Adam Alexander Photography
Deep in Michigan’s winter woods, it’s becoming more common for snowmobile groomers to discover vehicles stuck in the snow or find ruts left by off-road vehicles.
Add in the fact that outdoor recreation exploded during the COVID-19 pandemic, and it’s creating unintended consequences for Michigan’s motorized trail systems.
Sales of off-road vehicles (ORV), like those of boats and campers, have boomed in the last few years. So has ridership. More inexperienced riders have taken to the trails, while others continue to ride ORVs in the winter, causing problems and safety concerns for Michigan’s snowmobilers and groomer operators.
“This [ORV] group exploded overnight and now we’re going to have to all play catch up to make everybody coexist,” said Karen Middendorp, executive director of Michigan Snowmobile and ORV Association (MISORVA).
House Bill 4535, sponsored by state Rep. Ken Borton (R-Gaylord), would prohibit wheeled vehicles on groomed snowmobile trails from Dec. 1 through March 31. The bill passed the Michigan House 101-2 in October and has moved to the Senate for consideration.
Under the bill, anyone found violating the law would owe a civil fine of up to $200. HB 4536, also introduced by Borton, would ensure the fines are deposited into the Recreational Snowmobile Trail Improvement subaccount.
“The snow in Northern Michigan is perfect for snowmobiling through our forests and fields,” Borton said in a statement. “Each winter, our state organizes trails for this seasonal pastime, and my plan will keep our trails in good shape for snowmobilers to use.”
Snowmobiling drives tourism
Michigan’s network of 6,500 miles of groomed snowmobile trails draws snowmobilers from across the Midwest and the nation. With 3,000 miles of trails in the Upper Peninsula, the region consistently ranks as a top snowmobile destination in North America.
Michigan’s groomed snowmobile trail program is self-funded through snowmobile registrations and trail permits. Those funds are directly reinvested into the trails for the benefit of snowmobilers.
The trails are maintained through a partnership between Michigan’s Department of Natural Resources, Michigan Snowmobile and ORV Association (MISORVA), and local snowmobile clubs, which serve as grant sponsors for land leases and grooming operations. Groomers go out when there is sufficient snow to groom, and they try to build and maintain a base to extend riding into the spring.
Each year, MISORVA sponsors a legislative ride to highlight the importance of snowmobiling. Nationwide, snowmobiling generates an estimated $26 billion of economic activity annually, according to the International Snowmobile Manufacturers Association (ISMA). The winter sport contributes $600 million to Michigan’s economy, Middendorp said.
As off-road vehicles grow in popularity, so do their contributions to the economy. There is less data about ORVs, but a recent report put the global market at $14 billion in 2020, and it is anticipated to reach $18 billion by 2026.
A 2009 Michigan State University study estimated ORVs added $300 million to Michigan’s economy and supported 800 jobs statewide, Middendorp said, noting she thinks it’s now probably closer to $600 million like snowmobiling.
While MISORVA supports both user groups, the association supports HB4535 and is working with lawmakers to see that some version of it passes.
“We’re still in conversations trying to get this right,” Middendorp said. “We want it to be right. We want it to be enforceable. If a law is not enforceable, it doesn’t do you any good. It’s also to protect the grant sponsors who are grooming those trails.”
Local snowmobile clubs across the state work with local landowners to maintain lease agreements. The clubs groom, sign and brush trails, build bridges and culverts, maintain equipment and generally take care of the DNR-designated trail system. The DNR program reimburses clubs for trail maintenance and a certain amount per mile groomed to offset the cost of maintenance and fuel.
“They’re [wheeled vehicles] just tearing snowmobile trails up all over the place,” said Don Britton, chair of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Snowmobile Advisory Workgroup. “In the early season, the side-by-sides and heavier licensed vehicles tear the trails all up, and they freeze that way and it’s hard to get them in shape to be used at snowmobile trails.”
The DNR has taken a neutral stance on HB 4535.
“The bills are a give and take among several groups over trail usage during the snowmobile season,” said Greg Kinser, the DNR Parks and Recreation Division’s northern Lower Peninsula trails coordinator. “We respect the opinion of these groups and we will continue to work to balance access to recreational opportunities for everyone, while working to provide the safest possible trail experience.”
The snow in Northern Michigan is perfect for snowmobiling through our forests and fields. Each winter, our state organizes trails for this seasonal pastime, and my plan will keep our trails in good shape for snowmobilers to use.
– Rep. Ken Borton (R-Gaylord)
Numerous safety concerns
There are several factors driving the legislation to prohibit wheeled vehicles on groomed snowmobile trails from Dec. 1 through March 31, when the snowmobile trails are officially open.
Wheeled vehicles on snowmobile trails pose numerous problems. Safety is the biggest concern. Off-road vehicles encompass all-terrain vehicles (ATVs), such as quads or four wheelers, and utility terrain vehicles (UTVs), including side-by-sides and crossovers. Jeeps, dirt bikes and dune buggies are other types of ORVs.
The groomed snowmobile trails aren’t wide enough for snowmobiles and ORVs to pass each other safely, especially in wooded areas with hills and blind corners. Plus, it’s dangerous if a snowmobile’s skis get caught in an ORV’s tracks.
“The major issue is the danger because the wheeled vehicles are so much wider and heavier,” Middendorp said.
If a groomer meets a vehicle or side-by-side on a trail, there isn’t room to get around it.
“A lot of the ORVs like to ride them in the wintertime and in the snow, and the best place to ride them is on groomed trails because they have been flattened out,” said Jim Maike Jr., who is an avid ORV rider, snowmobiler and groomer operator from Newaygo County.
“It’s challenging as well as dangerous,” Maike said. “Take a Jeep or side-by-side out on the trail and you come into a curve and meet a snowmobile, somebody is going to get hurt.”
ORVs can damage the trails once grooming starts. Wheeled vehicles create ruts in the trail and make it difficult for groomers to maintain a smooth trail surface.
“If we have a 40-degree day before we start grooming, they can make large ruts,” Britton said. “Once that freezes, the ruts freeze and you have to take them out or fill them in with snow. It never really works because the snow is softer, so if we have a warm day, the snow melts and the ruts come right back. It’s a real problem.”
In addition, local clubs have a contract with the DNR to maintain a smooth trail, which is hard to do if they become rutted, Middendorp noted.
“They’re [groomers] spending their nights and weekends to create a groomed trail for two or three side-by-sides to then come behind them and tear it up,” she said. “They’re volunteers and they are doing their best for snowmobilers.”
Warmer winters, more riders
Climate change has impacted Michigan’s winters, with less snowfall and warmer temperatures in some parts of the state, compounding issues with snowmobiling. Many designated trails in the Lower Peninsula don’t have snow in December and March.
Both ORV and snowmobile trail permits are valid for 12 months. ORVs can ride for most of the year, while snowmobilers are lucky to ride from January to March.
Instead of buying a snowmobile, some people have opted to buy an ORV to ride on trails and seasonal roads all year long. Newer side-by-sides can be outfitted with full enclosures, heat, windshield wipers and more.
“The creature comforts have really come a long way in the last seven or eight years,” Middendorp said. “It’s like driving a pickup truck in a small model.”
Plus, Jeeps and larger side-by-sides can fit a family, so it’s cheaper than buying and maintaining four snowmobiles.
“For the young families, putting fuel in four snowmobiles is expensive, you can put them in one vehicle and run the trails,” Middendorp said. “Recreation should be a family sport. We just want it to be safe for everyone, for the snowmobilers and the ORVs.”
In the Upper Peninsula, people see it as a challenge to take their four-wheel drive vehicles down groomed snowmobile trails or try to make it up a hill, Britton said. He lives in Marquette and has been a snowmobiler and groomer for 25 years.
“They actually get stuck on the snowmobile trail and block the trail, and the groomers can’t get through,” Britton said. “They leave them there overnight, and it’s a real safety hazard.
“It’s always been an issue,” he continued. “It’s the same every year. We’ve had this problem well over 20 years. We don’t have a problem with people wanting to get to their camps.”
Maike, president of West Michigan Ridge Runners ORV Club and a Newaygo County commissioner, has been snowmobiling since the 1960s. As a member of the DNR’s ORV Advisory Workgroup, he is in support of the legislation.
“It’s really nobody’s fault,” Maike said. “The explosion of these UTVs, ATVs has really come up in the last four or five years. If you look around, it’s such a great opportunity to go out and enjoy Michigan and get off the couch, and have some fun. It’s family oriented.”
Another issue that has come up recently is late-season hunters who drive out to hunt on private property, along with cabin and cottage owners who drive down seasonal roads to access their property.
“There may be some changes,” Maike said of the proposed legislation. “We only want to do this legislation once and we want to get it right for hunting, ORVing and snowmobiling.”
Confusion over trail designation, location
In some cases, state motorized trails are dual use and open to both off-road vehicles and snowmobiles. Regulations vary from county to county as to whether ORVs can run on the side of county roads.
Seasonal roads, as well as state and federal forest roads, that aren’t a designated snowmobile trail remain open to ORVs year-round.
“You have to know where you are and what the laws are in that county for ORVs,” Middendorp said. “The laws are very, very different between the two groups. Even the officers get confused. You could be on private property for a half a mile and be back on state land and not even realize it.”
Many snowmobile trails cross private property and are only open to snowmobilers. This creates confusion among all the trail riders, said Jessica Holley-Roehrs, DNR statewide motorized trails program specialist.
“Our top job is education,” Holley-Roehrs said. “We need to figure out better ways to implore people, to tell people where they can go and where they can’t and why it’s important to know where you are.”
Land leases administered through the DNR and local snowmobile clubs connect the trails across public and private property. Roughly 50% of Michigan’s snowmobile trails are on private property, Holley-Roehrs said.
Some landowners open their wheat and hay fields and orchards to snowmobilers during the winter and have pulled their leases due to trespassing issues. Some trails are gated before Dec. 1 and after April 1, but people in vehicles and ORVs disregard the gates and try to damage them or go around them.
Our trails have taken a lot of damage. … When it’s not cold enough, they (ORVs) can rut it and that becomes a safety issue, but it’s the damage they do underneath the snow with the berms they create.
– Dan Wilson, vice president of Trail Riders Snowmobile Club in Lake County
“In a lot of cases, those gates are there on the snowmobile trails because we have leases with property owners, and in those leases, it says no wheeled vehicles,” Maike said. “Those leases are golden. We need to abide by the lease.”
Last fall, national forest roads opened to ORVs, but they are prohibited on routes that serve as designated snowmobile trails from December through March. Dan Wilson, vice president of Trail Riders Snowmobile Club in Lake County, has been a groomer for 13 years. Some Trail Riders’ trails are in the Huron-Manistee National Forests.
“I’m very much in support of it,” Wilson said of HB 4535. “Our trails have taken a lot of damage. … When it’s not cold enough, they [ORVs] can rut it and that becomes a safety issue, but it’s the damage they do underneath the snow with the berms they create.”
Maike also grooms for the Trail Riders Snowmobile Club and said the various stakeholders, including lawmakers, snowmobilers, ORVers, hunters and the DNR, need to work together to get the legislation right. The emphasis also needs to be on education so new ORV riders understand the law and where they can and cannot go. The DNR and MISORVA offer snowmobile and ORV safety courses, which are required for younger drivers. The DNR’s ORV handbook is here.
“We have to move slow and do it right,” he said. “We have all kinds of education and courses and pamphlets out there. They don’t know what the laws are and what the rules and regulations are. We’re hitting the education part of it really hard.”
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