The Noise of Summer

As irritating as jet skis can be, there aren’t that many of them. Minnesota has 36,000 registered PWCs, a small number considering the state has 828,173 registered boats, the majority being fishing boats and powerboats. For such a small group of enthusiasts, they make a big noise on the lakes, but they don’t talk much to reporters. JAM’s insularity has been striking. After numerous voice mails to the organization and its president, Jim Robinson of Edina, The Rake could not get anyone to discuss JAM’s current lobby focus, its budget, the size of its membership, or to even wax eloquent on the joys of jet skiing—clearly a fun sport even to skeptics who have experienced the guilty thrill of operating a waterborne motorcycle.

The group’s silence may have something to do with its defeat of Hasskamp. She says it gave a great deal of money to her 2000 election opponent, Republican Dale Walz, who she figures spent around $150,000 on 13 mailings. JAM still brags on its website about the successful campaign against Hasskamp and features a letter from Walz thanking the group for its efforts. The election caught the attention of Rep. Matt Entenza (DFL-St. Paul), who charged last June that the tax-exempt JAM engaged in political activity. The state Campaign Finance Disclosure Board was unconvinced, ruling earlier this year that the evidence did not point to illegal politicking by JAM. In a separate ruling, the board compelled Walz to pony up $391.50, the amount he accepted from political party committees in excess of the $1,000 legal limit. (Entenza did not respond to repeated requests for comments on the ruling. Why is everyone so afraid to speak publicly about jet skis?)

Despite helping win the election for Walz, JAM still sees itself as a victim, misunderstood by the motorized recreation community and disdained by tree-huggers. The group’s “harassment” website section features an ancient article by Pete Balm that reads as a long screed against the new regulations. It relates an encounter with a DNR enforcement official, and offers a belabored argument against the basic unfairness of not requiring motorboats to follow the same laws as PWCs—the one argument even his critics might share. In any case, the libertarian argument against any restriction of any activity—as represented by JAM and similar pro-PWC ski special-interest groups—probably does not endear jet ski enthusiasts to other users of the state’s water resources.

Another anti-regulation group, the International Falls-based Borderline Boaters Association, is attempting to overturn the federal government’s ban on jet skis in Voyageurs National Park, which is part of a national effort now in place in most national parks. PWC enthusiasts have challenged in several states, losing every time. Nancy McHarg, the group’s president, says the ban unfairly singles out je
t skis and has left Voyageurs entirely off-limits to PWCs. The government’s ban is not based on any studies or hard science and is largely the work of the Bluewater Network and the Wilderness Society. While labeling those perfectly reasonable organizations “radical environmental groups,” McHarg (unlike JAM) would accept the ban if scientific evidence could be provided showing that jet skis cause more damage than other motorized boats.

Critics say the vehicles do damage the environment. While newer PWCs have four-stroke and fuel-injected engines, older models, representing the majority of those still in service, release two times as much oil and gas pollution as a typical marine outboard of the same horsepower, according to a study by California’s Air Resources Board. In a typical two-hour ride a PWC dumps three to four gallons of gas and oil. The resources board estimates a full-day ride on a jet ski will create the same amount of air pollution as driving a car 100,000 miles. Other studies, hardly definitive, point to PWCs as affecting plant growth, sediment, and birds, although the study authors point out most of their findings also apply to motorboats.

Throw away all the studies and you still arrive at one conclusive fact: Silence has eroded, in some cases evaporated, on many Minnesota lakes. The idea of a relaxing weekend at the lake, where you can escape the noise and speed and rudeness of the city, has grown more extinct with each passing year. Jeff Brown recalls getting married a decade ago on a Faribault lake in a gorgeous silence which no longer exists. “You used to be able to go paddle a canoe or go on the pontoon boat anytime on the lake, but not anymore, not with the jet skis,” says Brown, the founder of Minnesotans For Responsible Recreation. “You can’t even sit on the deck there because it’s a stew of jet skis doing doughnuts on the shoreline. They’re supposed to stay 150 feet from the shoreline but often don’t. We can’t stand to be outside anymore. We’ve been driven from our own property. The noise is constant.”

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