To some, they are the epitome of personal freedom, power, and exhilaration. To others they are an obnoxious intrusion of selfish, manic recklessness.
Known generically as personal watercraft (PWC), they skip along the surface of lakes, rivers, and bays like skittish water bugs, spraying water and turning on a waterdrop. They have multiplied tenfold in a decade - to about 1 million units.
But although they represent only 9 percent of the nation's motorboats, they account for 36 percent of boating accidents.
After years of debate, the National Park Service has banned their use in its parks with a few exceptions. Environmentalists and nature lovers are happily taking out earplugs while watercraft users and manufacturers are crying foul.
Both say the decision will serve as a model in dozens of other attempts to ban PWC coast to coast.
"Our mandate is to preserve these parks for the present and future for use by visitors of all kinds," says David Barna, chief spokesman for the National Park Service. The decision, announced last week, will allow continued use of PWC at 25 recreation and seashore areas where they are now primarily used, but will ban them at the park service's 62 other facilities that now allow motorized boating. "There have long been concerns about noise, air, and water pollution, and the safety of other visitors. We believe this is a fair compromise," says Mr. Barna.
The makers of such watercraft counter that the vehicles are perfectly safe. Complaints about noise and pollution, they argue, are based on outmoded technology. And they say they have addressed safety concerns with training and licensing ideas that the park service has rejected. "When automobiles first came out, they were noisy and scared horses," says John Stetson, president of Friends of Lake Crescent, a lake in Washington State's Olympic National Park that will no longer allow PWC.
According to the National Marine Manufacturers Industry Association, there are 13 million registered watercraft in the United States, and about 3 million unregistered. Of that total, about 1 million are PWC, with an average price of about $6,500. The park service regulates about 10 percent of the total water area of the US, but the decision is expected to have far-reaching effects for other jurisdictions that have been trying to ban PWC.
The county of San Francisco offers an example, says John Donaldson, head of the Personal Watercraft Industry Association. "They are now embarking on a set of regulations and citing the National Park Service decision as their model."
FANS of PWC say the park service has a double standard. About 80 park-service facilities now allow boating, but most will no longer allow the controversial craft. One such region is Biscayne Bay National Park, which cuts down the middle of downtown Miami toward Key West.
"You can take an oil barge up and down this area, but no PWC," says Donaldson. "Tell me what kind of sense that makes." He holds that the park service has said more studies of PWC are called for, but they have moved ahead with the ban without completing any studies.
But park officials say they have received more mail about the intrusion of the watercraft than on any other issue. A large majority are from those who feel the national parks are the last refuge in America from all the noise and pollution of the city. The number of PWC users in national parks has soared in recent years.
"When we opened public comment to this issue we were frankly stunned by the level of concern," says Barb Maynes, spokesman for Olympic National Park. "Most people don't want to come to the wilderness to be assaulted by the same sights and sounds they left behind."
The national park facilities where the watercraft may be used include Amistad, Texas; Bighorn Canyon, Montana; Curecanti, Colorado; Gateway, New York/New Jersey; Whiskeytown-Shasta-Trinity, California; Glen Canyon, Arizona/Utah; and Lake Mead, Nevada.
"For the most part, we have found that people use these craft responsibly," says Bud Inman, spokesman for Lake Mead National Recreation Area. "What gives them a bad name is the number of people who show off by irritating the other boaters, fishermen, and beach users."
But users fear the decisions will not be reconsidered. "It doesn't seem fair to lock in a decision because of the problems they used to cause," Stanton says.