Here’s a neat summer project: Let’s fix the snowmobile controversy in Yellowstone. It illustrates how a distorted market and bureaucratic pathologies constrain creative thinking. The solution lies in going outside the traditional business practices of the snowmobile renters and the vested interests of local, regional, and national political groups.
West Yellowstone describes itself as the Snowmobile Capital of the World. The snowmobile industry and the snow machine rental businesses in West enjoy a close relationship. In the fall the rental businesses take delivery of the industry’s newest machines and rent them to Park visitors during the winter. In the spring, they sell the machines through auctions, to other snowmobile outfitters and private owners.
Here’s the problem: There is little resell demand for the machines most appropriate for Yellowstone, i.e. clean four strokes. The typical snow machine owner wants power and speed -- neither is needed to tour the Park. The result is that technological progress toward cleaner and quieter machines is constrained by incentives to rent noisy, overpowered, polluting two-cycle machines.
A representative from the International Snowmobile Manufacturers Association claims the industry won’t spend R&D money on clean machines until the EPA sets pollution guidelines. The snow machine industry fears if they build a cleaner machine, the EPA will persistently ratchet up the standards and continually drive up costs of newer machines. However, the Bush Administration EPA is unlikely to lead.
The outboard motor industry recently faced a similar situation and by 2006 manufacturers must meet federal emission requirements. However, that industry has already made the conversion to clean four-stroke engines and buyers of modern boat motors enjoy quieter engines and greater fuel efficiency. Those cleaner-burning engines have already translated into lower operating costs and cleaner water.
It’s time for the Yellowstone snowmobile rental industry to innovate. Here’s my idea: Design, from the ground up, a new concept in over-snow vehicles for personal use in sensitive areas like Yellowstone. We have a model, the Kremer Prize for Human Powered Flight. Offered in 1959 at £5,000 by British industrialist Henry Kremer, it grew to £50,000 (worth $95,000 at the time) before it was claimed by Dr. Paul MacCready and his team in 1977.
They flew the ultralight aircraft, the Gossamer Condor, over a mile in just over seven minutes. Kremer immediately offered a second prize of £100,000 for the first human powered aircraft to cross the English Channel. Two years later, the Gossamer Albatross flew over the Channel and won the new prize. The MacCready team pushed human powered flight technology far beyond what anyone thought was possible -- and they did so quickly.
Here’s how the same could be done for clean snowmobiles: The vested interests could raise prize money and invite engineering students to meet the design criteria. The requirements would be a standard of cleanliness, quietness, and practicality currently unknown to the snowmobile industry. To reach these goals they might employ existing technologies, e.g. a propane conversion on a high-efficiency Honda motor that would provide plenty of clean and quiet power to travel at 30-35 mph to Old Faithful and back. They might discover new and valuable applications for emergent technologies.
Student vision would employ the same creative talents that result in solar vehicles that achieve hundreds of miles per gallon. Some students will find a clean and quiet over-snow vehicle an interesting (and potentially lucrative) problem. Fresh ideas from engineering students and creative entrepreneurs could break out of the restricted thinking of the snowmobile industry, the National Park Service, and NGOs on both sides of the issue.
In the late 1970s I owned and enjoyed a snowmobile. Unfortunately, as machines have become more powerful, their smell and noise have not improved. Yet, I hope some winter in the near future my family, and others, will see the sights of Yellowstone on an environmentally and aesthetically acceptable snow machine.
Such a machine will be one of the many legitimate activities taking place in the world’s first national park. Our goal is to motivate and harness technological visions in ecologically and culturally sensitive directions. The first step is to fashion incentives to encourage innovative designs. This is a stellar opportunity for political entrepreneurship to harmonize ecological values with economic interests.