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2020…A Year in Turmoil

In the closing days of the 2019-2020 snowmobile season when the snow gods had finally relented and was providing abundant snowfall all across the Upper Peninsula,  other adverse conditions were waiting in the wings to bring the season to an abrupt halt and cause widespread panic across the state. I refer, of course, to the coronavirus pandemic that has swept the entire nation with more than a million cases of positive proof of the contracted illness and more than five hundred thousand deaths than may, or may not, be attributed to that virus.

Beginning in early March when snowmobiling tourism was in full swing, especially in the central upper part of northern Michigan, primarily because that is where the majority of fresh snow was falling in inches per hour and accumulations reaching well into several feet, snowmobile enthusiasts were flocking to the area by the hundreds, and lodging was almost impossible to find. Then for some unknown reason, the deadly and fast spreading virus known as Covid-19 somehow made its way from foreign places into the United States, and ultimately, into Michigan.

In efforts to stem the flow, the governor issued an Executive Order effectively shutting down all but essential services and businesses statewide, and demanded all citizens isolate themselves by staying home in a self – imposed quarantine for a minimum of two weeks. Several stipulations, or exemptions, to the rule permitted minimal movement to obtain medications and groceries, to get required medical treatments, but travel was  restricted to only as absolutely necessary and promising this would only be temporary.

Then came the extensions of the stay at home and keep the businesses closed order, first for another fifteen days, then for another month, all the while those who could work from home remained employed while many others were furloughed. The smaller businesses suffered to the extent that many would be closed permanently due to lost revenue. Schools were closed prematurely and many remain closed still. The  Memorial Day celebrations were, for the most part, cancelled as were the majority of scheduled events and activities across the nation. Michigan was truly a state in crisis!

As the days became weeks and the weeks became months, citizens became increasingly restless and began protesting the governor’s authority to keep the states in a modified lockdown. Although most protests were peaceful, some erupted into violence and clashes with law enforcement intensified into rioting, looting and the destruction of  property. 2020 was definitely looking like a year in turmoil!

It’s been said several times over that snowmobilers are a resilient bunch, and can bounce back from all kinds of happenings, and whether good or bad, that proved true through all this turmoil as well.  Many continued to enjoy the late season snows and following the “social distancing” guidelines as set by the governor, still found most of the trails in relatively decent condition even though all grooming had been suspended. Through all the negatives, however, there was quite a few positives, and organized snowmobiling continued working for the better days ahead.

For example, our state association, Michigan Snowmobile & ORV Association (MISORVA) had been working with state legislators to review and possibly revamp outdated, and in some cases, obsolete laws that pertain to operation of a snowmobile and penalties for violations thereof.  Of particular interest was House Bill 5551 sponsored by Representative Alexander (R-64) to decriminalize the improper display of snowmobile registration or trail permit from a misdemeanor to a civil infraction and set the fine of not more than $150.00.

Another piece of legislation the state association was interested in was House Bill 5689 sponsored by Representative LaFave (R-108) to decriminalize reckless operation of a snowmobile, failure to present a safety certificate to a peace officer upon request, and operating a snowmobile at speeds greater than is reasonable and proper for existing conditions from misdemeanors to civil infractions with a fine up to $150.00 per infraction.

There are several other House Bills that, if approved and implemented, would affect snowmobilers and/or off-road vehicle users. House Bill 5692 sponsored by Representative Markkanen (R-110) would decriminalize failure to meet safety standards for snowmobile product certification from a misdemeanor to a civil infraction, The Bill also decriminalizes operation of a snowmobile without a helmet to a civil infraction, currently a misdemeanor. House Bill 5693 sponsored by Representative LaFave (R-108) would decriminalize the improper crossing of a street or road by off road vehicles from a misdemeanor to a civil infraction.

And there are a couple of House Bills that have duplicate bills in the Senate to eliminate the requirement of a helmet during snowmobile and/or ORV use under certain conditions. House Bill 5776 sponsored by Representative LaFave (R-108) and Senate Bill 923 sponsored by Senator McBroom (R-38) for the ORV legislation and House Bill 5780 by Representative Markkanen (R-110) and Senate Bill 922 by Senator McBroom (R-38) for legislation pertaining to snowmobile use. The DNR has not taken a position on this legislation as yet but, unofficially, the majority of snowmobilers is opposed, simply due to safety concerns.

On the national front, the American Council of Snowmobile Associations (ACSA) has been laboring to remain abreast of congressional activities and initiatives, even though the annual sojourn to Washington, DC was cancelled due to COVID-19.  Of particular interest to snowmobilers and off-road vehicle users alike is Senate Bill S.3422 titled the “Great American Outdoors Act” which has been introduced, debated, voted on, and passed with 73 yea & only 25 nay votes. It is now in the House for consideration. If approved, it will provide up to $1.9 billion annually to work toward resolution of backlogged maintenance and improvements on public lands.

One other piece of noteworthy news coming out of the Capital City pertains to the long struggling Federal Highway Administration and efforts to reauthorize their Surface Transportation Package. The House Transportation Committee has taken up the issue and has voted to advance a five-year surface transportation reauthorization to the tune of $494 billion dollars. This reauthorization is part of a much larger $1.5 trillion infrastructure package that encompasses much more than just roads, highways, and bridges. It includes such non-transportation items as education, housing, clean water, and broadband, but considered essential to getting it moved forward.

In the Senate, a bi-partisan bill of a modest $287 billion transportation funding specifically for roads and bridges passed unanimously, but instead of accepting it, according to Senator John Barrasso (R-WY), House Democrats removed Republicans from the process, and wrote a strictly partisan bill that places bus and rail networks above road and highway repairs on the priority list. Additionally, included in the bill is provision for building charging stations for electric vehicles along most U.S. highways which, they say will put the United States firmly on a path toward zero emissions.

As a reminder, the Recreation Trails Program (RTP) is a major source of funding to the states for trails development and maintenance and is a small portion of the federal gasoline taxes returned to the states for that purpose. The total amount is divided with 30% to motorized use, 30% for non-motorized use, and 40% for use on multi, or dual, use trails. The current bill expired in September of 2020 as scheduled.

(Recommend insert of Scan 0025-RTP)

Finally, those familiar with the National Off-Highway Vehicle Conservation Council (NOHVCC) knows that it provides a forum for state partners from across the nation to come together, discuss issues and common concerns, and work to ensure a positive future for the off-highway vehicle community. The Board of Directors takes this obligation seriously and would, under normal conditions, have held their 2020 annual conference to facilitate the nominations and elections. Unfortunately, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the conference did not take place and has been postposed until sometime in 2021 when it will be held in Knoxville, Tennessee.

According to Board Chairman, Dan Kleen, consideration to hold the elections in a virtual venue would be cumbersome and too difficult to oversee so, after much deliberation, the elections have been postponed as well and the current Board of Directors remains in place until everyone can meet again in person. He went on to say that until such time NOHVCC can  do so, the Board will continue to keep everyone apprised of all things OHV related through their communications, website and webinars, with assurance that they will continue efforts to create a positive future for OHV recreation.

In summary, what began as a short period effort to stem the spread of a virus across the nation expanded from a couple of weeks to a month and on through most of the year, shutting down most small businesses, generating massive layoffs,  and creating hardships for hundreds of thousands of citizens. What was considered essential to livelihood, and to keep the nation afloat remained open, but many forced to close would never recover and have since gone bankrupt. So far, this year, with exception of the first couple of months, has been somewhat of a big disappointment… let’s hope the last few months will be better, because 2020 in the eyes of the majority, has truly been a year in turmoil.

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