Farm Horizons, December 2013

Snowmobile trail system a product of landowners, local clubs, state working together

By Matt Kane

When the weather turns cold and a thick blanket of snow covers the state of Minnesota, it doesn’t mean it is time to hunker down for a long winter for many Minnesotans. That often means the fun is just beginning.

Cold temperatures and snow means it’s time to put on the snowmobile suit, boots, helmet, and gloves and rev up the snowmobile for another season of winter riding.

While maintaining a sled is concern for most snowmobilers, many volunteers are also concerned with maintaining and grooming the more than 20,000 miles of trails in the state of Minnesota.

The task of preparing trails begins long before the rope is ever pulled to start a snow machine. It starts with planning improvements and purchasing equipment, and with forming agreements with landowners.

These tasks are all performed by the state’s 261 local clubs that are grouped together, usually by county, into regions, or sponsors. The local clubs provide the grooming and maintenance of the trails for the sponsor, which is funded through the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources through a program called Grant-In-Aid (GIA).

According to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) website, the GIA program was founded in 1973, when the Minnesota legislature “delegated the responsibility of administering a cost-sharing program for the development and maintenance of snowmobile trails to the DNR.”

“We help the DNR by putting up trails in our communities. In return, the DNR funds us or gives us a grant,” said John Berning, the trail administrator for the Wright County Snowmobile Association (WCSA), a sponsor, which is made up of seven local clubs. “The grants go toward operations costs; and it could be used for buying insurance for equipment, purchasing equipment, and purchasing fuel. Fuel is a big expense for us.”

The tractors and equipment each local club uses to groom trails is provided by the sponsors.

WCSA cares for 240 GIA trails, and another 20 miles of trails waiting to become GIA trails.

WCSA is made up of seven local clubs: Buffalo Snow Riders, Cokato Ridge Ridgers, Delano Snowstormers, Foxtailers Snowmobile Club, Monticello Trail Blazers, Otsego River Riders, and Rockford Ridge.

Carver County receives grant money for 93.2 miles of trails. The sponsor is Southwest Trails. Its clubs are the Carver County Snowrunners, Chaska Sno-Hawks, and the Carver County Braaaapters, a youth club sponsored by the Snowrunners and Sno-Hawks.

McLeod County receives grant money for 160.3 miles of trails. The sponsor is the Crow River Snowmobile Trails, and its clubs are the Crow River Sno Pros and the Hutchinson Drift Riders.

Meeker County receives grant money for 123.3 miles for trails. Its sponsor is the Meeker County Trails.

The state of Minnesota has 21,372.17 miles of GIA snowmobile trails and another 1,000 miles of state-owned trails.

“It is the most comprehensive interconnected trail system,” said Nancy Hanson, business coordinator for Minnesota United Snowmobilers Association (MnUSA), which is based in Brooklyn Park.

MnUSA works at the state level in representation of the sponsors, who represent the local clubs. It also works with the State of Minnesota, and Explore Minnesota, the state’s tourism organization.

Of course, GIA trails regularly run across private property. The use of that property is donated by landowners to the local snowmobile club, which then posts signs and prepares the trials during the offseason, and grooms the trail during its active season. Granting a club property to use for a trail has its benefits to the landowner.

“If they are snowmobilers, it is very convenient,” said Hanson. “Also, the state statute protects them if they sign the permit to allow the public on their property.”

Statute 604A, Section 20-27 protects the landowner, legally, against any potential lawsuits that may arise from riders.

“(GIA) is a very good program. Everything I have seen in lawsuits, the landowner has been dismissed,” Hanson said. “There is a much bigger benefit to having a trail permit on the property as opposed to having trespass issues.”

The state-owned trails are maintained and groomed solely by the State of Minnesota and the DNR.

Locally, the Luce Line Trail is one such trail. The other state-owned trails are Arrowhead, Blazing Star, Brown’s Creek, C.J. Ramstad/North Shore, Casey Jones, Central Lakes, Cuyuna, Douglas, Gateway, Gitchi-Gami, Glacial Lakes, Goodhue, Great River, Harmony-Preston Valley, Heartland, Matthew Lourey, Minnesota Valley, Paul Bunyan, Root River, Sakatah, Shooting Star, Taconite, and Willard.

A 2013 rate zone map of Minnesota on the DNR web site indicates that the 18-county zone that includes Wright, McLeod, Meeker, and Carver, as well as the Twin Cities area, receives $310 per mile of trail for maintenance through the GIA program. The state is divided into nine rate zones.

The grant money comes from the snowmobile registration fees and from a percentage of the gas tax. The amount of aid money the state dishes out fluctuates in accordance to the number of snowmobiles registered in the state of Minnesota.

In other words, when snowmobilers do not register their sleds, which is often the case during winters with little snow, that directly affects the funds available for grant aid.

“The snowmobilers pay for the trails they use,” said Hanson. “We need more people to register.”

To receive aid from the state, clubs or sponsors must to maintain trails in a accordance to program requirements.

Each club must provide landowner permission documentation, proof of the club’s nonprofit status, invoices for repair expenditures, volunteer work logs, grooming logs, a backup grooming plan, updates on current trail alignments, permits and environmental approval documents, trail contract forms, application with attachments and benchmark forms, and a sponsor resolution.

Clubs are also encouraged to carry liability insurance to protect their volunteers, and a contract between with the sponsor.

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