Whether planing across the water at speeds high enough to pull a water skier, diving into corners with a G-force that pulls arm-straining arcs, or simply cruising the shoreline taking in the sights, personal watercraft (PWC) have become fixtures on several of western Montana’s lakes. Commonly known by trade names like Jet Ski or Sea Doo, PWCs have proven themselves to be one of the most popular forms of mechanized sport on the water—but they’re also one of the most controversial.
These days, the future of PWCs is an embattled one, with Montanans taking up sides on where, when and even whether these types of watercraft should be used. On one side, there are weekend thrillseekers who want access to the public waters that PWCs were designed for. On the other side, there are environmentalists and lakeshore homeowners who have expressed concerns about noise, air and water pollution that they say are caused by PWCs. Now, Montana finds itself in the middle of the great jet ski debate, but for the time being at least, the operation of playing with PWCs remains legal—for the most part.
Gary Guse, owner of Seeley Lake Fun Center, says his summer business depends on PWC access to Seeley Lake and the surrounding area, which includes Salmon, Placid, Inez, Alva, Lindbergh and Holland lakes. Each water body in the area has special restrictions on PWC that are outlined at the launching area, such as no wake zones and restricted access to critical waterfowl breeding areas. In Glacier National Park, jet skis have been banned altogether, in accordance with new national park regs. Today, Guse says the majority of his summer PWC rental business comes from family reunions, company parties, weddings and vacationers. “We see very little business from the locals,” he adds.
The primary attraction for his clientele, Guse notes, is the ability of newer, larger-engine machines to seat two people in addition to pulling a third person behind on water skis, inner tubes and wakeboards. A typical four-hour rental of a machine capable of such a feat is $190, which includes fuel and life jackets—as well as a 22-point instruction and etiquette briefing by a staff member.
Due to the fact that PWC rentals are such a large part of his summer business, Guse fears that the sport has a grim future. On the environmental side, Guse says manufacturers are taking strides to change their machines to be more fuel efficient, reducing emissions by up to 80 percent over older models, but he admonishes that “bans always happen first” before the industry can clean up its act. Concerning the complaints of homeowners and other recreationists, he advises that PWC users simply use common courtesy. “The biggest thing is education,” he stresses. “It only takes a few rude [PWC enthusiasts] to blow it for everyone. When we rent a machine to someone, I want them to be scared when they get on.”
Under current laws and regulations, PWCs are loosely governed under the same rules of all other motorized craft. Falling under the same restrictions as motorboats, PWCs are illegal to operate on over 20 bodies of water classified as “small ponds,” including Frenchtown Pond and Bearmouth Pond near Missoula. PWCs are also disallowed on any flowing waters, most notably the Clark Fork, Bitterroot and Blackfoot rivers.
Change, however, appears to be on the horizon.
Since 1998, regulation of conflicts over PWCs has fallen under the jurisdiction of Montana’s Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks. As a response to rising complaints, the Missoula region of FWP entered into a lengthy public comment process last fall, which is now reaching its final phase. “We received 90 comments, 86 of which addressed motorized conflict of some sort,” says Region Two FWP Information Officer Bill Thomas. “And of those 86, 71 referred directly to PWCs.”
On May 12, all public comments collected by each of the seven FWP regional offices will be presented to the FWP headquarters in Helena. After reviewing the materials, the department will be make its suggestions for the future of motorized water sports.