HOUGHTON, Mich. (AP) -- Snowmobiles are a mixed blessing for Peg Kauppi. Trail-riding tourists keep her restaurant alive during the long, lean winters of Michigan's far north. But the motorized sleds are loud, and their exhaust is smelly.
''We need snowmobilers to survive. It's that simple,'' Kauppi says. ''But people come up here because we have a lot of fresh air, clean water, pristine wilderness. We can't let anything kill the golden goose.''
The popularity of snowmobiling has soared in the past couple of decades -- and so have complaints about pollution and noise. Manufacturers say they've worked on the problems for years and are making progress. Now, the Society of Automotive Engineers is giving college students a chance to do better.
Aspiring engineers at Michigan Technological University in Houghton are competing with teams from six other schools in Clean Snowmobile Challenge 2000. Their mission: Design a snowmobile that runs quieter and pollutes less, yet retains the firepower and performance that today's riders demand.
The teams began work last year and will submit their designs for judging in March. The competition will be held annually, giving other schools a chance to enter.
It's more than an academic exercise for Scott Miers, a graduate student from Appleton, Wis., and member of the Michigan Tech team. ''We all love snowmobiling,'' he says. ''If it gets eliminated on us, we haven't done our job.''
Not that there is any serious effort to outlaw snowmobiling. But Miers believes the writing may be on the wall.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency last year began drafting pollution regulations. And in December, a coalition of environmental groups called for banning recreational use of snowmobiles and other off-road vehicles in all national parks and one-third of the national forests.
''There's tremendous tension out there,'' says Carl Anderson, an engineering professor advising the Michigan Tech team. ''This competition was created to try and form a middle ground.''
Clean Snowmobile Challenge 2000 was conceived in Jackson, Wyo., south of Yellowstone National Park, where the escalating controversy over snowmobiling in the national parks is coming to a head.
The National Park Service, drawing on studies by state and federal agencies and the University of Denver, reported last year that Yellowstone's serious air pollution is caused almost entirely by snowmobiles. They belch 100 times as much carbon dioxide and 300 times as many hydrocarbons into the atmosphere as do automobiles, the report said.
Snowmobiles also have detractors among those who enjoy ''silent sports'' such as cross-country skiing, snowshoeing and dog sledding. Other complaints involve trespassing on private land and reckless or drunken riding.
Yet snowmobiles are widely popular throughout snow country. U.S. sales have doubled since 1992 to more than 160,000 sleds a year, according to the International Snowmobile Manufacturers Association, based in Haslett. There are 1.5 million registered nationwide, including 280,000 in Michigan, where the sport pumps about $1 billion a year into the economy.
In tourism-dependent northern Michigan, some communities that were virtual ghost towns in winter 20 years ago now find it's their busiest time of year, thanks largely to snowmobiling.
''It's basically the key to their winter existence,'' says Keith Niemela, executive director of the Houghton Chamber of Commerce.
Case in point: Copper Harbor, a village at the tip of the Keweenaw Peninsula. Kauppi and her husband, Don, opened Mariner North restaurant there in 1977, before the snowmobiling boom.
''It was awfully tough back then -- that first year we grossed $1,800 the whole month of January,'' Kauppi says. ''The snowmobilers have really made a difference.''
Still, she says, some residents believe that snowmobiles aren't worth the pollution and noise.
''It's great that somebody's out there looking for a better sled, more friendlier for the environment,'' she says. ''It's a hot topic up here.''
Easier said than done, says Ed Klim, president of the manufacturers group. Companies can make snowmobiles cleaner and quieter, he says, but are struggling to do so without sacrificing power or handling, or making the sleds too expensive. Today's new models sell for $3,600 to $9,000.
''You can design a lot of things,'' Klim said. ''The question is, can it be built and will people buy it.''
Arctic Cat of Thief River Falls, Minn., one of four manufacturers that Klim's group represents, in January announced development of two prototype machines with four-stroke engines, a cleaner alternative to the two-stroke engines in nearly all snowmobiles.
But the company likened them to battery-powered and electric automobiles -- experimental models years away from mass production.
The Michigan Tech team is developing its own four-stroke model, but it won't be ready until the 2001 contest, Miers says. Four-strokes are 95 percent cleaner but make a snowmobile heavier, marring performance. The students plan to compensate by redesigning the chassis.
For this year, the group will offer a design retaining and improving the two-stroke engine.
The snowmobiles in Clean Snowmobile Challenge 2000 must reduce carbon monoxide emissions by 25 percent or more and unburned hydrocarbon emissions by at least 50 percent. They must meet requirements dealing with everything from braking to seat thickness.
Other teams are from the Colorado School of Mines; Colorado State University; Minnesota State University, Mankato; State University of New York-Buffalo; University of Waterloo in Ontario; and Ecole de Technologie Superieure in Quebec.
''Protect the environment and save snowmobiling -- those are the goals,'' Miers says. ''It's a tough challenge, but it's something we all believe in.''
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