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Snowmobilers: Respectful vs. Inconsiderate

By Jim Duke

It’s been said more times than I care to remember that sometimes we’re our own worst enemies. That statement can readily apply to the snowmobiling community, regardless of which state or province we wish to point a finger. There are many such sayings we may use from time to time, depending on the circumstance. It all boils down to whether we are being respectful or inconsiderate to those we’ve offended or possibly the folks who feel we have taken advantage of unknowingly. In either case, it is the snowmobile image that will be tarnished, and we all will suffer for the inane actions of a few.

Even as we get off to a late start for the current snowmobile season, complaints already are rolling in daily to the clubs and trail sponsors about a number of issues, most having to do with trespassing and noise. There already have also been a series of threats of trail closures if something isn’t done immediately to curb these violations. So, what are the clubs and trail sponsors to do? It is extremely difficult to face the property owners who have permitted a trail across their land and promise to try and correct the cause for their concern, especially when it’s impossible to know who the perpetrators were.

It’s very easy to point fingers at visiting snowmobilers with the excuse that “they just didn’t know” or to blame outsiders who may or may not even snowmobile. Regardless of who is at fault, the damage already has been done. The property owner’s usually thinks, “It better not happen again, or the trail will be gone!” Those who have labored through the process of getting permissions or leases to access the properties necessary for trail continuity will readily confess it isn’t an easy task or one they look forward to on an annual basis. The chore is even more difficult when the landowners have been repeatedly wronged in some way and accuse the trail sponsors of not doing whatever is necessary to resolve the situation.

At the risk of creating tension among the local population, often it is the folks who reside near the lands in question where repeated trespassing has occurred. There seems to be a common excuse in such cases — that they have always ridden there and have never been questioned before. Maybe the new owners have a new set of rules or perhaps other plans for their property. If the trail crosses property that is private rather that public, it is customary to follow the rules and stay on the trail. This protects users as well as owners from any liability should an accident occur. Simple as that!

But as serious as trespassing is, there are complaints dealing with other concerns as well. Noise is a major factor in trail closures. Having been involved in organized snowmobiling for more than four decades and a longstanding member on several state-administered committees and councils, this topic has been on just about every agenda for every meeting I’ve participated in. Deliberations are sometimes intense, with proponents for aftermarket pipes pitching an argument about performance enhancement, and if it is a bit louder than the OEM, so be it. Usually, there’s at least one individual who believes that loud pipes save lives — similar to what is said by the motorcycle community.

As is generally the case, when the angry voices get loud enough, they are frequently heard by someone or some group with authority to act. It may be the local administration or the state legislature, but if the concern is of such proportion to demand national attention, it could reach all the way to the federal level, receive initial input and be assigned back down the chain to the appropriate agency for action. Not many years ago, the issue of excessive noise caused by loud pipes did just that. The resulting evaluations brought immediate results, but they were somewhat short lived.

What seems odd was how the manufacturers of aftermarket products adapted to the new requirements; but most consumers were not satisfied.


When the modified exhaust systems proved successful in lowering the noise level without loss of performance, many sledders found other ways to create the sounds they felt set them apart from the rest of the crowd. This eventually resulted in laws that make modified exhausts illegal and excessive noise a violation of the law. There are currently acceptable sound-level tests administered by law enforcement personnel to determine if the snowmobile meets the criteria. If not, a citation may be issued and a penalty applied.

In recent seasons, the noise problem has resurfaced to the degree that trails located in or near many towns are in jeopardy. In a few cases, curfews have been established, but most are so frequently violated that local law officers are unable to keep up with the complaints. The resulting action is to just close the trail and penalize everyone for the actions of a few. Adding to the frustration for many landowners is the uninvited encroachment onto their land. In some cases, crops or seedlings are destroyed and people are generally running amuck.

With the rise in popularity of off-trail riding, the issue of trespass has escalated to such proportion that trails on private property are in serious jeopardy. In the past three years, more than 500 miles of trails within Michigan alone have been lost due to trespassing! Nationwide, the miles of trails lost is reported to be in the thousands, simply because riders stray off the trail in areas where they should not be. The Snowmobile Advisory Workgroup recommended that the DNR establish a Backcountry & Off-Trail Committee to investigate the issue and attempt to find a solution. To date, the committee has suggested posting signs along the trail at points where it crosses private property and the creation of a map indicating basically the same information.

As stated previously, this problem is not just in Michigan or a single state concern. At the national level, the American Council of Snowmobile Associations has a Trespass Committee working to set a standard that will, hopefully, save trails in all the member states. One of the campaigns is a poster challenge where candidates can submit a poster depicting just what a single trespassing violation can cost the snowmobiling community. To date, the results have been promising, but there is always room for more improvement!

Snowmobiling is considered a big business in most states and brings more than a billion dollars in winter revenue to the snowbelt states. Without it, many small businesses could not survive. Organized snowmobile groups, clubs and governmental agencies all agree education is the obvious key to resolving the problem. The primary issue is how to accomplish it and whether it will have the desired effect.

The benefits of a safe and legal program far outweigh the pitfalls if everyone will just observe and obey the rules, but they also agree that 100% compliance is a very high hurtle. Respectful and responsible snowmobilers will need to step up to the plate and speak out against the illegal and inconsiderate few!

In summary, it’s been said that one bad apple can ruin the whole barrel and the same can be said in this case. It will only take a few more incidents to ruin a long-established, family-oriented winter recreational activity — and the success or failure is in our own hands. Perhaps we really are our own worst enemies, but we can also be our own strongest supporters. I opt for the latter of the two!

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