellowship with discipline.
But snowmobiling still has detractors.
The Sierra Club and many private landowners still seek to curb
snowmobile use. Although the industry has changed the minds of many
lawmakers, a large portion of the public still perceives the snowmobile
as an expensive toy for Polar Bear Club types.
"It has still got the same problems," says Russ Shay, a
Washington-based lobbyist for the Sierra Club. "The snowmobile makes
every acre of land into a highway system."
Joe Alexander, director of the Minnesota's Division of Natural
Resources, is typical of those who shared Shay's views in the early
'70s, only to become a convert.
"I'd have been the first one to vote to abolish snowmobiles if a
referendum would have been placed on the ballot," Alexander said. "But
the snowmobile industry saved itself... the clubs and the industry
Douglas Eoute of New Hampshire's Bureau of Off Highway Vehicles: "Seven
or eight years ago we had some real problems, but now they are welcome."
New Hampshire, like most states with large numbers of snowmobilers,
requires snowmobile registration and bans the machines from roads. Also
typical of most states is New Hampshire's policy of allowing snowmobile
use on public lands.
A key to the turnaround has been the snowmobile club. The International
Snowmobile Industry Association estimates there are 10,000 clubs in the
United States and Canada.
One is VAST -- the Vermont Association of Snow Travelers.
"Back in 1970 we were running anywhere it was white," said Corinne
Lawson, a housewife and secretary of the organization. "A lot of the
landowners got very upset. It was like the cowboys and Indians."
When landowners began seeking legislation to ban snowmobiles from the
state, snowmobilers organized and worked out a compromise. Their group
negotiates for permission to cross a person's property. In return, it
promises to maintain a snowmobile trail and stay off unmarked areas.
"We don't get as many complaints as before," Mrs. Lawson said. "Most
clubs do their own policing because they don't want to lose permission
to use the land."
The arrangement has worked well, for both snowmobilers and landowners.
"If I lived on this land, I'd ban snowmobiles because they are noisy,
smelly and obnoxious," said one Vermont landowner. "But snowmobile
clubs bend over backwards to keep landowners happy... (and) since we
live 20 miles away and can't patrol the land ourselves, it's better to
cooperate with a snowmobile group and at least get some degree of
Close-knit snowmobile clubs and well defined trails also cut down the number of injuries.
In Wisconsin, more than 1,000 persons were injured on snowmobiles in
the winter of 1974-75. That number was whittled to 388 in 1978-79.
Alexander says the number of fatal snowmobile accidents in Minnesota
has dropped by more than a third.
Derrick Crandall, vice president of the snowmobile association, marks
the recession and oil embargo of the mid-1970s as a turning point.
Before the oil shortage, 129 manufacturers -- including many
fly-by-night operations -- competed with machines of widely disparate
But in the fuel shortage and resulting economic crunch sales dropped
from 450,000 machines in 1973 to 195,000 in 1977. All but seven
companies abandoned the business.
The remaining manufacturers formed the ISIA, which did research and
development, set safety standards and lobbied for legislation.
Crandall is proud of a letter of commendation by the U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission.
The commission had considered action to police the industry. But it
reviewed the self-instituted changes -- improved noise muffling
systems, safer seats and rider training programs -- and recommended no
The latest safety commission survey ranks snowmobile-related injuries 54th among leisure activities.
Most observers agree the second most important step the industry and users took was creation of snowmobile trails.
South Dakota, Minnesota, Vermont, Wisconsin, Washington and Idaho use a
portion of gasoline tax and other funds for public trails. Other states
invest snowmobile registration fees in trail development.
In all, some 190,000 miles of public and private trails are now open to the snowmobiler.
The National Park Service last year opened nearly all its parks to
snowmobilers. Yellowstone National Park has become a favorite.
The opening of the nation's park land that worries the Sierra Club.
Shay calls the snowmobile industry "by far one of the best organized recreation groups in the country."
"A lot of natural places that remain in the country remain that way
because they're hard to get to," Shay said. "Even if 98 percent of the
snowmobilers are responsible, there should be areas that are not open
to snowmobiles. Some places are important enough that they ought to be
preserved in a natural state."
Edgar Hetteen, an industry pioneer, built his first snowmobile in 1954.
Hetteen, vice president of Arctic Enterprises Inc., embarked in 1960 on
a 1,100-mile trek across Alaska to publicize the snowmobile. He says
one of the great advantages of the machine is that it opens a new
frontier to people who never before ventured into the winter wilderness.
Ironically, the economic crunch that set the industry back created a
built-in market for the snowmobile. The public's perception of limited
resources, both of oil and money, caused many vacationers to stay close
That, Hetteen said, opened up the winter resort business in the
snowbelt and led to increased snowmobile use. The industry estimates
some 17 million people used snowmobiles last year and their use is
growing by about 20 percent each year.
The economic advantages of snowmobiling for some communities have been
enormous. Snowmobilers spend an estimated $2.6 billion yearly on the
sport and have created some 110,000 jobs in the United States and
Canada, the association reports.
In Grand Lake, Colo., a fishing resort that used to go into
hibernation, the population of 300 now swells to 3,000 on winter
"It's not any exaggeration to say snowmobiling has kept the town alive
in the winter," said Ken Roe, owner of Grand Country Sports.
In New York state, a study found a 130-mile trail in Warren County increased winter economic activity by 34 percent.
But Crandall said, "We have an interesting dilemma in talking to
non-snowmobilers." They have a conception of the 1960s snowmobile.
"At that time a snowmobile could be heard a mile away. It would take
252 of today's snowmobiles to make the same noise as a vintage 1968
"Really, what's happened with the snowmobile," said Minnesota's
Alexander, "is kind of like the advent of the speedboat. It started out
badly and then kind of settled down when the hotrodders got away from