As You Learn, Empower Change

Sustainability is a journey, not a destination—a process of refinement that is honed as you learn and gain experience.  As Maya Angelou once wrote, “Do the best you can until you know better.  Then when you know better, do better.”

 

But there is a level beyond simply doing better—sharing what you’ve learned on the journey so that it might help someone else.  This is a gift that shows how you found mistake in your choices, researched the situation, and chose to change.  Change isn’t always comfortable, but once you’ve become aware of the issue, refusing change becomes a toxic mix of denial and conformism to the model of “we’ve always done it that way.”  Neither of these mechanisms leave room for growth and improvement, so pay attention as they sow the seeds of doubt towards change.

 

An example of choosing change as we learn on our farm is found in the use of snowmobiles.  When Grandma and Grandpa bought the farm in 1968, it was a getaway from their busy lives.  With nearly 250 acres, there was plenty of space for winter activities.  Grandpa bought a few snowmobiles, and the family would rumble through the woods to visit the neighbors or joyride over the hayfields.  I have fond memories of Grandpa taking little Kara and I on the snowmobile to the sledding hill at Christmas time.

 

But when Mom, Kara, and I began taking over the property and restoring it to a working, sustainable farm, the age of joyriding about on snowmobiles came to a close.  We witnessed how the noise scared the wildlife and how the compaction from the treads damaged the grasses, so we chose quiet outdoor activities like skiing and snowshoeing.  After a few years of the machines languishing in the shed, Grandpa sold them.

 

Driving our delivery routes this winter, we couldn’t help noticing all the tracks running across farmland, even down to bare earth, and it saddened us to think about the damage to the soil and plants beneath.  Spurred by this, we decided to research more into the science behind snowmobile traffic—to better inform ourselves and share this with you.

According to Winter Wildlands Alliance, “Scientific evidence indicates that over-snow vehicles (OSVs) [e.g. snowmobiles] produce significant impacts on animals, plants, soils, air and water quality, and the ecology of entire winter ecosystems.” (For the full article, visit Environmental-Impacts-from-Snowmobile-Use.pdf (winterwildlands.org)). The damage snowmobiles cause to vegetation is through direct physical injury to plants and erosion, increasing soil runoff with loss of precious topsoil choking waterways. A natural, undisturbed snowpack greater than 18 inches will prevent frost from reaching the soil, but that same snow once compacted results in the frost penetrating the soil so deeply that vegetation dies off as winter kill. On our diversified, grass-based farm, this type of damage would create a huge setback, destroying our diligent work to encourage the soil surface microstructure, early spring germination, and healthy summer swards of diversified forage.

Snowmobiles also damage air and water quality. The two-stroke engines of snowmobiles can emit as many hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxides as 100 cars, create up to 1,000 times more carbon monoxide, and emit significant amounts of carbon dioxide, contributing to air pollution and climate change. Dangerous levels of airborne toxins (many listed as human carcinogens) are discharged from these engines, which emit 25-30 percent of their fuel mixture unburned directly into the environment. These chemicals settle into the snowpack, and when the snow melts, the trapped pollutants are released in a concentrated pulse, damaging the soil and crop and seeping into ground and surface water.

Studies of wildlife responses to snowmobiles have documented elevated heart rates and stress levels, increased flight distance, habitat fragmentation, and population disturbance. Increased energy expenditures by deer avoiding weekend snowmobile traffic for one winter season wastes the same amount of foraged food necessary to sustain 40 days of normal living. Additional wildlife disturbances come from noise pollution, which can be heard up to 8 miles away. Animals exposed to high-intensity sounds suffer painfully and are more affected by noise than humans, impairing their natural behaviors and making them more susceptible to predation.

Taking all these aspects into consideration, the total ecosystem toxification and disruption caused by snowmobiles needs to change, and alternatives are becoming available. Even the CEO of Polaris admitted in an interview that, while he never thought this would happen, there have been serious recent shifts in their market (powered by ski resorts and a new customer base due to the pandemic) towards quieter, cleaner electric models. While snowmobiles have their purpose for winter transportation and recreation, this should not come at the expense of our farms, wildlife, and waterways. Electric models won’t change all of the issues addressed above, but curbing the environmental pollutants of hydrocarbon-based engines is an immense step in the right direction. In a recent conversation, Hayward Power Sports shared that they already carry an electric UTV and will be adding electric snowmobiles to their offerings soon, helping to bring those options for change to our region.

Being mindful of how these machines affect the landscape can help snowmobile owners make better choices about purchasing new machines as well as acting responsibly when driving them. Landowners can help educate their family and friends about best practices while enjoying the property.  While change for greater sustainability may seem difficult, there is nothing like the present for taking a visionary leadership role on this issue for a healthier planet and all its inhabitants.  As you learn, so you too can empower change.  See you down on the farm sometime.

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