September 26, 2008 -- “A Snowmobile For George” is a grassroots level look at how government deregulation and selling out to special interest groups affects the lives of ordinary people. Filmmaker Todd Darling takes a simple question, “Why did the Bush Administration reverse the ban on two-stroke snowmobile engines?” and builds a compelling story involving elk, buffalo, cattle, fishing, farming and New York City firefighters. What starts out looking like a home movie ends up at the highest levels of government and the life and death struggle of heroic people doomed by unfair applications of power politics.
The film starts out with Todd buying a snowmobile and then noticing how much smoke it emits. You would have to drive a car 100,000 miles to emit as much pollution as a two-stroke snowmobile engine emits in one day's use. That's why the two-stroke engine was banned for use on public lands, but the Bush Administration reversed that ruling. Todd put his snowmobile on a trailer and set off in search of answers. Well no, actually, he set off to make a movie about deregulation and special interest groups' influence on government policy.
This quest took him to the Klamath River near the California-Oregon border, where a major die-off of Salmon was caused by a massive reallocation of water to agricultural irrigators. The reallocation of water, made in order to secure votes in Oregon for the upcoming 2004 presidential election, caused a huge fish kill in the river and led to severe hardship for the Yurock Tribe downstream which depends on the fish for its livelihood. Todd then went to Yellowstone National Park where a relatively small snowmobile industry has managed to overturn a ban and force its way into the park in the Winter despite harm to the wildlife and environment. He then goes to Sheridan County, Wyoming, where rancher George Smith shows how methane gas drilling operations have altered the environment. “I don't know what's happened to my deer and antelope,” Smith says. He adds that the gas pumping stations, “Sounds like an airport all the time. It never quits.” He can't run them off because he doesn't own the mineral rights on his own land.
Near Gillette, Wyoming is another rancher, Ed Swartz, whose creeks have been ruined by “methane water” pumped from underground coal formations during the process of recovering coalbed methane. The water turns ordinary soil as hard as concrete. Most plants can't grow in it. He points to a creek, “This is dead in the bottom of the creek here. [The grass] used to be about chest deep. Our desirable grasses are gone. This was the best soil I ever had and it had the most moisture in it. The very best grasses I ever had was in this creek.
Swartz said, “They brought in a fellow that's the second in command of our Bureau of Land Management Office in Buffalo, Wyoming and he testified under oath that it was my mismanagement of the irrigation on this ranch is what caused the desirable vegetation in my creeks to die. There hasn't been any irrigation in the last four years because of the drouth. The only water that's been here is methane water. But he said it was my mismanagement, and that's a damned lie.
“It bothers me when people in a position of authority are so enamored with the financial ramifications of this that they would totally ignore the environment,” Swartz said. He added that water pumping during the methane extraction process had caused a number of ranch wells to dry up.
Todd visited another ranch near Buffalo, Wyoming, where rancher Beverly Landry said that massive water pumping for coal bed methane recovery had caused the ranch's artesian well to dry up. It had provided water for the ranch for more than 30 years prior to suddenly drying up on Sept. 2, 2002. Appeals to Marathon, the company extracting methane nearby and the Wyoming Oil and Gas Commission provided no help to the elderly ranchers. Beverly and her husband were forced to appeal to their neighbors for help. Todd next traveled to snowmobile country in the Keweenaw Peninsula of Michigan where annual “clean” snowmobile races are held. Students tinkered together modified snowmobiles that cut pollution by an average of 90 percent, while the Bush Administration required pollution cuts of 60 percent for the snowmobile industry by 2010. “Who tossed such a softball to the industry?” Todd asked.
The hardest hitting part of the documentary comes when Todd invades Manhattan with his snowmobile. He explores the public health hazards of the hundreds of tons of asbestos and other hazardous materials released by the collapse of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. Government officials assured the public the air was safe to breathe even before it was tested. It was not safe to breathe. Hundreds of firefighters, police and other rescue workers have gotten sick and many have died after exposure to the deadly dust, but the hazard is much more widespread, according to the documentary. Many buildings in Manhattan were contaminated by the hazardous dust, but only one building was thoroughly cleaned by the federal government until it was safe to occupy, the federal Environmental Protection Agency Building in Manhattan. Even years later, the federal government and New York City governments refuse to acknowledge the lingering effects of the 9/11 dust. The same governments put up red tape blocking medical treatment and compensation for those sickened by the dust.
In the end, Todd determined the reason for the reversal of the ban on two-stroke snowmobile engines on federal lands, and in Yellowstone, was not due to scientific evidence, but political calculation. Snowmobile user groups, along with off-road vehicle user groups, and dozens of other special interest groups could be bought with special favors, like lifting the two-stroke ban, in return for votes and campaign contributions by the industry. In a close presidential election, like the one in 2004, each of these groups could later claim to have delivered key votes in the election and could demand, and get, more special concessions, at the expense of others. The Bush pattern of governance is well known, according to the documentary. First, suppress the science. Second, build political favors into government policy. Third, legitimize special interest-driven policy decisions by stacking important policy advisory boards with political appointees. An example of this was appointing a snowmobile industry lobbyist, with no scientific background whatsoever, to the National Science Foundation. This film is an eye-opener. It rates a B+.
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