Scooter debate gains traction

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The number of snow scooters (snowmobiles) in Norway is at an all-time high, with 73,514 currently registered in the country. That’s set to increase further with the government throwing open a pilot program to more than 100 areas, raising the possibility of hundreds of kilometres of new snowmobile trails across Norway.

Members of DNT youth rally outside parliament in December 2013. DNT is one organization protesting against the expansion of a snowmobile pilot program from 40 municipalities to over 105. PHOTO: Den Norske Turistforening/Helle Andresen

Members of DNT youth rally outside parliament in December 2013. DNT is one organization protesting the expansion of a snowmobile pilot program from 40 municipalities to more than 105. PHOTO: Den Norske Turistforening/Helle Andresen

There are currently strict rules about the use of snowmobiles in Norway, reported Natur & miljø magazine. Driving for fun in outlying areas is banned, although in 2000, eight municipalities began opening up areas for enthusiasts. Last year the previous government expanded the trial to 40 municipalities, and now the new Conservative (Høyre) government has expanded the snowmobile pilot scheme to all 105 areas that have applied to participate.

Environment Minister Tine Sundtoft said the point of the new policy is to let the municipalities themselves manage snowmobile traffic in outlying areas. “There’s no goal to get more driving in those areas,” she said. “The target is to empower local government on this, and we believe that municipalities will exercise that responsibility in a good way.”

Sundtoft said the pilot scheme would run for a limited time, and all interest groups will get a say before any permanent changes are adopted in parliament, reported news bureau NTB. The Environmental Protection Ministry could not say how long the trial would last, but said the point is to give local authorities the power to asses what and eventually where the scooters/snowmobiles could be allowed. Prime Minister Erna Solberg said it would be a national regulation, but the municipalities get the ultimate say.

Reduces illegal driving
Vinje in Telemark County is one of the eight municipalities involved in the first trial. Mayor Arne Vinje from the Socialist Left Party (Sosialistisk Venstreparti, SV) told Natur & miljø they’ve had regulated snowmobile trails since 2002, which has helped cut down on illegal traffic. The mayor said there has been little impact on vulnerable nature. “The tracks run mostly through villages and along roads,” he explained. “They go through areas which could hardly be called wilderness.” He said it’s also kept scooter- and ski trails separate.

However, Jonny Olsen from Tromsø Motorcenter doesn’t believe opening trails to scooters will cut down on illegal activity. “People will always search for more extreme conditions, and there are always some who will go up the highest peaks,” he said. Olsen expects sales will increase by at least 50 percent when the new rules come in.

Not a pilot, but a deregulation
The Socialist Left party (SV) told newspaper Aftenposten it will oppose the changes to protect Norwegian outdoor lovers’ experience. Heiki Holmås, SV’s environmental spokesman and a minister in the last government, warned that making the project so broad mean it was no longer a pilot, but a deregulaton of snowmobile driving. “We would propose in the parliament that this test project, which should be research-based, shall be limited to 40 municipalities,” he said. The Labour (Arbeiderpartiet, Ap) and Liberal (Venstre) parties agree with SV.

Arnodd Håpnes from the Norwegian Society for the Conservation of Nature (Naturvernforbundet) warned the government risks turning the outdoors into a motorsport arena for the minority. He said most people oppose the changes, and want to keep the forests peaceful and calm. “There will be tens of thousands of new scooters out in nature,” Håpnes told Natur & miljø. “In a few years people will see how bad that is, but then it will be impossible to stop it.”

He warned the scooters will impact on vulnerable areas and species, and scare reindeer, mountain foxes, birds of prey and other animals from their habitats. “We simply don’t have good enough knowledge about Norwegian nature to make sure the trails are routed so they don’t do any damage.”

‘Declaration of war’
The Norwegian Trekking Association (Den Norske Turistforening, DNT) described the broadened pilot scheme as “a declaration of war against Norwegian outdoor life”. DNT’s Kjartan Askim told Natur & miljø wilderness areas have become increasingly motorized since scooters were introduced in Nord-Troms, Finnmark and Sweden. “We wish the body could be used as a motor out in nature,” he said. On top of the environmental concerns, he said the debate has ignored the health benefits of having to tackle nature on foot.

DNT’s Berit Kjøll told Aftenposten snowmobile culture has overtaken ski culture in parts of Sweden, where scooters were deregulated. DNT has also questioned the government’s process in broadening the scheme, saying it should have proposed changes to motor vehicle laws. “The government will completely take over and everyone who has an interest in adding to the case will be pushed aside, without the opportunity to contribute” said Kjøll. They said now so many municipalities are involved, it will be impossible to reverse the scheme.

The umbrella group for Norway’s outdoor recreation organizations, Friluftslivets fellesorganisasjon (FRIFO) accused the government of failing to tell the whole truth, and said it’s simply a scheme to satisfy the Progress Party’s (Fremskrittspartiet, FrP) wishes to legalize scooters as quickly as possible.

Tourism divided
Norway’s two largest employer organizations, NHO and Virke, have branches representing hoteliers. Virke strongly opposed the expanded pilot program, costing it several members who run mountain lodges and stand to benefit from operating snowmobile tours. “Tourism loses a lot of traffic to Sweden and Finnmark where tourists get to drive scooters,” Knut Nibstad from Storefjell hotel told newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN). “We want snowmobile trails here also, and have lots of space and opportunity to establish trails that won’t disturb people.” Nibstad said he was in the process of switching from NHO to Virke, but rejoined NHO following Virke’s stance.

NHO Tourism said it supports the trial, but administrative director Kristin Krohn Devold added it would have been wise to learn from the experiences of the 40 municipalities initially chosen for the trial before it was opened more broadly. “It’s important tourism is based on nature experiences and that outdoor activities don’t become a casualty following increased motor traffic in nature,” she said. Devold, who was formerly general secretary at DNT, said one tourist enterprise shouldn’t be able to affect the livelihoods of others.

newsinenglish.no/Emily Woodgate