Cutting the Jet Ski Engines

Russell Long

Reading Russell Long’s resume, it’s easy to get the wrong impression. As a former amateur race car driver — and one of the youngest sailors ever to skipper an America’s Cup yacht — Long would seem a natural adherent of industrial-strength outdoor recreation. But as manufacturers of “personal thrill craft” now know, and as the Bush administration may soon learn, underestimating Long’s passion for the environment can be a perilous mistake. As founder of the Bluewater Network, a San Francisco-based conservation group, Long has taken on a powerful foe: the makers of Jet Skis and outboard motorboats. By the end of next year, largely due to his efforts, Jet Skis are scheduled to be banned in waterways throughout the National Park System. State agencies are also cracking down on Jet Skis and other “thrill craft” in lakes used for drinking water.

Jet Skis, it turns out, are more than a noisy nuisance — they are also one of the crudest gasoline-burning machines. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, their two-stroke engines discharge nearly a third of their fuel directly into the water. Now roaring off assembly lines at the rate of 100,000 a year, Jet Skis pose a serious and growing threat to fish, vegetation, and drinking water.

Long says he became “radicalized” against two-stroke engines while working with traditional fishermen in India during the early 1990s. In the coastal state of Kerala, he found that pollution from outboard engines left fish tasting like kerosene. After returning home, Long used EPA data and put together a report concluding that outboard motors dump as much oil as 15 Exxon Valdez tankers into U.S. waterways each year — an estimated 1 billion pounds of cancer-causing petroleum hydrocarbons. Driving a Jet Ski for seven hours produces as many hydrocarbons as driving a car 100,000 miles.

Armed with this data, Long and Bluewater filed suit to protect sensitive waters. “The Park Service knew quite well that Jet Skis threaten public safety, shatter natural quiet, and destroy visitor enjoyment,” Long says. Staging a public stunt to illustrate the danger, Long ran a two-stroke engine in a tank of water near San Francisco Bay; after half an hour, smelly petrol residue clouded the surface of the tank. State and federal officials threatened Long with up to $25,000 in fines if he dumped the water into the bay — a level of vigilance, he pointed out, that they weren’t applying to outboard motorists who pollute public waters each day simply by driving their boats.

The in-your-face lobbying and legal action forced the Park Service to ban Jet Skis in April 2000. Officials also ordered a phaseout of snowmobiles with two-stroke engines in selected areas. “Long was courageous to step forward and point out how inappropriate Jet Skis and other motorized thrill craft are in our National Park System,” says Don Barry, assistant interior secretary during the Clinton administration. “He became a catalyst for us ultimately doing the right thing.”

Bluewater’s victory may be short-lived. Intent on rolling back the Clinton-era prohibitions, the Bush administration temporarily lifted the Jet Ski ban in four national parks. Long is already gearing up for another fight. “We’ve successfully sued the government before, and we’ll do it again if we have to,” he says. “I’m confident that we have the law and public opinion on our side.”


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