Environmental studies target snowmobiles | AspenTimes.com

Environmental studies target snowmobiles

Jeremy Heiman

A local public interest law firm wants to find out if snowmobile use in the Maroon Creek valley and the Independence Pass area is having negative effects on the environment.

Public Counsel of the Rockies has enlisted the help of the Colorado School of Mines and the Roaring Fork Conservancy to do scientific testing of the snowpack and waters in those areas. The resulting information will be shared with the U.S. Forest Service, local governments and the public.

Extensive studies of the effects of snowmobile exhaust in Yellowstone National Park and other areas have shown that snowmobile exhaust contains a number of substances that cause cancer or are toxic to humans, animals, plants and micro-organisms. These substances are deposited in the snowpack in significant quantities and find their way into waterways as the snow melts in spring.

Karin Gustafson, an attorney for Public Counsel of the Rockies, said her group hopes to submit the results of the work to the U.S. Forest Service as part of the group’s comments on the White River National Forest management plan.

“We’re not talking about banning anything, but the science gives us real cause for concern,” Gustafson said. “We want to know what’s going into our water, so we’re setting up some testing to find out.”

Dee Bellina, a conservation biologist, said the School of Mines has offered to do core sampling of the snowpack both areas in March. Scientists at the school will do chemical assays of the samples to determine their chemical content. The School of Mines will fund the study, she said.

Gustafson said the Roaring Fork Conservancy, a Basalt-based group, has agreed to do a water-quality study in the early part of the spring runoff, checking the waters of Maroon Creek, the Roaring Fork River, and possibly Woody Creek for toxicity and acidity.

Acid runoff is formed, Bellina said, when snow melts and the resulting water dissolves nitrogen and sulfur compounds deposited in the snow over the winter. Acidity kills tiny creatures at the base of the food web, Bellina said, including zooplankton and phytoplankton that insects eat, and the insect larvae which are the primary food of fish. It’s been documented that, in waters carrying too much acid, the fish themselves are stunted, she said.

School of Mines chemists will be looking for substances such as the so-called PAHs, or polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, which are cancer-causing products of combustion and stay in the environment for a long time.

They will also look for MTBE, or methyl tertiary butyl ethylene, a gasoline additive that gets spewed, unburned, into the air by the two-cycle engines used in snowmobiles. MTBE also causes cancer in animals, and when it is inhaled it is converted into formaldehyde in the blood, Bellina said.

MTBE is expelled in the exhaust along with up to 30 percent or more of the fuel and oil mixture fed into snowmobile engines; in two-cycle engines, the intake and exhaust process is occurring more or less at the same time. Some of the fuel mixture simply goes out with the exhaust.

A snowmobile engine also expels carbon monoxide in approximately 100 times the quantity produced by a passenger car. Carbon monoxide is a universally feared toxin because, when inhaled, it binds to the hemoglobin in blood and prevents the hemoglobin from doing its primary job of carrying oxygen to the body’s cells.

“Because we don’t have a lot of oxygen in the air at this elevation, it becomes particularly sinister,” Bellina said.

Beyond pollution and noise, Bellina said, snowmobiles have serious effects on wildlife. As snowmobiles travel through the woods they frighten deer and elk and other animals, stressing them at a time when the food available barely provides the energy necessary to maintain body heat.

“In winter, a little added stress and movement can be the difference between life and death,” Bellina said.

In areas such as Kobey Park, Gustafson said, this factor is especially important because snowmobiles are allowed to go off the road and range across the landscape.

It’s not certain that the Yellowstone findings will be repeated in local snowpack and streams, Gustafson said, but that’s what studies will determine.

One of the reasons the groups want to do such studies, Bellina said, is the huge increase in snowmobile use locally in recent years. The increases have not been adequately addressed in the draft management plan for the White River National Forest, she said.

“If you see one snowmobile a day, no big deal,” Bellina said.

But snowmobile tours are run from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. in the Maroon Creek Valley, “effectively eliminating any chance for other users to enjoy a noise- and smog-free experience in one of the nation’s most beautiful wilderness areas,” Gustafson wrote in a paper on the snowmobile issue.

The Forest Service has gone to extraordinary lengths to protect the Maroon Creek Valley from automobile use, with buses provided during most of the warm season, Gustafson said, but snowmobiles are allowed there seven days a week in winter.

The timing of the project is centered on the revision of the forest plan, Gustafson said. Good science on snowmobiles needs to be considered in the travel management section of the plan, she said.

Results of the scientific work by both the School of Mines and the Roaring Fork Conservancy should be available quickly, once the work is done, Bellina said. The deadline for submitting comments and recommendations on the forest management plan is May 9.

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