Local snowmobile clubs make public plea for new members
Talk to any snowmobile club member around here and you're sure to get an earful about a very touchy subject: dwindling membership.
"I'm 73 and I'm out there putting up trail signs," said Jim Smeby, board member of the Inver Grove Heights Snowmobile Club and volunteer with the Dakota Trails Snowmobile Association. "We've got no young guys in the club."
Snowmobile clubs, such as the Rosemount Sno-Toppers and the Farmington Sno-Tigers, are made up of unpaid volunteers who maintain the trails in their area. Clubs of 100-plus members have declined to single digits in the past few years.
Aging club members are feeling overwhelmed by the job, but refuse to quit for fear of losing their trails.
"That's how important it is here," said Sno-Toppers member Luke Waldriff. He points to Apple Valley, who lost the ability to snowmobile in the city because the clubs were unable to keep up the trails. "If we don't keep it open, we lose it."
Jerry Tompkins, former president of Sno-Toppers, has been sounding the warning since 2009. A job transfer caused him to move out of state, but he still keeps tabs on his old club.
"If I lived back there, I'd be fighting like hell to keep those trails open," he said.
In his day, the club did more than just ride together. It was also a social club that held fundraisers and events.
The Farmington Sno-Tigers, established in 1970, maintains about 50 miles of trail. Calls to the club's main number were not returned by press time.
The Rosemount Sno-Toppers club, established in 1969, maintains about 30 miles of trails and has 15 members, although Waldriff said there were about four at the last meeting.
The club makes sure the trails get groomed, puts up the signs to mark the routes, gets permission from landowners, has training for new snowmobilers and takes the signs down in the spring.
Clubs often hold an annual appreciation dinner for landowners who graciously give their permission for snowmobilers to pass through.
"The guys that groom the trails take their own personal time," Tompkins said. "It's all volunteer. Once the crops are out of the fields, we go out and start marking them."
So why aren't more people joining the clubs?
It's not for lack of interest in snowmobiling.
The International Snowmobile Manufacturers Association reports that there are 213,298 snowmobiles registered in Minnesota. The machines aren't just being sold in Duluth, either.
Waldriff, owner of Lighthouse Motorsports and Marine in Rosemount, said he's sold 45 so far this winter.
It's not for lack of funding.
The Department of Natural Resources takes the money gathered from snowmobile registrations and trail passes and distributes them to clubs to help maintain the trails.
The trail use registration fee is $78.50 for three years and includes unlimited use of Minnesota's 22,000 miles of state and grant-in-aid trails.
"We want to encourage people to get and keep their snowmobile registration current, as these funds support the trail system," said Amy Barrett, information officer of the DNR's Parks and Trails Division.
"These funds are administered by the DNR but awarded through grants to the counties and cities who partner with local snowmobile clubs to groom and maintain the trail system," said Barrett. "Almost all of the work is done by club members and volunteers with financial support through the Grant-in-Aid Program."
Dakota County Trails, which has three grooming machines it rents out to clubs, receives $310 per mile of trail, which equals $39,618 for fiscal year 2017.
Club memberships are pretty cheap — $20 for the whole family.
It could be a lack of snow, or the lack of the right kind of snow, or just the lack of consistent snow.
Snowfall in the Twin Cities area in 2015-16 was 36.7 inches. The year before was 32.4 inches. 2013 and 2012 were fair years with snowfall near 70 inches. 2011 was a pitiful 22.3 inches.
A scroll through the DNR snowfall table back to 1883 shows totals swinging back and forth from 11 inches in 1890 to 95 inches in 1981.
Tompkins said some say their excuse for not getting involved in locals clubs is that they only ride up north where the snowfall is consistently heavy.
Waldriff thinks that's fine, but a few hours volunteering to put up signs can help out those who can't afford to go up north.
It could be that new snowmobilers just don't know how important joining a club is, Waldriff said.
"Without members, the club will die off and we won't have trails to ride on," he said. "We don't have enough effort being put toward the trail system in order to keep it open. If people give up on that trail system, we will lose it forever."
Why would they lose it?
If volunteers don't groom the trails, put up signs or get permission from landowners, the funding will stop and the city could choose to say no more snowmobiling.
Club members say they are thinking of the future. One of the things clubs do is teach snowmobile safety training.
Residents born after Dec. 31, 1976 must complete a safety course. Although the rules and regulations part can be done online, youths 11-15 years old must also complete a "hands on " portion which the clubs offer.
"We're trying to pass this on to future generations," Tompkins said.
HOW TO JOIN
Contact: Kevin Kelly
P.O Box 146, Rosemount, MN 55068
Contact: Jim Hoeft
6035 235th St. W., Farmington, MN 55024
For more details about local clubs, go to MnUSA Snowmobile Club at www.mnsnowmobiler.org.