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Same Workgroup… New Members

By Jim Duke

It’s been said by several different orators “the more things change the more they remain the same” and so it seems it will be with the Snowmobile Advisory Workgroup (SAW) as many of the previous members either resigned or elected not to seek reappointment when their terms expired. Depending on how you look at it or, better yet, just what your opinion may be, this can be considered good or not so good for the overall future of the snowmobile program.

While the replacement members maybe well versed in snowmobiling activities in their own geographical area and possibly in other areas as well, it usually takes a bit of a “breaking in” period before they are prepared to jump in and deal with the state’s snowmobile program. That being said, the three new members have blended in quite well, and we can expect to continue moving forward with business as usual.

It is true to some degree that change is needed occasionally to gain fresh visions of where the program is and where it should be. The other side of the coin is that by losing seasoned members and replacing them with new ones — who may or may not be familiar with the history and long-range goals of the program — could be damaging to its success. At the very least, projects already in progress may cease or lose priority. It is not the intent of this article to imply this is the case with the newest members and, as previously mentioned, all three are certainly qualified to sit at the table of this workgroup.

What was meant is that with the continuous restructuring within the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), the frequent moving of the snowmobile program from one division to another and the rapid turnover of pertinent personnel within the DNR — more specifically within the Parks & Recreation Division that currently manages the majority of trails programs and has responsibility for providing a viable funding formula for the maintenance and development of the statewide designated trails systems — replacing seasoned SAW members might have been premature. Maybe at least some effort to retain those retiring members should have been made.

Perhaps, for those not familiar with the Snowmobile Advisory Workgroup a quick summary of duties and a brief history is in order; in fact, it might be beneficial as a review for those who have long been involved. The exact dates are not as important as the reasons for the implementation and progression of where and why it all started, where we are now and where we see the program several years out.

Because of concerns from the organized snowmobile clubs and the state association, a “Steering Committee” was selected back in the mid-1980s to advise the DNR on development of a trails system, a research program on how best to maintain it and some reasonable method for a revenue base to fund it all.

A few years after it was implemented, the committee morphed into the Snowmobile Advisory Committee (SAC). Although the snowmobile program remained under DNR control, SAC members were charged with offering recommendations for long-range goals to create new trails and make the existing ones better. Through efforts of the SAC and supporting state lawmakers, legislation was introduced to make the SAC a permanent committee, protected by law and established into the state’s Public Acts. A productive relationship between this advisory committee and DNR personnel wasn’t always amicable. Generally, mutual respect was the main ingredient in the partnership that produced the statewide designated snowmobile trails system and a grooming program to maintain it, but all was not well within the ranks. It was about this time that some of the governor’s appointed DNR leadership and SAC members were at a stalemate over perceived methods of improper administration of the program, with plenty of unrest throughout the snowmobiling community.

Then, during under the reign of Gov. Jennifer Granholm, an executive order was issued to abolish all advisory boards, panels, councils and committees under the guise of reducing the state deficit and working to balance a budget. However, most believed it was an effort to “clear the air” and re-establish order within the various departments and agencies of state government.

As explained at the time, it was determined in short order that the state could not adequately function without the advice and assistance of the volunteers who served on these advisory groups, so many were re-established to the same condition they were prior to being abolished. For snowmobilers, in an effort to streamline and still maintain some degree of order, the Michigan Snowmobile and Trails Advisory Council (MSTAC) came into being, composed of all trail user groups. Besides snowmobiles, other member representatives came from the equestrians, off-road vehicles and the several entities that make up non-motorized, human-powered recreation enthusiasts. After just a few meetings, the other trail users petitioned to drop the word “snowmobile” from the council to better indicate equality among trail user groups; hence, it became the Michigan Trails Advisory Council (MTAC) as it is known today.

Because the state trails systems are managed and regulated through the DNR, the MTAC chairman, appointed by the governor, was a past commissioner of the Natural Resources Commission. In turn, the chairman established subcommittees (called workgroups) for each of the three trail user groups as the Snowmobile Advisory Workgroup (SAW), the Off-Road Advisory Workgroup (ORVAW) and the Non-Motorized Advisory Workgroup (NAW). Most recently, with the increased popularity of kayaks and canoes, a representative for water trails also has been included to the council and is part of NAW.

SAW consists of seven members: three MISORVA representatives, one for the three regions; two members-at-large, one for the Upper Peninsula and one for the Lower Peninsula; and two sponsor representatives, again one each for the Upper and Lower.

Throughout the past few decades, many improvements to the program have been implemented, and most SAW recommendations have been accepted and at least partially implemented. However, inadequate funding has proved to be a huge obstacle in some cases where catastrophic equipment failures and massive trail deteriorations have repeatedly occurred, causing criticism of the program’s inability to respond.

Somewhere along the line, a misconception arose that because the snowmobile program operates on a user pay concept, the Snowmobile Advisory Workgroup and the state association own the program and that the DNR has only been contracted to manage it, to handle the financial transactions, and to distribute annually allocated funds to the various clubs, councils and other entities for services rendered. This could not be further from the truth, In reality, it’s quite the opposite. The snowmobile program and most other recreational programs in the state are, by state statute, under direct DNR control, and the SAW is the recognized group to officially advise them on snowmobile concerns. This doesn’t necessarily mean the DNR must accept or take action on that advice — and as pointed out many times over the years, the “A” is just advisory, not mandatory.

As we enter the 2020-2021 snowmobile season, the SAW will continue to work with the state’s program administrators in efforts to have the snowmobile trails ready and the grooming sponsors on board to keep them smooth and safe. A major funding source to do so comes from the sale of snowmobile trail permits, which some reports say has been in slight decline for the past few years even though some parts of the state have witnessed record amounts of snow. We can only hope the coronavirus pandemic ends soon and wintertime recreational activities can resume with a full head of steam. Our season is just around the corner, so start doing that snow dance and

Think Snow!

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