In the Spotlight

News & Features
Controlling Use of Personal Watercraft Part 2: Loud Splash in Still Water
By Mary Losure
August 27, 1997

Also see Part 1: How Safe Is the Wavy Ride?

Click for audio RealAudio 2.0 14.4, RealAudio 3.0 28.8

Personal watercraft make up the fastest-growing segment of the recreational boating industry. Nationwide, there are more than one million personal watercraft, or "jet skis" as they are often called. As their numbers have soared, so has the backlash against them. Even in Minnesota, a stronghold of the motorized recreation industry, a torrent of complaints about jet skis has prompted efforts to restrict or even ban their use.

FROM HIS SCREEN PORCH in the woods north of Grand Rapids, Harold Unger can see the tranquil, lily-pad covered bays of both Big Trout Lake and Little Trout Lake. Most of the land around is a state forest, near a preserve set aside for hikers and canoeists. It's almost always quiet here.

SFX: Birds, hummingbird zoom
That faint humming is the sound of the ruby-throated hummingbirds at Unger's birdfeeders - not the buzz of jet skis, and Unger would like to keep things just that way.
It just seems like they just don't fit in on these two lakes, with the semi-primitive, and not too many people on the shoreline. It's just like a snowmobile going on a cross-country ski trail; they just don't fit together.
Unger and most of the other residents on the two lakes have signed a petition to have jet skis banned on both lakes. John Rowe, president of a local association of lakeshore property owners, says it's important for the county to preserve a few places where visitors and residents can enjoy some quiet.
We're talking about personal freedom here and, yeah, they have a right to be on the jet skis, but we have a personal right, too. Do we want to turn every lake in Minnesota into the same thing? Do we want to all have it as a jet-ski racetrack? Well, I don't think so.
The Itasca County proposal, if passed by county commissioners, would be the first local ban on jet skis in Minnesota. There is also an effort to restrict their use statewide. Representative Kris Hasskamp, whose district includes the central Minnesota lake district around Brainerd, introduced a bill last session to ban personal watercraft on a few small, environmentally sensitive lakes and the state's wildlife management lakes. The bill would also require jet skis to operate farther from docks, shorelines, swimmers, and other boats, and restrict early morning and evening use on the weekends. Hasskamp says she's responding to a flood of jet ski complaints by her constituents, many of them senior citizens who have retired to the lakes.
They have bought property on quiet lakes, small lakes, and now they're being invaded. At my Crow Wing County Fair many, many people came up and thanked me for my effort and said, "Please continue it, don't give up, we need relief, we demand relief. Why can't we have some time to listen to the loons in the evening, to go out in a pontoon boat and fish?" Those are the things they're asking for: "Why can't we have a little time as well."
SFX: Background noise, chit chat
The personal watercraft industry is fighting hard against Hasskamp's bill. Recently, the two US-based personal watercraft manufactures, Arctic Cat and Polaris, invited members of the key legislative committees in the jet ski issue to a lake in a Minneapolis suburb to ride a personal watercraft. A dozen lawmakers turned out for the event.
This is your throttle ... like a snowmobile take off ... squeeze it a little. Just slowly ease it out.
A small flotilla of the latest model personal watercraft waits down at the dock. A half dozen or so lawmakers, each with a guide, fire up their engines one by one and head off from shore.
SFX: Personal watercraft sounds
Greg Stolpus and his two brothers are standing on the dock. They jet ski on this lake every chance they get, which is how they happen to be here today for the spectacle.
They got the 780, the Cadillac, they got the limousine, (Oh?) The 780, that's the big daddy.
Greg's brother bought a personal watercraft in July. Now Greg plans to buy one too.
You have to drive one in order to even imagine what it's like; what's so great about it. Just the feeling of being open on the water, being in control all by yourself. The scenery, the wind blowing by your face, it's beautiful. It's exhilarating, like being on the ride at Valley Fair.
More than 25,000 personal watercraft are registered in Minnesota, nearly double the number three years ago.

Industry representatives and jetsport groups say restricting jet-ski use would unfairly cut access to recreation to the many Minnesotans who have chosen the sport. They say most noise complaints and safety problems are caused by a few irresponsible riders, and the solution is more education of jet ski riders, and better enforcement of existing laws.

Arctic Cat President Chris Twomey says the industry is working hard to make quieter machines, but the real answer to the noise problem is greater public tolerance.

These are a new product, people have to get accustomed to them. Haven't heard that noise before, they will over time, they'll become accustomed to it.
Twomey says he expects conflicts over jet skis will die down, the way the same kind of conflicts over snowmobiles did in the 1960s and '70s. Morry Mikkleson, vice president of The Crow Wing County Lakes and Rivers Alliance, a coalition of more than 30 lake associations, disagrees.
The uproar is growing every day; objections becoming more and more, and at some point, whether it be when there are 30,000 jet skis, or 50,000, jet skis are going to be so objectionable, everyone is going to be complaining.
Mikkleson says his group will push hard for the Hasskamp legislation, but if that stalls, they'll also work for local regulations - for example, getting jet skis banned on lakes smaller than 75 acres if 75% of landowners agree.

Jet ski bans have a growing number of precedents in other states.

Hawaii has classified jet skis as "thrillcraft" and banned them from some coastal waters during the whale calving season. In California, the Monterrey Bay National Marine Sanctuary severely restricted personal watercraft because of the threat posed to sea otters and other users of the 4,000-square-mile sanctuary. The county encompassing the San Juan Islands off the coast of Washington banned jet skis, lost a court challenge by the industry, and has now appealed to the state supreme court. In Vermont, a prohibition on personal watercraft on lakes smaller than 300 acres went into effect this spring. Officials in Lake Tahoe in California plan to ban jet skis from the lake beginning in 1999.

Controlling Use of Personal Watercraft Part 1:
How Safe Is the Wavy Ride?