SHAKOPEE -- Snowmobilers in Minnesota used to feel like victims. Urban sprawl was threatening their trails, environmentalists complained about pollution, and they were seen as troublemakers by hobbyists whose sport didn't involve making noise.
But industry leaders report that the future of snowmobiling in the state is promising, in part because of new laws, but also because of a more positive attitude.
Snowmobilers have realized they have to cooperate with other recreation and environmental groups to preserve natural resources, said Dennis Asmussen, director of trails and waterways for the DNR.
''The sense of victimization has gone away,'' Asmussen said. ''There's a sense of sophistication among snowmobilers that there needs to be more collaboration and less fighting.''
Snowmobilers certainly were never in danger of becoming extinct. Minnesota has 281,000 registered sleds, more than 18,000 miles of snowmobile trails, and the economic impact of snowmobiling is estimated at $1 billion annually, according to Minnesota United Snowmobilers Association.
And despite back-to-back unusually mild winters, snowmobilers' spirits haven't dampened.
''We've had some bad winters as far as snow is concerned, but we're looking forward to this year with a lot of enthusiasm,'' said Bob Linn, president of MnUSA.
Last spring, the Legislature repealed a snowmobile stud ban, reaching a compromise fee of $12 for users as a way to pay for damage to the state's paved trails.
Snowmobile groups and the DNR are in the midst of a public awareness campaign using billboards and trail-side signs to urge riders to stay off paved trails. They are also rerouting trails so riders can avoid pavement, Asmussen said.
Following the winter of 1996-97, in which 32 people died in snowmobile accidents, safety rules were passed by the Legislature requiring anyone born after Dec. 31, 1979, to take a safety course. Starting in 2003, the requirement affects anyone born before Dec. 31, 1976.
''Down the road, it will be a requirement for having a license,'' said Lt. Mike Hammer, a DNR enforcement officer.
The safety requirements aren't widely known because since the rule was implemented in 1997, there has not been enough snow to do significant enforcement checks, Hammer said.
In the fall, the Environmental Protection Agency will announce emission standards for snowmobiles.
Snowmobilers are also trying to become more conscientious so they can shake their bad-boy image.
''People have the idea that we're a bunch of rowdies,'' Linn said. ''We're not.''
In 1998, Linn said, MnUSA gave $264,000 to charity, and the group encourages its members to become involved in their communities.
Still, environmental groups aren't ready to declare a truce with snowmobilers, and they claim they're getting mixed messages about whether attitudes have changed.
''I think there's a split personality in the snowmobile community,'' said Gawain Kripke of Friends of the Earth, a national environmental advocacy organization. ''On the one hand, there are some snowmobile manufacturers that are interested in making the snowmobiles quieter and more environmentally sound.
''But on the other side, manufacturers are making the machines bigger and more powerful, all of which have a serious environmental impact.''
But with new emissions standards pending, some conservation groups see hope for the future.
''The snowmobile industry is about to be regulated by the EPA ... and so, they have no choice at this point, but to start cleaning up their act,'' said Russell Long, executive director of the Bluewater Coalition, a coalition of environmental groups.
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