HUMBOLDT-TOIYABE NATIONAL FOREST, Calif. — Paul Hale edged his snowmobile up to a sign marking the Mokelumne Wilderness and its 105,156 acres of pristine bowls, ragged peaks and snowy canyons.
It was tempting, he thought, but not worth crossing into territory where motorized vehicles are forbidden. Smart thing, too, because the law was watching.
In an effort to catch snowmobile scofflaws plowing ever deeper into the wild in search of untracked snow and solitude, the U.S. Forest Service is patrolling by air and land.
For the past month, rangers on snowmobiles have prowled the borders of the wild sprawling over three national forests in eastern California, while spotters in planes watch from above.
There's little terrain where snowmobilers fear to tread. And that's getting them into all kinds of trouble.
Nearly 20 citations — with penalties ranging from $500 to $5,000 — have been issued in the Sierra Nevada near Lake Tahoe this season.
Hale, who has been motoring in the area for 15 years and leads off-trail tours, knows the boundaries well enough to steer clear. On a recent day, he took a guide he was training to the border. Two rangers lay in wait behind a rock.
"There are hundreds of thousands of acres without going into the wilderness areas. Why would you need to?" Hale asked.
Hale said he welcomes efforts by law enforcement.
Earlier this year, the patrols were in jeopardy after a state commission rejected grants sought by the Forest Service based on complaints by cross-country skiers about noise, pollution and the speed of snowmobiles.
Forest officials anticipated that with no money for grooming, policing and marking wilderness boundaries, more riders would stray into the backcountry.
The view from above supports that conclusion.
In the first flight of the season over the Eldorado and Humboldt-Toiyabe forests, no snowmobiles were sighted in the wilderness, but they had left their mark.
All this would have been unlikely 20 years ago, when snowmobiles were limited in range and versatility. Today, more powerful, lighter machines can scale steep slopes, float across deep powder and cover sweeping landscapes. Snowmobiles are being used to shuttle skiers and snowboarders to untouched snow on isolated slopes.
The results are sometimes deadly.
No major tragedy has occurred in California recently, but snowmobiles throughout the West sometimes get stuck far from civilization or buried in avalanches.
Snowmobilers accounted for nearly half the avalanche deaths in the United States in recent years, more than backcountry skiers and snowboarders combined, according to the Utah Avalanche Center.
Other states have issued citations similar to those in California. Eleven Minnesota residents were ticketed in January in Wyoming's Teton Wilderness. Last year, several snowmobilers were caught in wilderness near Steamboat Springs, Colo.
In the highest profile case, race car driver Bobby Unser was fined $75 after he got lost in a blizzard in Colorado in 1996 and abandoned his machine in wilderness. He said the Forest Service targeted him because he was a celebrity, but the U.S. Supreme Court upheld his conviction.
The problem in California may be magnified because of population growth, the Sierra's proximity to highways and a relatively sunny, warm winter that compacts the snow and makes it easier to travel longer distances. California also has seemingly endless stretches of wilderness.
Marcus Libkind, who has written five books on ski tours in California, regularly sends letters to the Forest Service complaining about reckless, rumbling snowmobiles.
"You go out and you hear this drone of a snowmobile, it's just not what I'm out there to experience," Libkind said. "You come to a meadow and the snowscape is just completely torn up by snowmobiles."