2025 – Where Have Our Trails Gone
By Jim Duke
Published By Michigan Snowmobiler Magazine
It’s been said many time that no one can predict the future, or what it may hold for mankind, but I’m not of that same mindset. I believe the future can be forecast, and can be done with a high degree of accuracy, however, I do not claim to be a mind reader or a clairvoyant, nor do I possess any other powers that allow a view of what is in store in years to come. With that in mind, I can see a pretty bleak future for our favorite wintertime recreational activities if we do not make some serious changes, and they need to be made sooner than later! To back up these predictions, let’s take a few minutes to look at where we are now and what we are faced with, but first let’s look also at just a bit of the historic facts that pertain to snowmobiling…
Some four decades ago there was no designated trail system anywhere in the state, save for a few miles of private trails established by a snowmobile club and for use exclusively by eligible club members. There was a few sparse stretches of trail in various locations throughout the vast expanses of state forests or where private landowners were generous enough to permit snowmobile use on their properties, and for which they may receive meager stipends in return. Where there was a trail of any sort, there was little or no funding to develop or maintain it, and usually the condition deteriorated from fair to impassible within the first few weeks of the season.
Enter the Michigan Snowmobile Association, a newly formed organization established from the several existing, but struggling, snowmobile groups within the state, each battling for what few bucks they could convince the DNR to release, but total amounts were far less than adequate to meet the needs. True, things were much less expensive back in the day, and once the MSA took over as the primary snowmobile organization for the state, those involved set about connecting as many of the small loops and sections of trail already in existence, as well as establishing committees, and one or two individuals appointed to head up those groups, their primary purpose being to develop a trail system and a means to fund the maintenance of it.
The Steering Committee was charged with coordination of trail related activities with DNR personnel, and work toward a common goal of trails for the safe enjoyment of snowmobilers. A committee worked to set up a funding formula and lobbied the state legislators to pass legislation governing, and regulating, snowmobile use. MSA was instrumental in getting the gas tax rebate for snowmobilers, and meager though it was, it provided adequate funding to proceed with the long range goals of developing a premier trails system throughout the state, and in both upper and lower peninsulas. That goal has been achieved long ago, but with every passing year, the cost of maintaining these trails has increased dramatically, and has been increasing continuously at a faster pace than available funding can provide for. Fast forward a few years….
When the first actual and approved grooming program was implemented, cost of a grooming tractor was about seventy-five thousand dollars and a drag somewhere between three and five thousand each, but it sure beat the use of old bed springs that first were used. The Steering Committee labored long and hard to establish some sort of reimbursement schedule for those grant sponsors who were, for the most part, donating their time and in a good many cases, their own money to finance the purchase of a grooming machine. The original agreement was a 60%-40% split with the program picking up sixty percent of the cost and the sponsor responsible for the rest.
Some years later, the Steering Committee became the Snowmobile Advisory Committee, or SAC, and in just the next few years, with the assistance of the snowmobile manufacturers, some very dedicated individuals who were employed by the state in the Department of Natural Resources, and many very devoted members who could see the advantages of working to make the trails longer, safer, and more abundant, Michigan became the “go-to” state as a model for other snow-belt states to copy. But all this takes money to accomplish, and the present funding sources just weren’t keeping up with the cost. Let’s get a bit closer to present day times…
Approximately a decade and a half ago, MSA leadership sat down with those in financial control of the program within the DNR, and through some very diligent negotiations, hammered out a ten year plan that should have raised the necessary funding to keep the program solvent, and the Trail Permit was initiated beginning with just $10 and increasing by five dollars every other year or so until the cap was reached, to keep pace with the rising expense of doing business, and on the surface it appeared to be a solid solution. What wasn’t counted on was the rapid increase in steel prices and consequently, a huge jump in the price of equipment. Several sponsors made their concerns known about being unable to continue at the current amount of matching funds required from them. The DNR responded to the advice of the SAC and adjusted the 60/40 to a 75%-25% match. As much as this helped, it was still akin to covering a severed artery with a band-aid and not very useful.
As it became more and more evident that conditions weren’t getting any better, and even with the additional funding derived from the Trail Permits, we were never going to catch up. Snowmobilers united in sending requests to Lansing to allow the snowmobile program to increase the price of the permits, but then governor Granholm and the majority of legislators rejected every proposal saying “no tax increases”, and as hard as we tried to explain that it wasn’t a tax, we were asking for permission to raise the prices to ourselves, it was impossible to change their minds. It was about this time that governor Granholm abolished several committees and councils, including the Snowmobile Advisory Committee, leaving snowmobilers without an avenue to approach Lansing other than the MSA, so that organization launched a statewide survey. Through that survey, the majority of snowmobilers participating voted to do whatever necessary to achieve our goal, so a massive letter writing campaign was initiated and flooded the governor’s office with mail. The outcome was a request to call off this initiative and we were permitted to proceed with our projected fund-raising plans. In the meantime, a new trails group, titled the Michigan Snowmobile & Trails Advisory Council which encompassed a cross-section of all trail users was established… later the word “snowmobile” was removed from the title at the request of the other user groups, for equality reasons, and the Snowmobile Advisory Workgroup (SAW) was appointed as a sub-committee of the MTAC.
A revised formula dictated continued incremental increases in the purchase price of Trail Permits would be necessary, a new cap of $45 was established, and with the assistance of some snowmobile friendly state lawmakers, legislation was proposed and sponsored, negotiated and massaged, and eventually passed by both Senate & House and signed into law, but with a sunset clause which took effect at the end of the 2015-2016 season, after which trail permit pricing would dictated by the annual CPI, which the SAW and MSA members assumed would be enough to bail us out and make the program solvent, at least for the foreseeable future. Imagine our dismay then, when the expanded figures were made public, and the current cost per permit increased just three dollars, from the $45 it has been for the past several years to $48… a drop in the bucket when one considers other costs have increased three to four times that amount, and as it stands, the program continue to see a shortfall. So where does that leave us, the snowmobilers, and our snowmobile program? The answer is, of course, still deep in the RED, and as an old friend of mine once said… “when you find yourself in a hole too deep to get out of, you should stop digging”! Well now, the question to be asked I guess is, how do we survive under these conditions, and what is the solution to this dilemma?
Obviously, the answers have, so far, eluded us… not only the members of the SAW, but of the DNR officials as well, and to date the state legislature has rejected every proposal presented to them. I guess I should clarify that last statement by saying that is not entirely true, since the total legislature hasn’t had an opportunity to see and accept or reject them. The truth is we have been unable, to date, to find a single Senator or Representative to sponsor any of the proposals, stating again that to do so in an election year would not be in their best interests, and would be viewed by many voters as an unnecessary tax increase. The question we need to ask ourselves, and seek accurate & justifiable answers to is, “is a trail permit increase really necessary… and if so, how do we convince our state legislators that it is?
Obviously, for the first of the two-part question the members of MSA and most avid snowmobilers believe it is, and the answers received are as varied as the snow depths in various parts of the state in January. Many have said the program should stop the madness and just follow Canadian guidelines, increasing the fee to one hundred dollars or more so we don’t have to revisit the problem every few years. Others, though very meager in number, still feel that the trail permit should be abolished and riders permitted to use the trails free of charge, of course, they stop short of any suggestion on how to keep the trails smooth and safe for everyone to use, so one can be fairly certain that this scenario won’t be happening anytime soon.
The MSA has been in meetings with DNR officials for quite some time, primarily because we’ve seen this coming for a while now, and partly because we, like a majority of snowmobilers, don’t want to lose any more trails or see the trails system deteriorate. In the latest meetings, a new ten year budget has been looked at, and all agree that a trail permit fee increase to sixty dollars is needed for the program to break even, but any trail permit increase will need to be introduced into legislation and pass both the house & the Senate, and as stated previously, we’ve been unable so far to convince any legislators to sponsor such a measure. We have been talking of individual costs of trail permits to this point… let’s look at the big picture, and approximate cost to the program every season.
What most snowmobilers, and other trail user groups, don’t seem to realize is that for the past several years the program has been operating in a near deficit condition, and quite honestly the future isn’t looking much better. Consider the facts… Annual revenue to the State Snowmobile Program is somewhere between eight and ten million dollars. The variance is due, in part, to the number of trail permits sold, the number of valid snowmobile registrations each year, and the amount of revenue received in the 2% fuel tax rebate for recreational use. Of that 2%, the snowmobile program receives 14%, which amounts to just over two million. This past season just over 128,000 trail permits were sold which amounted to just less than six million dollars, but this is about a five percent decrease from the year previous and a loss of almost three hundred thousand dollars. What is more distressing is the fact that this has been happening every year for the past five years or more and the loss in revenue continues to increase while the cost of doing business still goes up. To the uninformed, it may appear that the program has plenty of money, but nothing could be farther from the truth. Let’s take a look at the expense involved with necessary preparation and maintenance of the trails every year.
When one considers the cost of preparing the entire trails system by cutting back the brush and overgrowth, and installing the appropriate signs for directions and amenities, that’s an annual expense of just over a half million in itself. Then just maintaining the trails by constant grooming to provide the smooth and safe surface during the months of designated snowmobile season is another six to seven million dollars. The DNR extracts a tidy sum of approximately one and a half million for Operational Overhead. So… a rough total of program expenses is between eight and nine million dollars annually, and I’m sure there are other expenses not referenced here. But we haven’t even considered the expense involved with periodic maintenance, breakdowns, and repairs to grooming equipment, or for the Comprehensive and Liability Insurance which is necessary, all to the tune of about two million or so, and also continues to increase every year.
Currently, the program has 189 grooming machines and associated apparatus throughout the state, the majority of which is aging and either reaching or has already reached the point where they should be replaced. Unfortunately, the price of even an entry level tractor is near a quarter of a million dollars, not counting the additional expense required to adapt it to the terrain where it will be utilized. With this in mind, the equipment presently in service keeps getting older and is generally more susceptible to breakdowns and more maintenance dollars must be set aside to take care of these conditions. The program was initially designed to replace nine or ten tractors every season, thereby maintaining a fleet of efficient grooming equipment. For the past several seasons, the program has been financially unable to purchase more than one or two new pieces of equipment, and consequently the fleet just keeps getting older and increasing costs to the program.
If one takes the time to add up the available funding and subtract the expenses, it’s not hard to see that the program, and ultimately the snowmobile trails system, is in real trouble. In the Draft 10 Year Budget (2016 – 2026) using only the projected 1% – 2% CPI annually, we will never be able to get ahead of the curve and the end result will still show a deficit condition of nearly a quarter of a million dollars. That is why the Michigan Snowmobile Association is asking for a significant increase in the Trail Permit fees now! Yes, an increase to sixty dollars for a trail permit will put an additional strain on the pocketbook of enthusiasts who own multiple snowmobiles and for a few even for a single one, but if we do not take the initiative and do something to offset these costs, hypothetically trails will eventually have to go ungroomed, maintenance will more than likely become less frequent, and trails will begin to deteriorate before our very eyes. When and if this happens, both the state and federal forest roads that we use for trails will become impassible over time and authority to use them no longer an option, as will those trails that private landowners have permitted on their properties. This scenario paints a pretty grim picture, but it doesn’t have to come to a reality.
That, in a nutshell, is why we need a trail permit fee increase, or convince Michigan Tourism to release some of the dollars they claim as a return on dollars spent for the Pure Michigan campaign to support the snowmobile program. Snowmobiling has become the most popular winter tourist draw to the state, and yet Pure Michigan has yet to recognize it as such, or consider it worthy of any financial support. But back to the Trail Permit issue, under present conditions without an increase, we are heading down that slippery slope to failure, and like it or not without one we are going to lose more miles of trail and the continuity within the system that we have grown to expect and rely on. Sixty dollars is not the final answer to this dilemma, nor will it be the last time snowmobilers will be asked to come to the financial support of the program, but it will provide an immediate safety net with which the SAW can use as we seek a more permanent solution. From more than three decades ago to the present, the innovations and improvements to our trails systems have been astronomical, but looking toward the future, if nothing is done, by the year 2025 (the 9th year of the proposed budget) we may well be asking… Where have our trails gone?