How the snowmobile trail system works

ESCANABA — Winter is an important season to the recreation/tourism economy of the Upper Peninsula and like any other natural resource element, can rapidly impact whether or not seasonal opportunities will result in success or failure.

The increased amount of rainfall last autumn, combined with higher than normal temperatures as winter began, hindered the opening of the snowmobile season to the north. Even with a fair amount of lake effect snowfall, getting the trail system to freeze up where a base could be established took a long time. In a couple of instances, bypass routes or temporary bridges had to be installed due to a poor ground story. Such instances are not only an inconvenience, they are often times very costly to the program in general.

Like any other cooperative enterprise, the sport of snowmobiling is made up of interactive agencies and businesses. The designated trail system in Michigan is managed by the Department of Natural Resources (MDNR) and funded through end users who buy use licenses. The revenue from those sales is committed for use in support of the program and constitutionally protected from diversion for other use.

The Michigan Snowmobile Association (MSA) is a member funded cooperative of local clubs and individual members at large who have interest as a user and/or volunteer organization that participates in the development and care of the designated trail network throughout the state. As an non-profit incorporated entity, MSA works with the legislature, MDNR, insurance companies, manufacturing and tourism industry, to make adjustments as required or proposed in the interest of its membership. The affiliated clubs of MSA are charged with sponsorship of the designated trails.

Trails sponsors have grown in importance to the snowmobile riding industry of Michigan. They consider and specify standards of trail grooming equipment purchased through the available funds and participate in purchasing on behalf of the MDNR. Each club takes possession of the groomers and is thus responsible for not only use, but upkeep as well. How the groomers are used is set through specific handbook rules mutually agreed to by the state and users. Their sponsorship is compensated by the miles of trails each club maintains. Maintenance goes beyond grooming as it includes seasonal preparation involving brushing back excessive vegetation to meet width standards, removal of hazards and installation and replacement of appropriate signage for trail identification as confidence markers, and standard safety warning signs at road cross points. It also involves post-season clean-up.

In essence, the snowmobile use system in Michigan is a very transparent and protected public/private program.

A lot of the designated snowmobile trails here in the U.P. are multi-use systems that allow other motorized and non-motorized uses during the dry season which include spring, summer and fall. Some actually ban other motorized use after Dec. 1, in order for the clubs to set up and maintain them for exclusive use by snowmobiles. ATV/ORV users are asked to respect the snowmobilers and work done on the trails by staying off while snowmobile season is underway. Riders are reminded to stay on trail as well, so that those segments that traverse private land through easements are not interrupted and damaged by rogue riders.

The MSA and MDNR issue weekly updates on the snowmobile trails across the state, providing conditions and bulletins on areas that may be temporarily interrupted, especially is areas where logging operations are underway. As an example, the MSA put out a bulletin regarding the recent warm weather and are asking riders to hold off from riding until temperatures drop back to normal levels and trails are able to re-freeze for grooming.

On a more local level, area clubs and cooperatives have joined to network the same information by use of internet social media. Their postings are usually more specific and often times updated on a daily basis. The system, as established, should provide a safe and enjoyable environment for those who want to get out and enjoy snowmobile riding without failure. Unfortunately there are some who don’t have much respect for the sport and are causing problems that are not only adding excessive costs, but are also creating some hazards due to damages taking place.

The Schoolcraft County Motorized Trails Association maintains a major segment of trail named the Haywire Grade, the very first Rails-to-Trails system that employed abandoned railroad grades for conversion to a multi-use recreational trail system. They have been dealing with delayed opportunity for their trails, including the Haywire, due to low snowfall. A recent snap of low temperatures along with increased lake effect snowfall gave them a kick start to get their trails open. Grooming machines were actually parked near trail heads to expedite operations. Unfortunately, instead of reporting the good news, their most recent posting indicated that someone has deliberately ruined that work.

Their posting stated someone recently accessed the Haywire off highway M-94 in a full-size street vehicle, traveled a distance of seven miles, turned around and returned to the point of entry. The action of one party caused extreme damage to the trail base and will have to be repaired before smooth and safe snowmobile riding can occur. The damage will impact local commerce from Schoolcraft, Luce and Alger Counties, eliminating connection for long distance riders. It will also impair those who live along the grade and use it for access to their recreational area preferences. An additional consideration is how much the repairs and rework of grooming will now cost the general budget for trail maintenance which, when combined with other elements of disruption, are very costly to the program, especially when the license fees are up for consideration.

Everyone plays a role in how our fundamentally based system of recreational opportunities in the natural resources setting succeed. If we are not able to coexist by ethical practices and mutual respect, everyone in one way shape or form in the U.P. suffers.

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Tim Kobasic is the outdoors editor for KMB Broadcasting and host/producer for Trails & Tales Outdoor Radio, aired on six radio stations over three networks, Charter Communications cable and the Internet on Saturday mornings.