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Polaris Testing An Air-Friendly Snowmobile

Under prodding from Yellowstone National Park, the makers of Polaris snowmobiles have quietly been testing an environmentally sensitive model despite questions about how big a market exists for it.

Polaris Industries Inc. confirmed that a sled with a four-cycle engine was tested in Yellowstone this winter. The company will not allow photographs of the 27-horsepower engine.

A refined version is expected back next winter, but Polaris said the program is not even at the prototype stage.

“The effort was purely research and development,” said LaRae Krahn, manager of engineering support for the snowmobile manufacturer. The goal is to produce a quiet machine with low emissions, she said.

“It’s a nice first effort,” said Bob Seibert, a Yellowstone ranger who drove the sled for an afternoon. “Right now it doesn’t have a lot of ‘oomph’ to it but it’s fine for touring the park.”

He added: “You can’t taste the oil in the air when you’re around it.”

Winter use of Yellowstone has boomed in recent years. Most of the 140,000 winter visitors arrive on snowmobiles using two-cycle engines, which burn a combination of gas and oil and pump huge amounts of emissions into the park air.

The National Park Service challenged the industry last year to produce a cleaner machine. But the industry questioned how big the market would be for a sled that might be cleaner, but also would have less power.

So far, the industry’s main effort has been on testing emissions of existing sleds.

The four-cycle snowmobiles probably wouldn’t appeal to people who race and like to climb hills, but many snowmobilers, especially those who rent machines to tour Yellowstone and the surrounding area, are content to stay on groomed trails.

However, powerful racing and climbing sleds “are not necessarily what the touring public wants,” said Gale Loomis, co-owner of a Polaris shop in West Yellowstone. “If you make it for Yellowstone, there’s going to be other places for it.”