Snow, Thaws, and Late Season Riding — A Look at Last Year’s Snowmobile Season!

SEPTEMBER 2018

Last year’s snowmobile season was an interesting one. It started out slow in December, with not much snow early in the month. We did have snow for Christmas in the Upper Peninsula and in the Northern Lower Peninsula. The rest of the state lagged in terms of snow fall.

It did started snowing in January, which built into a nice base for riders everywhere. It was on Jan. 14 that we had the January thaw. Michigan’s January thaws normally only last for two or three days. This one lasted for two weeks. Trails were hit hard by the thaw in the U.P, and wiped out in the Northern Lower. When it finally turned cold, it snowed and all state trails were opened back up by the first of February. Snowmobilers were rocking and rolling again.

It was on Feb. 13 that the dreaded February thaw hit us. It only lasted a couple of days, but wiped out snow in the  entire Lower Peninsula. Snowmobiling was done in the Lower Peninsula. Luckily, it continued in the U.P. because of heavy snow.

Was the Season Really Over?

So just when we thought our riding season was over on March 31, April came and gave us plenty of snow across the state. We could have continued riding for another two weeks. However, our season only legally runs from Dec. 1 to March 31.

Our state trail coordinators had never seen this happen before (remember we were always in Forest Management until 2010 when the program was transferred to the Parks and Recreation Division). The state trail coordinators were open to extending our season in April. However, all private land leases end on March 31, so we couldn’t legally open tails other than those on state land.

There was not a good policy in place allowing us to keep them open, so we opted to close them. There were some trails on public land that were kept open. Trails in Grand Marais, Munising, and the Keweenaw area were open and groomed by grant sponsors at their own expense. Some trails along Lake Superior were actually open until the end of April.

I would like to assure you that there is now a policy being put in place that would allow our trails to remain open beyond April 1. The Michigan Trails Advisory committee has approved this policy, and it has been sent to state trails coordinator for language cleanup.

How Many Trail Permits Were Sold?

Taking into account this fairly good season, trail permit purchases were up. Last season 140,971 trail permits were sold. This was up more than 10,000 permits from the year before. In 2017 130,366 trail permits were sold, which was down by only 132. Trail permits cost $48, of which $46.53 went directly into the Snowmobile Trail Improvement Fund — $6,559,381.

Those trail permit dollars were collected last year, so funds were put into the trail improvement account last year. For the upcoming 2019 season the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) had lowered our budget appropriation based on a conservative thought that we would not sell as many trail permits in 2018 as the 2017 season.

So that means we have another $435,000 in our account. That amount will have to be asked for in a supplemental request for funding from the state legislature. Again, it comes down to relationships we make with the DNR, who will have to request it and the new legislature that will have to approve it.

We can’t spend those funds until the legislature approves it.  As easy as that sounds, in this political nightmare society we are in, it’s not always that easy.

Any additional funds appropriated won’t be available until  June or July 2019. MSA will be sitting down with budget officials within the Parks and Recreation division to make sure our requests for 2020 season are made. We have developed good relationships with these state officials and feel confident they will listen.

Another number to consider is the number of registered snowmobiles. At one point Michigan had the most registered snowmobiles in the U.S. After the recession, this state lost 100,000 registered snowmobilers. Since then the state has been hovering around 200,000 registered sleds

Grooming Equipment Purchases

Six pieces of equipment for the coming snowmobile season were purchased, totaling $1,298.081.37.  New Equipment will be purchased for the following areas:

  1. Keweenaw Trails Inc. –  Pisten Bully 400
  2. Moose Country – Tucker Terra 2000
  3. Alger Sorva – John Deere w/ Zuidburg Tracks
  4. Grand Marais – Pisten Bully Trail Bully
  5. Paradise Area Night Riders –  Pinoth Husky
  6. Chippewa Snow Chasers – Pisten Bully Trail Bully

We also have written summer major repair of equipment amendments that total $330,804.30, so the equipment purchase total stands at $1,628,885.67.

It is important to remember that the cost of that grooming equipment has and will continue to increase. Four years ago, the average piece of equipment (tractor) came in at $225,000. Due to new tier-four diesel engines (Environmental Protection Agency rules), increased steel, and increased production costs the equipment averages $265,000 per unit. One of the pieces of equipment purchased for the grant sponsors listed above came in at $280,000.

Trails Groomed in 2018

The total number of miles groomed by Michigan’s 68 grant sponsors was 351,865, which was an increase of 24,463 miles more than the 2017 season.

In 2017, 327,402 miles were groomed, and in 2016 328,627 miles were groomed. That was down from 440,067 groomed during the 2015 season. In 2014, 585,258 miles were groomed.

The grooming rate for the 2018 season was $ 4.59 per mile. The cost of fuel increased by $.15 cents per mile over last year. This cuts into the funds available to buy equipment at the end of the season.

Just consider the number of miles groomed  — 351,865 x $4.59 =$1,615,061 was spend just for fuel, groomer regular maintenance, and other expenses related to the equipment.

The average diesel fuel rate will be looked at again on Dec. 1 for the 2019 season

Other program costs include brushing in the fall, signing per the DNR specifications, and grooming all winter long. The total cost for all of this was $?????? million.

Other costs involved in the program include brushing and signing, insurance, trail leasing, and snowplowing the staging areas, equipment repair, special maintenance, trail reroutes, bridge and culvert repair, and the list goes on from there.

Snowmobile Fatalities

Last year there were 14 snowmobile-related fatalities. That is up from six the year before. Let me stress one loss of life, is one too many. The majority of the crashes were off-trail. In 2016 Michigan had 25 snowmobile fatalities, which was the highest number since 2010 when 26 people died.

While speed and alcohol continue to be the leading causes of the majority of snowmobile crashes, MSA believes that the lower numbers prove that the Safe Riders! You Make Snowmobiling Safe! campaign and the Zero Tolerance! initiative is working.  MSA continues to promote Zero Tolerance! while out on the trail. Please don’t drink and ride!

Trying to Continue Providing Great Trails

Although this all sounds like good news, we still need to remember that when MSA worked to get trail permit increases in place back in 2006, those increases were based on those higher trail permit numbers, and so was the budget for buying equipment, signing, brushing trails, grooming, and maintaining the fleet of groomers!

MSA now has a 10-year plan in place, with realistic trail permit numbers. Those involved in the snowmobile program are doing a much better job of looking at finances and actual costs. We are making the dollars we have work.

Know that MSA, the grant sponsors, and volunteers are all working hard to continue and provide great trails in this state. It hasn’t been easy, but we will continue to work hard on your behalf.

Two important things to also keep in mind are our upcoming elections and the devastation that took place in the Western U.P. on July 20. Both could affect our snowmobile program

Sixty percent of our state senate is up for election and one-third of house is up for election. MSA will have to work to education those new legislators on the economic impact of snowmobiling in Michigan. Also, storm damage to trails will take money to get them operational. Look to future issues of the Michigan Snowmobile News for more information on both of these topics.

What Is the Snowmobile Trail Improvement Program?

The Snowmobile Trail Improvement Fund provides funding to maintain snowmobile trails as part of the designated statewide trail system. Grant funds are available for three purposes.

  1. Seasonal grooming and general maintenance of snowmobile trails.
  2. Special maintenance projects that improve the condition and/or access to trails.
  3. Replacement of equipment used for maintaining trails