Half of Michigan’s snowmobile trails exist on private property, and use of these trails is at the sole discretion of the landowner. Trails are being lost and continually rerouted.
That is why more than 14 years ago, the first discussions regarding establishing a permanent snowmobile trail program took place. Back in 2001 your Michigan Snowmobile Association (MSA) leadership saw the writing on the wall, and started those discussions.
It was then that MSA began the process of lobbying legislators, discussing an action plan, and working toward getting a permanent trails easement program in place in Michigan.
Dozens of legislative articles have appeared in the pages of this magazine regarding permanent trails and funding mechanisms for those trails. Known for years by organized snowmobiling as the Snow Country Trails Conservancy, this 501(c)(3) organization is finally at a point where applications are being solicited. Yes, a process to buy permanent snowmobile trail easements is in place.
In fact some easement purchases are expected to take place during this fiscal year (the state’s fiscal year ends on Sept. 30).
There is currently $2.5 million in the Permanent Snowmobile Trail Fund. The appropriation for 2016 is $140,000.
With this reality upon us, it is important to remember how it all began. It is important to recall the extensive work MSA did in leading, supporting, and lobbying for a permanent snowmobile trail program in Michigan.
In the Beginning…
In 2002 large paper companies in Michigan started selling off large tracts of nonproductive land. Snowmobile trails were being rerouted off these lands to maintain continuity. Trails were being lost.
At that time MSA started working with in clubs in the Upper Peninsula, local businesses, the National Forest Service, and the Department of Natural Resources (DNR). Meetings were held to develop a plan of action to keep our trails from moving or being closed.
In 2003 MSA lobbied Congress and the National Forest Service, asking that money be added to the Ottawa National Forest to purchase some of the property to avert trail closure. MSA also had meetings with the local townships and villages that usually oppose the forest purchases due to lost tax revenue. MSA was able to show these local officials an increase in revenue because of snowmobiling and the need to keep trails open.
It was in 2003 that MSA and the committee put a plan together to create the Snow Country Trails Conservancy. With the SCTC now in place, the committee started an inventory of the private land connectors in the upper and lower peninsulas. This took place in 2004.
How Can Permanent Trails Be Funded?
In 2005 the committee put together a “plan” on how the SCTC would solicit funds to purchase easements for properties. Other discussions included how to approach landowners, and how to make use of land companies to ensure that the landowner felt protected. The committee also set a width for the trail easement as well as standards to give the landowner when the easement is used and when the clubs may gain access.
A year later, in 2006, the committee realized that no matter how many fundraisers the SCTC held it would never raise enough money to fund the purchase of any substantial amounts of easements or property. The “plan” was then revised to include a funding mechanism. Snowmobilers in Michigan would pay an additional amount for their snowmobile registrations. These funds would be used to create a Permanent Trail Fund.
MSA began working on this with our advocate and a few key legislators in January 2007. The proposal was to increase the three-year snowmobile registrations from $22 to $30. The increase would be used to create the Permanent Snowmobile Trail Easement account.
At that time, the new DNR director and staff lobbied against the legislation because SCTC would hold the easements. The DNR also did not like the language in the legislation because the funds raised could only be used for permanent snowmobile trails, not for other things.
It was a long and contentious fight to get the legislation passed through all of the committee hearings. In December 2008 MSA and organized snowmobiling won. Legislation was passed, and the Permanent Snowmobile Trail Easement account was approved. We had a permanent trails easement funding mechanism in place.
The law contained language that called for a set of Administrative Rules to be attached to the legislation. These rules would be guidelines for the DNR to follow when spending the money collected through snowmobile registrations
For two years after that (2009-10) MSA pushed for the approval of Administrative Rules for this Permanent Snowmobile Trail Easement account. These rules govern how the money will be collected and expended.
Since the DNR administration was against the legislation in the first place, we went back to MSA’s plan and adapted what we wanted in these Administrative Rules.
After about 18 months, the Rules were finally approved the way MSA wanted them, and became part of the spending requirement of the plan.
A Change in Attitudes — Becoming Partners
A new governor took office in 2011, and that meant new heads of the DNR and Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ). With those new directors, came a new philosophy about how to handle constituents. It went from a “NO” attitude toward snowmobiling to a partnership with us. It also became clear that it was going to take a while to get all of the puzzle pieces in place, so permanent trails were put on hold.
In 2012 MSA was told by our state trails coordinator that before any money could be paid out for permanent trail easements, an application had to be in place. We were told that the application had to be approved by the Attorney General’s office.
Also, as part of the new alignment of the state divisions within the DNR, the whole snowmobile program was moved from the Forest Management Division (FMD) to the Parks & Recreation Division (PRD).
The First Permanent Trail Easement
A new program manager addressed members of the Snowmobile Advisory Workgroup (SAW) committee in December 2012. He explained that a major trail closure in the U.P. was about to happen. What was feared back in 2001 was now happening. A private property landowner was selling off land that would close a major trail.
MSA stepped in, and through the SCTC, an agreement was reached with the out-of-state landowner. Through the SCTC, 160 acres were purchased. This property contained the major East West corridor in the U.P, trail 8. MSA pushed the DNR director and he approved this purchase through the SCTC. This was the first purchase using the Permanent Snowmobile Trail Easement account.
In 2013-14 MSA and the SAW committee continued to educate PRD personal about the many facets of the snowmobile program. Things progressed, and one of the items set by the new snowmobile program manager was to find out about the Snowmobile Trail Easement Grant Program application that was being reviewed by the Attorney General’s office. It was then that MSA was made aware that no review was taking place, nor was one required.
Finally in 2015...
Without notice, the state trails coordinator retired in 2015. The DNR program manager also vowed in a SAW meeting to have an application process in place to spend money in the now six-year-old Permanent Snowmobile Trail Easement account
The DNR Program manager was true to his word and in September, the application and process was announced. The application states that the program is for use by 501(c)(3) organizations and local governments to purchase permanent easements for snowmobile trails.
The big question MSA has is, “Why on the application does it not state what is written in the law approved in 2008?” In that law it states, “To be eligible for a grant, an entity shall be a local unit of government or be organized for educational and charitable purposes within the meaning of 26 USC 501(c)(3) that includes promoting and facilitating the expansion and improvement of the existing snowmobile trail system in this state with permanent snowmobile trails.”
The application being used just states that those applying for funds can be a local government or a 501(c)(3).
At Year’s End
To make sure funds are used for, “promoting and facilitating the expansion and improvement of the existing snowmobile trail system in this state with permanent snowmobile trails” MSA and the SAW committee continues to ask questions..
In October the SAW committee asked the DNR to put together a review committee for the Snowmobile Trail Easement Grant Program application. They also asked that a member of SAW be placed on that committee. In December the SAW committee met again and was informed that the DNR has received more requests for permanent trail funds than the money appropriated in this year’s budget. The SAW again asked the DNR about the review committee, who is on it, and when they planned to meet. I was appointed the SAW committee’s representative to the Snowmobile Trails Easement Grant Program application review committee.
The end result — members of SAW will become the watch dog for this program. We will making sure easements that are purchased with these funds are used for “promoting and facilitating the expansion and improvement of the existing snowmobile trail system in this state with permanent snowmobile trails.”
MSA will be making sure the Snowmobile Trail Easement Grant Program is being run and administered correctly. The money in this fund is another example of how snowmobilers pay their way. Funds in this program are paid by snowmobilers and MSA intends to make sure they are used to benefit permanent trails in this state.