ESCANABA - The ATV/ORV riding industry has continued to grow in Michigan, with most focus on expansion to the northern Lower Peninsula and Upper Peninsula.
There are nearly 195,000 annual ATV/ORV license permits issued each year, unfortunately the money derived from that source has not kept pace with the cost of expansion.
A study performed through Michigan State University illustrates the popularity and revenue potential of the trails, routes and public areas available to ride an ATV/ORV in the north by southern Lower Michigan residents, where a greater number of machines are registered.
One advantage the U.P. has over the range to the south is that State Forest Roads are open unless posted closed. Just the opposite (closed unless posted open) is present in the northern LP.
Studies also indicate that had the sticker price for annual licensure been following inflation, the cost per unit today would be at approximately $35.00.
In January of this year, Governor Snyder recommended an increase to $35.00. While appreciated, the amount seemed too much for many to bite off all in one year.
The Michigan ATV/ORV Advisory Work Group, part of the Michigan Trail Advisory Council, recommended a lesser increase and a change in distribution of funds from the Michigan Recreational Improvement Fund (RIF) to fill in other financial short comings.
The Recreational Improvement Fund is part of Public Act 451, Part 711, and as such provides money raised from a portion of the gasoline tax to be allocated for eligible programs.
Even though ATV/ORV riders consume a large amount of gasoline and pay the same taxes on that gas that other recreational users do, no money from the account is openly allocated back to the ATV/ORV program.
According to section 324.71108 of the law, sub-section (2), Money in the recreation improvement account shall be distributed as follows:
(a) Eighty percent of the money shall be annually transferred to the waterways account.
(b) Fourteen percent of the money shall be annually transferred to the snowmobile account.
(c) The remainder of the money that is not transferred under subdivisions (a) and (b) shall be used, upon appropriation, for recreation projects and for the administration of the recreation improvement account. Of the money credited to the recreational projects in a fiscal year, not less than 25% shall be expended on projects to repair damages as a result of pollution, impairment, or destruction of air, water, or other natural resources, or the public trust in air, water, or other natural resources, as a result of the use of off-road vehicles.
Additionally, there has been a program in place and administered through the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (MDNR) that issued grants from RIF for the sole purpose of paying for the cost of operation, maintenance and development of recreation trails and restoration of lands damaged by off-road vehicles and inland lake cleanup.
If there was an assured 10% annual allocation of money from the Recreational Improvement Fund for ATV/ORV program support, it is believed we could forestall the recommended increase, only raising it $9.25 to $25.50 per license. The amount is projected to erase a looming October 1st budget deficit of $640,000 and provide a carry-over of one million dollars for the next fiscal year.
Those who use their ATV/ORVs for riding exclusively on their own land would remain exempt from having to purchase any license. Any use of public land, trail, route or roadway open for use would require an annual license.
To make an annual allocation of money from the Recreational Improvement Fund to ATV/ORV seemed appropriate and was considered along with three other pieces of legislation under consideration in this State Legislature. Unfortunately, the legislature has taken the position that in order to amend the allocation of any of the Recreational Improvement Fund, it would have to be part of a ballot issue, decided by the voting public.
In as much as the use of the Recreational Improvement Fund already allows use of money for ATV/ORV needs, and, if in fact the legislature cannot take money away from that already allocated to waterways and/or snowmobiles, then why aren't they working in chambers to get the necessary two-thirds majority support and have the issue on this November ballot?
Four important pieces of legislation are tied to this issue and include opening (small sections of) Michigan Highways and road bridges. This will allow connection of major trails across the UP in all directions. They will also adjust fines for penalties and indirectly adjust educational programs related to ATV/ORV safety.
Law also requires Michigan to operate on a balanced budget. If action is not taken by the legislature in this session, to either use the $25.50 annual license fee to bridge financing needs and then pursue the re-allocation of RIF money, or pursue the later this year and address a license increase next year, there will be no choice but to start cutting the program.
On July 4th, there will be a lot of glad handing at parades and events by candidates seeking your support for election or re-election to office. That would be a good time to ask them where they stand on the issue and encourage them to do the right thing a keep a good thing going for Michigan.
Tim Kobasic is the outdoors editor for KMB Broadcasting and host/producer for Tails & Trails Outdoor Radio, aired on six radio stations over three networks, Charter Communications cable and the Internet on Saturday mornings.