Farm Horizons, Feb. 2011

Allowing snowmobile trails across property benefits landowners

By Jennifer Kotila
Staff Writer

Minnesota has the second-longest integrated snowmobile trail system in the US, with more than 22,000 miles of groomed snowmobile trails, according to the Minnesota United Snowmobilers Association (MnUSA).

Many of the trails through Minnesota are made possible by landowners who are willing to allow local snowmobile or snowmobile trail associations to create trails across the landowners’ property.

Snowmobile and snowmobile trail associations map, design, construct, mark, groom, and maintain approximately 21,200 miles of trails in Minnesota, with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) maintaining the rest, according to MnUSA.

In 1973, the Minnesota Legislature delegated the responsibility of administering a cost-sharing program for the development and maintenance of snowmobile trails to the DNR.

The purpose of the program, known as the grants-in-aid (GIA) program, was to create and maintain locally initiated trails throughout Minnesota with the financial assistance of the state, according to Mike Carlson, member of the Carver County Snowrunners.

The funding for GIA comes from snowmobile registration, snowmobile trail pass stickers, and 1 percent of the unrefunded gas tax, which represents the tax paid on gas purchased by snowmobilers for non-highway use, according to Ted Pribyl, vice president of the Wright County Snowmobilers Association (WCSA).

GIA is given to associations based on location in the state, average snowfall, length of season, and other criteria.

Any expenses not covered by GIA are paid for by the associations with fundraisers, donations, and charitable gambling, according to MnUSA.

Associations rely heavily on volunteers to provide the labor and tools needed to maintain the trails each winter, as GIA primarily covers only fuel and maintenance for the groomers, according to Carlson.

In Region 8, Southwest Trails Association maintains the trails in Carver County, with members of the Carver County Snowrunners volunteering their help, according to Carver County Snowrunners president Scott Wakefield.

In Wright County, the WCSA maintains the trails with the help of local club volunteers. There are five grooming machines in Wright County, which are operated by club members from the Cokato Ridge Runners, Monticello Trailblazers, St. Michael Foxtailers, Albertville Snowmobile Club, Rockford Ridge Riders, and Delano Snow Stormers, according to Pribyl.

Benefits to landowners

When an association is mapping a trail and it decides the trail should go across private property, it seeks permission from the landowner, according to MnUSA.

For landowners, a groomed and marked trail provides a safe channeling of snowmobile traffic across the property, away from the homestead, livestock, equipment, tile stakes, and culverts, Carlson said.

A landowner giving permission to an association for the use of a strip of land for trail use signs a landowner trail permit, which automatically covers the landowner under Minnesota statute in the unlikely event of a claim resulting from the snowmobile trail on the property, according to MnUSA.

The landowner is also covered by the local associations’ trail liability insurance, which is $1.5 million for WCSA. Landowners are better off being part of the GIA trail system for injured snowmobiler liability purposes, according to Pribyl.

When granting permission to use land for a snowmobile trail, landowners should walk the trail with a representative from the association asking for permission, specifying the exact layout, width, and signage required on the trail, according to MnUSA.

The landowner should also make the representative aware of any gates or fences that need attention, crops that need to be protected, and what work the landowner will allow the association to do for the trail (erecting gates, building bridges or culverts, etc.).

Any agreements should be placed on the site map and also noted in the landowner trail permit, initialed by both parties.

The landowner is not responsible for the trail in any way. Depending on snowfall, snowmobile trails open Dec. 1 and close March 31. Landowners are only granting trail permission during that time period, according to MnUSA.

In the fall, usually after deer hunting season, volunteers from the association check the trails and remove any fallen trees and branches, and sometimes, disc a plowed field if it is too rough, Pribyl said.

Volunteers also erect trail signs indicating where the trail is, and that snowmobile riders are to stay on the trail.

Along with being covered for any injured snowmobiler claims that occur on their property, landowners that allow snowmobile trails to run through their property receive other benefits.

One benefit is having a well-maintained snowmobile trail right out the back door. The presence of a snowmobile trail through the property often adds value to the land at no cost to the landowner, according to MnUSA.

Landowner-approved, association-implemented improvements to the land, such as grading, widening, bridging, and adding culverts, can enhance the landowner’s use of the land during other seasons as well, according to MnUSA.

WCSA also has an annual appreciation dinner for landowners granting the association permission to have a snowmobile trail through their properties.

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