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Maintaining State's Snowmobile Trails Is A Big Job for Local Partners

March 1, 2007

A cold, cold wind blows across the Great Lakes state, bringing snow and below-freezing temperatures -- perfect conditions for snowmobiling.

Grooming a snowmobile trailMichigan's outdoor enthusiasts rely on cold temperatures and steady snowfall for winter fun. And if they snowmobile, Michigan is ideal for them. Our state offers snowmobile enthusiasts 6,352 miles of trail on the state-designated snowmobile trail system. Along the way, trail users can enjoy easy access to Michigan's hinterlands through conveniently located trailheads, bridges over waterways and signage that indicates directions or warnings.

The trail system also provides connection with amenities found in towns, such as fuel for the machines and food and lodging for the riders. Many northern communities depend on good snow and lots of snowmobiling visitors for their economic vitality.

But, have you ever wondered how all those trails get maintained?

Enter the dedicated members of snowmobile clubs and local governments acting as trail sponsors. Sixty-six clubs and local agencies currently receive grants from the Department of Natural Resources to maintain snowmobile trails across the state.

The Forest, Mineral and Fire Management Division administers the program in cooperation with DNR's Grants Management. Grants are paid from the Snowmobile Trail Improvement Fund, which is funded from trail permits purchased by snowmobilers and from snowmobile registration fees.

Grooming a snowmobile trail"Having local clubs do the grooming has been positive because they take pride and ownership in the job they do for their communities," said Charlie Vallier, FMFM Naubinway Field Office.

A grant is issued to each trail sponsor that specifies the trail segments assigned to them, outlines the work they are to accomplish during the year and provides funding limits for reimbursement of costs. Depending on the terms of their grant, a trail sponsor may be responsible for clearing trees, branches and brush from the trail corridor; grading dips and mounds in the trail; and installing warning and directional signs before the season begins in December of each year.

For this winter, almost $545,000 in grant funding was awarded for this preseason work.

"My contact with the DNR has been very positive, both at Naubinway and in Lansing," said Gary Schupbach, a trail sponsor for the Curtis area. "I'm very pleased with how the program is run."

Trail sponsors maintain the trails during the snowmobile season by regularly grooming the snow surface, replacing signs, repairing fences and plowing parking lots at designated trailheads. More than $3,860,000 was awarded statewide in grants for trail maintenance and related costs for this year's snowmobile season.

Grooming a snowmobile trailTrail sponsors also receive grants to purchase trail grooming equipment. Last fall, the snowmobile program purchased 22 groomers and tractors, seven blades for the grooming machines and 24 drags (for smoothing the trail surface) at an additional grant award of $3,390,000.

As the end of winter nears, you may be thinking the snowmobile program closes up shop and waits until the snow flies again. Not true. Often there is a need for larger maintenance projects on the trails, such as installing culverts in small drainage areas or building a bridge over a river or wetland. Trail sponsors may receive grants for these types of projects, with a whole set of requirements to follow.

When carrying out a larger maintenance project, the responsibilities of the trail sponsor may include selecting a licensed professional (such as an engineering firm); overseeing preparation of plans and specifications; applying for permits; advertising for bids; awarding construction contracts; monitoring progress of construction; and coordinating with and reporting problems to a contact person at one of the DNR's field offices.

"Regular communication between trail sponsors and the DNR is critical for successful completion of maintenance projects," said Richard Kennedy, a resource analyst for the DNR in Lansing.

One such project is the construction of the Thompsonville Bridge, recently completed after several years of work by the Benzie-Manistee Snowbirds trail sponsor group.

This bridge is on the Betsie Valley Trail and spans the Betsie River, a state-designated natural river, near Thompsonville in Benzie County. Great care was taken to design and construct the bridge in compliance with several state natural resources protection laws and avoid negative effects to the river system.

Before the old bridge trusses could be removed, the wood was tested and traces of arsenic were found, so a plan for dealing with the contaminant was prepared. Soil erosion control measures as well as landscaping compatible with the natural river plan also were incorporated into the project. The total cost for the new bridge was about $325,000.

"DNR staff worked closely with the trail sponsor and consulting firm to address issues related to design changes, regulatory requirements, aesthetic and structural considerations, and the needs of trail users," Kennedy said.

For other projects like this, although not quite as complex, another $1.1 million was awarded in grant funds to trail sponsors for 2006-07.

So, the next time you're out having some winter fun on Michigan's snowmobile trails, remember the work performed by all those trail sponsors in cooperation with the DNR.

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