Posted in Backcountiryunited.com
An open letter to the snowmobile industry
by Jon Miller
September 20, 2018
Snowmobiling, and the industry that supports it, has changed my life. I’ve been working with this industry for about 14 years now, which started back in 2004 when I began working for one of the leading OEMs within a large corporate advertising agency. Through this experience, I have learned all about the history of this sport. Learned about where it started, who started it, what it took to get it off the ground, and the culture and people that continue to carry this industry forward today.
What’s hard to explain to anyone looking at us from the outside, is what’s unique and special about the community and culture I have grown to understand and love. And even more difficult to explain, how profound the experience of snowmobiling is, for the spirit of those who pursue it.
Nothing can describe the sense of freedom and inspiration that comes from roaming our beautiful mountains and forests and connecting to a frozen world that most of humanity will never know. Nothing can describe the feeling of standing on top of a new Vista, in a cold and hostile environment, overlooking the splendor of nature and feeling the warm rays of sun on your face. Nothing can describe the comradere that is formed with other hard working and free spirits when you’re stuck in deep snow or challenging terrain, or running into a mechanical failure and having to work together to solve problems, survive and return back to the trailhead in the dark in sub-zero temperatures. And lastly, nothing can come close to describing a community culture of people who refuse to accept the status quo and who forge their own paths forward in life, in business, in relationships, and in taking some of the hardest paths discovering what they are capable of and just how free a person can feel.
It’s one thing to visit a National Park, or to go skiing at a resort in the winter. It’s a completely different thing to learn the nuances of a highly specialized piece of innovative equipment, the techniques required to move around efficiently and confidently in deep snow and challenging environments, the skills and senses required to explore uncharted territories, the time and education required to travel safely in Avalanche terrain, the understanding that comes with learning about snow science and the dynamics of instabilities in snowpack, the humility and preparedness that is required to anticipate problems, be ready to rescue a partner, or to fix a mechanical failure in challenging environments. Something happens to you out there. You see things that most of the human race will never see. You understand the forest and the weather in a way that most don’t care to. You run into challenges and danger when the rest of society is hunkered down and staying warm. All in all, you learn a certain grit and resilience that carries forward in everything you see, do, touch and connect with.
For me, I can’t even begin to explain how all of these experiences and relationships have changed me. I’ve stood on top of peaks in Alaska, Jackson Hole, Lake Tahoe, Utah, Idaho, and all over my home State of Colorado. And my spirit has been changed by the Forests, the winds, and the mountains of which everything we take for granted comes from. I’ve learned about forest health, climate, weather patterns, watersheds, snow science, and unfortunately I have also learned about more death than I care to admit from avalanches , as well as selfish and disrespectful people who cause division and problems in our communities.
What’s interesting is that selfish entitled people come in all packages. Human powered AND motorized. People who only think of themselves and have no empathy or respect for others who may cross their paths. No capability to understand that every single human being is out in nature because of an innate connection with the earth and our environment. They might not be able to articulate this connection in an intellectual way, but make no mistake, mostly all human beings who put their time and money and passion into spending the most precious time of their lives outdoors, are not there because they hate the environment!
We are at a juncture in human history. Whether you believe in climate change or not, the world is changing. Society is changing. Our natural resources are dwindling. People are moving to places like Denver, Jackson, Salt Lake, Boise, etc in mass-exodus-like scale. Our Public Lands are under more pressure than they’ve ever been. And there are many perspectives that are coming to a head and colliding over our Public Lands. Whether you want to pay attention to these factors or not, they are real, and they are coming to roost in your own back yard.
We are all painfully aware of some kind of Forest Service travel management revision that is going on in our favorite playgrounds. And if you’re not, don’t worry, because it’s coming to a National Forest near you. There are many many Wilderness proponent groups who believe that our activities on snowmobiles are bad for the environment, the wildlife habitats, the wildlife itself, and of course, their own desire to experience a pristine natural setting. In my opinion, as an American, they have as much of a right to their opinions and experiences, as we do. And as long as they have plenty of space to have the kind of experiences they are after, then we should have a good mutual understanding.
However, there are ALOT of things that we as snowmobilers MUST start thinking about, if we care about sustaining our own desired experience in the mountains. I mean, why wouldn’t we take an honest look at ourselves and find easy places that we can make adjustments to eliminate as much criticism as possible? In my opinion, these are low-hanging fruits that we can easily change.
- THE MANUFACTURERS MUST START GIVING A DAMN about mountain / western culture.We must be about more than a profit margin. We are human beings, communities, and we have specific needs and threats to the future of our ability to keep buying these products. I spent almost a decade of my career working as a creative marketer for one of the leading OEM manufacturers. And let me tell you, that there is a significant disconnect between the always-temporary Marketing Managers who are here today and gone tomorrow—yet they hold the keys of media and influence to our entire culture. These people are business school graduates who live in the Midwest, and their personal goals are merely to climb the corporate ladder. The snowmobile industry is always a temporary stop for them. The ones who do spend enough time to care, and who do stick around long enough tend to get caught up in their corporate demands. Make no mistake, these Marketing positions are not easy jobs. These are highly intelligent and capable business leaders who manage a ton of demand and information. They coordinate advertising, communications, dealer feedback and expectations, consumer insights across many different regions and segments, and interfacing with the engineering and manufacturing folks to coordinate a ton of detailed technical information and deliver it to the market in the most efficient ways possible. They are truly managing the expectations from supply chain all the way through to the consumer purchase and post-purchase relationship, and accountable for profitability in a highly complex ecosystem of supply and demand. So these are very busy people, working thankless jobs with very difficult corporate demands that they have to meet.
But somehow we need to get through to them. We need to make them realize that there are many nuances in cultural and political realms that impact their very prosperity and longevity as an industry.
- TRADITIONAL MIDWEST AND CORPORATE CULTURE MUST START LOOKING DEEPER, WITH MORE HUMILITY AND CURIOSITY.While I went on a tangent on number 1, what I believe to be another disconnect is simply regional. This industry was born in the Midwest and Eastern Canada, created to serve a very different culture and experience. This is a small industry, and there is a certain “old boys club” mentality ingrained in the corporate ivory towers of this industry. In addition to this insight, you can’t tell these CEOs or CMOs anything that they don’t already (think) they know—and that’s if you can even get their attention in the first place. Why is this important? Because the top of the leadership chain is where real change can happen. Product division marketing managers in many ways are simply carrying out the orders of their upper management. The proposition of change has big money implications in engineering, supply chain, retail, and communications. To make a huge shift takes years of vision, planning, and implementation, and it’s not the job of a middle-manager to steer the ship. And if a middle-manager cared enough to rock the boat a little bit, it would require that person to put in extra time and energy (above and beyond the requirements of the job) to risk their own employment to champion an idea that will likely require a huge investment.
That’s why change needs to occur at the top. The CEO and CMOs need to understand what needs to change, so that they can direct their middle managers to invest in fresh consumer insight gathering, strategic planning, engineering, manufacturing, and go-to-market / communications that address the cultural and political threats at the consumer level.
On the community / cultural side of this, we need to realize that snowmobile clubs are also a midwestern business model based around the end game of trail grooming. Out west, while it does exist, trail-grooming is less a part of the experience. We are less centralized and organized as a Backcountry culture, and our bigger issue is less about trail grooming, and really more focused on National Forest access. In the Midwest, it’s based more around farming and blue collar culture, NASCAR, and holding the throttle wide open in a drag race across a lake. In the West, it’s more about accessing challenging technical terrain, exploring, and gaining (and sharing) access to avalanche terrain. These nuances need to be understood and appreciated at the top of the industry, and that would require passionate cultural leaders from the west to have the ear of CEO and CMO level leaders in our industry.
- AVALANCHE AND PUBLIC LANDS EDUCATION IS CRITICAL TO THE FUTURE OF OUR SPORT.It’s taken years for this industry to understand the implications of making machines that can effortlessly take human beings into dangerous terrain and avalanche conditions. Yet for some reason, Avalanche awareness has only propelled itself forward through personal passion by a dedicated few industry leaders who have stepped up and have stood on the rooftops to shout (and hopefully be heard by everyone at the top of the industry) that we need to be building a culture of humility and respect and making it cool to humble and educate ourselves about avalanche dynamics, owning the gear, and practicing companion rescue. Thankfully people like Mike Duffy, Matt Entz, Brian Lundstedt, Jeremy Hanke, Dan Adams, and a handful of others have gone against the grain of the industry to do their part in making Avalanche Awareness, Education and Preparedness top of mind for consumer culture. The industry is still, to this day, barely playing a role. And frankly, we can all do better.
But now there’s a different and bigger threat that’s mounting. And it stands to eliminate all of us from the lands that we need to even have a sport in the first place. Without Public Lands, snowmobiling is dead. It baffles me that this industry, in all of their technology and intelligence, can’t seem to wrap their heads around the need for a significant cultural shift that tackles the conversation of Public Lands access, responsible recreation, shifting outsider perspectives of our sport/community/culture, and ultimately taking an active and high-profile lead in being good stewards.
Why the hell aren’t we as a culture and an industry working to change the way we are perceived? Why aren’t we humble enough to listen to our opponents for long enough to understand where they are coming from, to make a few small tweaks to our products and individual behaviors which would create more harmony in being partners and good neighbors with the “human-powered” stakeholder of ALL OF OUR Public Lands?
How long are we going to continue to act like we own the place, versus realizing that we are a very small and extremely outnumbered segment of society, and that if we continue down the path we are on, our sport will be history!!!?
- WE NEED TO LISTEN TO OUR CRITICSand understand that there needs to be some respectful dialogue and collaboration if we want to carry on with our sports as we know them today. Snowmobiles continue to get lighter, cleaner, more-powerful, and more capable. Of course, we all want a lighter and more powerful snowmobile.
But here’s the deal. Your loud-ass aftermarket exhaust makes you personally responsible for the continued loss of access and criticism of our sport.
Would it be that hard to figure out an aftermarket can that maybe shaves weight and quiets the machine, even just a little bit? Would it be that difficult for Ski-Doo, Polaris or Textron to partner with Tesla and figure out a capable, reliable electric technology? (I know, the technology isn’t quite available yet, but the industry needs to make some strides forward.) These are both big and small moves that we could make as an industry, to start moving in the right direction!
- PAY ATTENTION TO THE OUTDOOR INDUSTRY and realize that they are galvanizing their energy into significant political weight. The Outdoor (and Snowsports) industries have brought their industries, their athlete influencers, and their consumers together to create a huge political force that favors the Wilderness agenda. If our Industry doesn’t pay attention to how this is being done, and our relationship to these industries, we will be left behind and closed out. We must build an industry and cultural bridge to this community before they have all jumped on the Wilderness bandwagon without even realizing it. I’ve been doing outreach in this direction for several years now, and it’s mind-blowing to me how open the doors are in the outdoor industry, and yet, how closed the doors are to the top three snowmobile manufacturers. (And ironically, I’m a snowmobile industry insider.)
The snowmobile manufacturers will never get on board with any of this until it affects their bottom line.
The burden of this will fall on the consumer.
If these corporate manufacturers were dedicated to this industry and our community like we all are, we wouldn’t be having this conversation!!
- IMAGINE… WHAT WE COULD DO, TO CURB OUR CRITICS!?
Here are my ideas, if anyone cares.
• The industry and the consumer push each other to make Avalanche education mandatory. If you want to go SCUBA diving with me, you must have SCUBA gear and certification. IF you don’t have it, go get it and then get back to me.
• The industry and consumer push each other to continue to push our machines to be MUCH quieter and cleaner.
• The industry and the consumer band together to become the greatest stewards of Public Lands and other outdoor users. IF we make ourselves invaluable, and use our powers (resources, skills, passion, knowledge of terrain, riding skills, technologies, etc) for good, then the public will appreciate that our culture is a part of defending ACCESS AND PROTECTION OF OUR PUBLIC LANDS FOR ALL.
• I can’t speak to Canada, but I know that the US Forest Service is under-funded, much of that is due to the increase in wildfires across the west. It is also because the American tax-payer in general has no relationship with the lands, and aren’t voting or getting involved in land management. This is a huge opportunity for our community to step up and take charge. The US Forest Service needs our help. If we become their trusted and valuable partners, we are going to have a much better seat at the table in the big conversations that affect how the lands are designated and managed. WE ALL MUST GET INVOLVED YESTERDAY. This is how the many Wilderness groups have so much influence. Because they are organized and actively-involved at all levels.
• Please stop posting GoPro videos of everything you do, all the time. Particularly if you are being an asshole, breaking the law, shooting a moose in your path, or showcasing our culture as belligerent arrogant destructive Neanderthals. Every single snowmobiler represents an entire community to the outsiders looking at us. Even on the highways, if you have a snowmobile on your sled deck or trailer, you would be doing all of us a service by being respectful and courteous citizens. All it takes is one ignorant jerk to ruin it for a million others. Let’s choose to be the awesome people that most of us are, and let outsiders feel welcome, respected, and that we are willing to share our amazing privilege with others.
• When you pass by a human-powered person or group of people, do your best to humanize yourself. Slow down and make space on the trail and give a wave. Pay attention to their state of being, and be willing to stop, take your helmet off and ask them how their day is, if they might need any assistance, etc. Help them realize that you are a human being too. A human being that cares about their fellow man and these amazing places we get to share.
• Talk to your dealers about serving the local community more. The more we all band together locally, the stronger we are.
• Join your local snowmobile club!! In the least, pay your annual dues to keep their operations going. But get involved and share your sport with others. The stewards of our sport are aging and they are going to be looking for who to pass the torch to. Our clubs play a significant role in state and national funding that supports our ability to enjoy our Public Lands.
• Share this sport with everyone that you love. Spread the gift of snowmobile access and community far and wide. The more we can reach others with our true spirit, the more empathy and respect we will garner from the general public.
• Go to Public Land meetings!! Our Public Lands are a democratic idea. Your voice matters as much as anyone else’s, and there is strength in numbers! Pay attention, ask questions, and friggin vote for goodness sakes!!
• Network, network, network! Our friends in Tahoe, Idaho, and Jackson Hole are in battles over high-value recreation areas that are under various Wilderness proposals. Pay attention to what’s going on in these areas. Reach out to the people in those communities. Learn and pay attention, and share that information and connections to your riding buddies, friends and families. We have the power of networking on our side, and it is the only w
ay that we can stand a chance in counterbalancing a highly organized and highly funded Wilderness proponent crowd. I could write a whole paragraph mentioning all of the Wilderness organizations that are banded together today. From the Sierra Club to Winter Wildlands to the Wilderness Society, WildEarth Guardians, etc etc. They are funded, supported, organized and have infiltrated our Public Lands management agencies. And we are over here, all BRAAAAAP, while these groups are making huge strides toward outlawing our sport from the majority of the lands.
I’m tired of tiptoeing around.
It’s time for our industry and our culture to get smart and strategic and open-minded about these issues, if we care about preserving our sport and community.
Send all hate-mail to: Jon@backcountryunited.com