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Trail Permit Fee Increase: Pros & Cons

Seems every five years when the sunset condition arrives and it’s time to add a few more dollars to the cost for the Michigan Snowmobile Trail Permit, the same old controversy crops up again with fairly large number of snowmobilers opposing any increase and vowing to “quit the sport” due to the rising cost to play in the snow.

Sorry, but there are about the same number of enthusiasts that support the increase, providing they see some improvement in the trails and accountability of where the additional funds are being spent. In fact, there is a growing number of those enthusiasts who would like to see even more dollars required for the privilege to play in the winters, similar to those imposed by most provinces that make up the large land mass to our north we call Canada.

When one looks at the overall picture, and without blinders on or bias set in the mind, it’s easy to understand why we need the increase in the trail permits, the same as every family I know of needs the occasional increase in their income… obviously, to keep up with the rising cost of living!

When the proposal for a five dollar fee to use the trails in Michigan was submitted back in 1993, the uproar could be heard all the way to both the east and west coasts, and snowmobilers in other states raised such a protest over it, declaring they would boycott and never come to this state again that many snowmobile related businesses fearing they may go bust, joined the protests and the proposal was soundly defeated… but not dead by any means.

As the cost of grooming equipment continued to increase and that expense passed down to the consumers, it was more evident than ever that the funding formula needed a transfusion from somewhere, and some of the neighboring states were beginning to have the same growing pains and feeling that same crunch. The proposal was again submitted to our state legislature and with overwhelming support from a majority of snowmobilers, was approved on a trial basis and in 1995 a ten-dollar Trail Permit was required for all snowmobiles, not only for use on the trails but on any and all lakes and lands within the state’s jurisdiction, except when the sleds were used on one’s own property.

With every new concept there is bound to be some considerations overlooked and even more exceptions to the rule will surface, and so it was with those who use a snowmobile on the frozen surfaces of inland lakes and even out on the Great Lakes. The request to be exempted from having to purchase the trail permit was proposed almost immediately and after much deliberation and plenty of “how to do it legally”, the law was altered to allow snowmobiles to be operated on the frozen surfaces of waters controlled by the state DNR, but only when certain requirements were met.

Snowmobiles may be operated on ice-covered waters without a trail permit, but the operator must be in possession of a current fishing license and the appropriate fishing paraphernalia. The snowmobile must also be launched onto the ice in the same manner as a boat and not be operated on any land whatsoever, including at the launch site. If the snowmobile is operated on any grounds other than property by the owner, it must have the legal trail permit. As for those used on private property by the property owners, if the snowmobile is taken off that property (even to cross a public road to get to more private property) it must have a current trail permit!

As mentioned previously, the cost of providing a safe and smooth trail for snowmobilers to enjoy has increased at an annual rate, primarily due to the increase in cost of the equipment needed to do the necessary grooming.

Living in a compatible state

Snowmobilers have always willingly paid for that privilege and the snowmobile programs have always been administered as a user pay operation. Understandably, it is more of a financial burden on some than on others, for example, one major complaint is from a family of five with multiple snowmobiles, and only go on one or two trips per season, as opposed to the single rider, or maybe a couple who could opt to ride a two-up rather than having separate sleds. There is no single answer to satisfy everyone, but the Michigan law is much more compatible than most other states. 

In our great state, every snowmobiler pays the same whether a resident or a visitor. The trail permit fee applies to the snowmobile regardless of origin and is required if it is ridden anywhere in the state, with the exceptions as mentioned previously. Most other states have a tiered fee for residents and a separate fee for non-residents. Similarly, across the border in Canada, the fee can change from province to province and has traditionally been much more expensive than the fees imposed in the United States.

Suggestions that Michigan consider a daily or weekly permit with a lesser fee than the seasonal permit has been reviewed several times and always disposed of as being, for a better word, discriminatory and too convoluted to enforce. Several surveys have been conducted by both the snowmobile association and the DNR with the majority of participants responding favorably to the current method of fee increases and permit distribution.

When one considers the overall cost of snowmobile purchase and the associated equipment to maintain and transport it, the clothing and safety apparel, and the cost for food, fuel, and lodging in order to spend a couple of days enjoying the snowmobiling experience, the trail permit increase doesn’t amount to much. As one very avid enthusiast put it the other day, if the four dollar increase in the trail permit is a deal breaker, perhaps living in a state that supports snowmobiling activities isn’t the best place to be.

The majority understands that to have a premier trails system such as we do here in Michigan, there must be adequate funding to support and maintain it. The fees from the sale of trail permits goes for that purpose and for nothing else. The people who operate the groomers are, for the most part, unpaid club volunteers doing the job willingly and without regret because they also enjoy a smooth and safe trail. The cost of a single trail permit is now $52.00 and will remain at that level for the next five years regardless of any changes in the economic status of other commodities. Remember there are many snowmobile-related businesses that depend on snowmobilers for their very existence throughout the winter months… I, for one, will gladly pay the increase for all my sleds and look forward to a safe and bountiful snowmobile season.

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