Snowmobiling Off Trail – Public or Private?
So you’re riding on a groomed trail and you see some inviting land off trail that begs to be tracked up. We’ve all been there, over and over again. Every one of us likes to tear up the fresh, untracked snow.
Before you peel off the trail and tear it up, you MUST ask yourself – is this land public or private?
If you don’t KNOW the answer, don’t go off the trail!
Pretty simple, eh? So, why is this basic common sense logic so often ignored?
This is an increasing problem, particularly in areas where there is NO public land and FEW off trail riding opportunities, but it is a problem everywhere groomed trails are located. Riders seem to have the idea that if land isn’t posted closed it must be open for them to ride on. NOT! Snowmobilers MUST know if the land they are about to ride onto is public or private, each and every time they decide to go off a groomed or marked trail.
This is the premise upon which we propose to have new trail signs created, so clubs can remind riders who come across such inviting areas. Public or Private? If you don’t know, don’t go!
As a general rule, you are legal to ride on groomed snowmobile trails, on un-plowed forest roads, along most roads in the public right-of-way (ditch) along the road, and on certain public lands. Other than that, you have to assume the land is PRIVATE and to track it up is ILLEGAL trespassing.
So, you go make a few tracks off the trail, big deal, right? This is the exact attitude that gets trails closed. Landowners everywhere are being disrespected by snowmobilers taking liberties and trespassing on their private land, so they tell the trail club to close the trail and go elsewhere. You know how it is, a favorite trail no longer goes where it used to, ever wonder why? In almost every single case, it is because the landowner gets upset with continual trespassing onto their private property. Use of private land is a PRIVLEDGE, not a RIGHT.
What is really troubling is the trail clubs will have such areas clearly marked with “Stay on Trail” signs, but there are sled tracks going off trail all over the place. Since we know the riders can read English, we then know for a fact the riders are simply IGNORING the signs and doing whatever they want to. Why would the club take the time to post such signs? Um, because the trail is on private land and have been told the trail will be closed if the snowmobilers keep going off trail? Hello?
Hate to say it, but this is more of a problem with younger riders than it is older ones, and it is usually more of a problem with out-of-town riders than it is local ones. Generally, but not always. Mature riders do not want their local trails closed, nor do they want to upset their neighbors they live near to. Simple logic here. Younger riders seem to have the “entitlement” attitude where everyone owes them something and they can do as they please, that the rules don’t apply to them. When a snowmobiler knowingly goes off trail onto private land, they are showing disrespect for the landowner, the local club that worked so hard to place the trail, and the sport as a whole.
We see this more and more where we ride in the U.P. of Michigan. For some reason, people think that “off-trail” riding means tearing up the fields next to the groomed trails. If you see an open field next to a groomed trail, it is almost always private property. That is why it is open and not wooded, somebody cleared the land. It should be just as logical that if you can see houses and farms, you are on private land. Pretty basic common sense, but too many snowmobilers seem to be lacking this intelligence.
Even within tracts of public land, there are often smaller pieces of private land grandfathered in that were there long before the national (or state) forest was created. Just because you are in the middle of a great big piece of public land doesn’t mean it is 100% public, rarely is. Snowmobilers need to pay attention. They need to study maps, carry a GPS, and be keen to what sections of trail are located on private land and what sections are on public land.
Moral of the story, know the laws and know the lay of the land where you are going to be riding. Know where the private land ends and where the public land starts. Each and every state or national forest now has land use regulations, it is your responsibility to know what the rules are where you will be riding. Know what is legal and what is not legal to ride. Do not assume an open unless posted closed policy, verify it. What might be acceptable behavior back home for you might not be acceptable behavior where you are going to be riding. It is each rider’s responsibility to know the laws and legalities of snowmobiling in each area they visit.
The future of our sport and groomed trail system depends on this vital compliance. Each year trails are closed, rerouted and made less desirable due to the ignorance of a few. Ride only where legal. Leave your loud exhaust systems at home, as they also cause land owners to close trails. You might think riding a loud machine is your right, but it is not, especially when we are riding on private land. Stay on the trail and forest roads unless you know for a fact the land is open for you to legally ride on. Behavior like this is closing trails for the rest of us. Pretty soon, areas that used to welcome snowmobilers will be pulling up the welcome mat, telling the tourists to stay home. For those of you who don’t remember what it was like to ride back in the 70’s with no groomed trails, you just might get the chance to find out if you continue this behavior.
I would like to think that since you are reading this, you are not part of the problem but part of the solution in doing what we can to educate those less informed. Peer pressure is perhaps the best deterrent, but then again, it is very difficult to control ignorance and stupidity. We must at least try to salvage what we have before it is too late.
Kevin Beilke – Editor https://www.snowtechmagazine.com/snowmobiling-off-trail-public-or-private/
Thank you Kevin! We could not have said it Better! MSA Board of Directors
Death of a Trail……
Establishing a new trail system or even a new trail section may take months, or even years to see it to fruition. It takes only seconds and a stroke of a pen to kill a trail forever. The causes of the trails demise are plentiful. Circumstances such as infrastructure repair or replacement, negative environmental impact, land development, and other factors are somewhat anticipated. But there are also other factors that can be totally avoided. These are the causes that I really want to address.
Trail Closed — Reasons Why!
I recently interviewed several landowners who have graciously allowed us to have access to their land over the years. That is, until those landowners finally decided to pull the plug on allowing us use of their land. For privacy reasons I have not divulged their names or trail systems involved, but they represent a cross section of more than 6,500 miles of trail systems in our state.
Remember, roughly 50 percent of our trails are on private property, 25 percent are on state-owned land, and another 25 percent are on federal land. Some trail areas rely on nearly 100 percent of private land for snowmobiling. If a landowner decides to close his land to snowmobiling, it can be devastating to that community.
Here are just a few quotes from landowners who once allowed snowmobiling on their property:
“I have tried to be patient over the last several years. The trail signs clearly say to stay on the trail. I have even put up my own orange mesh fencing to keep the sleds out of my tree farm. The snowmobiles are constantly running over my new saplings, and I finally had enough. When a sign or fence doesn’t stop them, I don’t think anything will.”
“I own a campground, and the trail ran on my property line for about a quarter mile. When I returned in the spring, every year I constantly had to replace broken faucets that had been run over and broken. Most of these posts and pipes were 100 to 200 yards away from the trail! My restrooms were vandalized. It looks like they even used a couple of my picnic tables to make a jump last winter. I know those responsible don’t represent the entire snowmobile community, but I simply don’t have the time and money to keep fixing things around here. I made the tough decision to pull my lease, and I don’t have nearly the issues I had before.”
“My wife and I own a bread and breakfast inn. Our guests enjoy our home because of the remoteness and beautiful setting that we have here. I have always been a snowmobiler myself and have allowed a section of trail to cross over my property rather than ride along the frontage roadway that is about a half a mile or so from our inn. The loud pipes seem to be getting worse. At 12:30 a.m., that’s the last thing I or my guests want to hear. I had to make a tough decision and post my property prohibiting snowmobiles. Now at least they are a half-mile away, and we can sleep at night.”
“Our department’s engineer recently deemed a bridge unfit for the groomer and snowmobile traffic. We are in the process of finding an alternate route along a roadside, but this may be an issue due to the pavement being recently resurfaced. A temporary bridge has been suggested, and our engineering department is looking at the feasibility. Until this situation is resolved, the trail is closed. We are in the process of trying to come up with a reroute.”
How Can You Help Keep Trails Open?
When a club or snowmobile council has worked so hard for so many years to develop, promote, maintain and enjoy a trail system, it is heart breaking to see it disappear forever. The businesses along these routes really depend on snowmobiling for their lively hood in, many cases. I’m sure we have all seen smaller gas stations, convenience stores, restaurant/bars, and even motels close when the trails are no longer next to them. It’s hard enough when the snowfall totals don’t cooperate, let alone the trails get moved or eliminated completely!
So, what can you and I do? Well, first of all — stay on the trail yourself unless otherwise posted, and always encourage others to do the same. I enjoy riding the back country as much as anyone, but there is a time and a place. If you don’t know –don’t go! Talking to other riders who have loud pipes and are obviously trespassing can be touchy. I have found it best to introduce myself first, ask them if they are a member of MSA or have even heard of MSA, and then politely coach or educate them on the consequences of riding off trail. I have found that when I’m non-confrontational with them, they are willing to listen. Sometimes however, it’s best to let law enforcement deal with the situation, especially if the individual(s) is intoxicated.
Consequences for Breaking the Law
It is also the responsibility of our Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and local law enforcement agencies. I think part of the problem is that their presence is not visible in most cases. There are many reasons for this, usually there is a lack of resources and funding to patrol these trail systems. I personally have always welcomed these officers on the trail and make it a point to stop and chat with them.
Another reason why we continue to have these issues is because there are very little consequences for breaking the law. The laws vary and the penalties are really not a deterrent. When the monetary fine for not having a trail permit is the same as a new trail permit, where is the deterrent? There are mindsets out there that don’t feel that they need to buy a trail permit, can have illegal decibel aftermarket pipes, and ride whenever and wherever they feel like it. After all, they are “entitled” to ride as they see fit.
As we move into the New Year, it is really up to all of us to make sure that the area that we are riding in is protected and preserved. As you groom, sign and brush, or even ride this winter, thank the landowner if you have a chance by slowing down and waving, or even stopping and introducing yourself. Remember, you are a salesperson who is trying to make a future sale — the opportunity to ride through the area once again someday!
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