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By Jim Duke, Contributing Writer

With the snowbanks still as high as a two-story building in some locations as we close in on the final days of the snowmobile season, it’s hard to believe that some folks are already putting away their winter toys and prepping their summer ones. This is especially true for those who make their home in one of the many communities across the wide expanse of the Upper Peninsula where the snow remains well into the Spring and the ice hasn’t completely disappeared from the waters of Lake Superior yet.

In the many conversations I’ve had with friends and family members, I’ve found that the real die-hards will continue to press on and push the season well beyond its legal limits as long as snow remains on the trails and in the woods. The big issue, of course, is when does it become legal to put our wheeled vehicles in operation and how much grief is caused to those still enjoying the thrills of winter?

According to DNR guidelines, the official designated snowmobile season runs from December 1st of each year until March 31st of the same. Whether that first day begins at one minute past midnight on the last night in November is questionable but can be answered yes, if anyone is that anxious to start their snowmobile activities at the earliest possible moment. Whether snowmobilers still have legal use of the trails beyond the stroke of midnight on the last night in March or not can also be answered yes, but with some stipulations. Primarily, they must understand that they no longer have priority usage of the trails system regardless of how much snow remains, and more importantly, that trail access no longer exists as it did prior to the deadline so far as private lands are concerned. Legal passage during the season would now be considered trespassing, regardless of whether the rider is on a snowmobile and a designated snowmobile trail or not.   

To add to the confusion, there are many misnomers within the DNR regulations that were intended as guidelines for the ATV/ORV community, and cause for concern to those who wish to venture out into the great outdoors and follow the trails or two-tracks through the forests. For example, it is written that all state lands are open for recreational use. Most folks would interpret this to say you can go and play anywhere within the state forest boundaries, but this is not so! There are specifics, sometimes quite vague, that prohibit any activity within, such as any designated wetlands, or areas where there might be growth of fragile plant-life. Certainly, there are some state campgrounds that allow ORV use, but the majority do not. It’s always a good idea to check beforehand to eliminate any misunderstandings and possible heartburn later.

As a relatively new advocate of the summertime recreation activities known as side-by-side touring in the ORV community, or as some of my close acquaintances like to call “the old-timers woodlands adventures”, I joined a group of like-minded individuals, drove over some of the same terrain with the ORV that I had just recently been over with my snow machine, and was actually amazed that the excitement was almost equal to the previous ride, and although the pace was much slower, in many situations that can also be much safer!

What could be a morning ride of 70 or 80 miles to a location for lunch by snowmobile and then the return ride to finish out a nice day trip, would, in most cases, become an overnight event for those following a similar itinerary in an ORV. Granted, there are the ATV riders that would attempt duplication of the snowmobile run, but one can’t help but wonder if it would be as exciting. The hard-core quad-runners say absolutely, then add that any riding they do would probably be considered “on the ragged edge” by most other trail riders.

Then there are the other obvious concerns as snowmobiles are put away and the various categories of off-road vehicles become the preferred recreational conveyance for playing in the great outdoors. While snowmobiles were permitted to cross private lands on specific trails and/or country roads, other motorized, and even most non-motorized, use is prohibited and almost always results in a trespassing complaint by the landowners.

This has become such an issue in recent years that many private property owners have rescinded permission even for snow machines. It isn’t a single state issue either, this problem is being experienced in the majority of states where snowmobiling and ORV activities must co-exist. A Michigan Conservation Officer said that just because the trail permit is issued for an entire has no bearing on whether it’s legal to use outside the season, or for how long. Same goes for the ORV permit. Common issues both the ORV user and the Snowmobile rider must understand is while every machine must have a Trail sticker to be legal on the trails, they both must also be registered and have a valid decal permanently affixed to the machine. Snowmobile registrations are for a three-year period and issued by the Secretary of State while ORV’s must be registered annually with the decals issued through the DNR.

Speaking with DNR personnel assigned to oversee recreational trail use, it is apparent they don’t have all the answers either, not that they aren’t trying. In many cases they are being pressured to apply restrictions where they have no authority to do so. For example, by mutual agreement with other agencies and entities, the state may control, and under some established guidelines, override local regulations concerning recreational use of certain trails and properties. This is usually accomplished by a granted easement through, or across, an expanse of land much in the same manner as private property owners allowing snowmobile clubs to develop a trail on their land. Limitations are set and must be adhered to by all involved, or the agreement is null and void.

In other situations, however, local ordinances may prevail. For example, while the state says off-road vehicles are not legal for operation except as specified, meaning for off-road use only, some communities have made provisions for them to use certain local roads for access to services in the same manner as snowmobiles. On the other hand, there is no curfew for trail riding according to state laws, but many towns & villages have enacted local, and in some cases countywide, ordinances restricting trail usage within their legal limits for specified hours.

As complex as it may seem, it’s really quite simple. The outdoor enthusiasts will pursue their passions regardless of the season, and for the motorized recreational users, there will always be a few prerequisites to be adhered to. Transition from snow machine to a quad-runner can be as easy as stepping off of one and on to the other, that is if the seasonal restrictions have been lifted and the permits and registrations are current. Once you have made sure both you and your machine are legal, you’re good to go. Just make sure you know where to ride and where not to, because the rules change with the seasons as well as with the type of vehicle.

The name of the game is to get outdoors and enjoy whatever your recreational passion may be. For the motorized trail users, stay on the trails when crossing private property, and only play off-trail where it is permitted to do so, and remember the trails may be permitted by season. To be on them at any other time is considered trespassing. For the non-motorized folks, most of these guidelines apply as well, so checking in advance should always be a priority to eliminate any issues later.

Finally, long after the designated snowmobile season has ended, in some locations, primarily the Upper Peninsula, snow remains in adequate quantities to allow snowmobile activities to continue where permitted, sometimes well into April or beyond, but is no longer exclusive. Snowmobilers must be aware that it is also permissible for other user groups to be recreating on those same trails. Many motorized recreationists make the transition as soon as the season permits while others will not do so until the last usable patch of snow is gone. Is transition easy or is it not?  The answer isn’t as easy as the question, for sure!

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