Dateline Europe: Norway’s Snowmobile Laws Headed to Court

Dateline: Europe

A battle is brewing over the increasing use of snowmobiles in Norway’s Arctic lands.

By M. Michael Brady

Like a character behind the scenes in a drama, Norway has long played an unheralded role on the snowmobile scene. Arguably the first-ever snowmobile was a motorized sledge designed and built by English carmaker Wolseley Motors for Robert Falcon Scott’s ill-fated South Pole expedition of 1910-1913. At the advice of Norwegian polar explorer Fridtjof Nansen, in March 1910 Scott took his team to train for the expedition and test its gear, including the Wolseley motorized sledge, to the Fefor mountain hotel near Vinstra, Norway.

On its first test run at Fefor, the motorized sledge functioned for about 15 minutes before its drive axle fractured. The incident was an ominous forecast of what was to come. Scott took three sledges to Antarctica. One fell overboard through the ice as it was unloaded from the Terra Nova expedition ship. The other two broke down and were abandoned after the first 50 miles of the march to the Pole. In retrospect, the motorized sledges had been a risky solution, as steel made with the technology of the time was ill suited to extremely cold weather.

Three decades later, early in World War II, English inventor Geoffrey Pyke proposed a tracked snow vehicle to be used by the Devil’s Brigade, an elite American-Canadian commando unit in attacking German forces in occupied Norway. The proposed vehicle became the M29 Weasel, designed and built by Studebaker. Logistics changed and Weasels were not used on commando missions in Norway. But the more than 15,000 that were made saw widespread service on snow.

Meanwhile, in Valcourt, Québec, in 1926 at age 19, Joseph-Armand Bombardier opened his own garage. At the time, owners stored their cars in winter, because small-town roads were not plowed. With few cars to repair, garage-owner mechanic Bombardier spent his time developing a tracked vehicle that would facilitate winter travel. The result was a seven-passenger snow vehicle, with B for Bombardier, designated the B7, first sold in the winter of 1937-37. The next development was a 12 passenger snowbus, designated the B12 that was rolled out in 1941. Most sales thereafter were of military versions, as Canada had entered Word War II in September 1939. Yet during the war years, more than 200 civilian versions were sold to special permit holders.

After the War, civilian sales resumed. But in 1948, the government of Québec decided to plow small-town roads in winter. Local demand for the B12 declined, but sales elsewhere went up. The B12 and its subsequent improved versions served as an ambulance, a bus, a post office mail van, a delivery van, and a school bus. It also was exported, significantly to Scandinavia, where the climate was similar and many rural roads were not (and still are not) plowed in winter. One of the first customers was JVB of Norway, a bus owner-operator that provided over-snow services on routes on winter-closed roads in the Jotunheimen cordillera (Further reading).

Today, JVB has twelve meticulously-maintained B12 snowbusses in operation, the largest fleet in Norway, if not the world. The oldest vehicle was made in 1952, the newest in 1976, two years before production of the B12 was discontinued. The fleet has become a tourist attraction in its own right, drawing veteran vehicle enthusiasts from near and far to enjoy the thrill of speeding across a snowscape accompanied by the deep roar of a 5.7-liter V8 motor.

As the B12 snowbus was carving its niche in the history of the snowmobile, Mr. Bombardier correctly envisioned a demand for a smaller, lighter snow vehicle that could carry one or two people. Many designs were tried and tested with the result in 1959 of mass production of the Ski-doo, a true snowmobile in today’s sense of the word. The appearance of the Ski-doo created a demand for snowmobiles that in turn encouraged other companies to make them. By the early 1960s, there were half a dozen snowmobile makers in Scandinavia, and by the 1970s there were more than 140 makers in North America. The expanding market was cut short by the oil crisis of 1973-74 and by low snow winters in the mid 1970s in North America as well as Europe. Company closures and mergers followed. Today five large snowmobile producers remain: Arctic Cat (USA / Japan), Lynx (Finland), Polaris (USA), Ski-doo (Canada) and Yamaha (Japan / USA). Bombardier, the parent company of Lynx as well as of Ski-doo, no longer makes snowmobiles but has become a major transportation products company that makes both planes and trains.

From their first introduction, snowmobiles found utilitarian uses in Norway, as by high-tension line and telecommunications line maintenance crews, emergency services, and by the Sámi*, the traditional nomadic reindeer herders of the far north who saw the snowmobile as a key to combining the comforts of modern living with their otherwise tough lives. And just as the JVB bus company had bought snowbusses to serve routes closed by snow in winter, snowmobiles became winter taxis, delivery vans and transport shuttles to remote cabins and lodges.

beltebil_1338The influx of snowmobiles across the country alarmed environmentalists with good reason. Save for the agricultural lands of its south, the ecology of Norway is fragile. Timberline varies from an elevation of about 4,000 feet above sea level in the Jotunheimen Mountains of the middle of the country down to sea level itself in the far north. The flora and fauna above timberline are susceptible to damage from human intrusions and accordingly are threatened by the increasing numbers of snowmobiles as well as ATVs and other motorized vehicles. So in 1977 a national law was enacted to restrict the recreational uses of snowmobiles and other mechanized transport in wildlands. Utilitarian, work-related uses including snowbus transport on winter-closed roads and Sámi in reindeer herding are excepted from the law (see further reading).

Nonetheless, local and now national political pressure is being exerted to amend the 1977 law. In 2014, the present progressive-conservative Government (Parliamentary system of Norway, a constitutional monarchy) recommended that the law be changed to allow local authorities to permit the building of trails and facilities for recreational snowmobiling. Environmentalists were aghast. The Norwegian Trekking Association, equivalent to the Sierra Club in the U.S., funded a transport study of the impact of recreational snowmobiling. It forecast an increase of more than 80 percent in the number of snowmobiles in use, from 74,000 today to 130,000 or more by the year 2021. Search and rescue services were equally alarmed. According to Ministry of Finance figures, to date the 38 deaths in snowmobile accidents have cost the country more than a billion Norwegian Kroner ($ 140 million).

Despite these figures, the pro-repeal forces are vociferous. Understandably, the snowmobile business sector argues to promote its growth. Likewise, local authorities may see snowmobiling as a means of increasing tourism income. The Norwegian Trekking Association study also included a local opinion poll of the country’s 428 municipalities which indicated that more than a third of them were prepared to permit facilities for recreational snowmobiling.

In December 2014, just before this article is posted online, a significant legal complication has come to light. In an amendment of 1992 that added article 112 to the Norwegian Constitution of 1814, environmental aspects have priority in evaluating uses of the outdoors. So the ongoing debate on recreational snowmobiling may be decided by a legal interpretation of constitutional law. Whatever the outcome, Norway may well become the only country in which recreational snowmobiling has been debated before high court.

Further reading:

English translation of  Norwegian law of 1977 regulating snowmobile use.

Regulations and guidelines on snowmobile use, most in Norwegian but many in English, published by the  Norwegian Environmental Agency, the government entity responsible for information to the public on environmental matters.

Lineage of Bombardier snowmobiles and vehicles, including the B12 snowbus, exhibited at  Musée J. Armand Bombardier (Website selectable in English or in French), 1001, avenue J.A. Bombardier, Valcourt, Québec JOE 2LO, Canada, Tel: 450 532-5300.

JVB bus company (pages in English) and  videos of snowbusses on Jotunheimen mountain routes (Norwegian text only; no voice in soundtracks)

Arctic Review on Law and Politics, a professional journal publishing articles on topics related to the Circumpolar Northern societies, including the Sámi of Norway.

* The name Lapp, first used in English in 1859, is also applied to the Sámi, who regard it as pejorative, perhaps because it is derived from the Middle High German Lappe meaning “simpleton.”

Photo of Reindeer herding on the Varanger Peninsula of Finnmark County, northern Norway by Øyvind Ravna. Used by permission of the photographer.

Photo of Bombardier B12 Snowbus on Jotunheimen mountain route along shore of Lake Tyin, Uranos Peak and Uranos Glacier in background by JVB staff, used by permission of JVB.