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Snowmobile club fights Becker County plans

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outdoors Park Rapids, 56470
Park Rapids Minnesota PO Box 111 56470

A Detroit Lakes snowmobile club is not happy with a county proposal to quit grooming snowmobile trails and turn the responsibility over to area snowmobile groups.

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The ULTRA (United Lakes and Trails Riders Association) group has gone so far as to send out letters to businesses, warning that the quality of the trails will diminish and winter tourists may go elsewhere if the county gets out of the snowmobile grooming business.

"Becker County has managed the trail system for over 30 years," the letter reads. "During that time ULTRA Snowmobile Club has supported the county with volunteers and monetary donations for equipment. Because of the economic impact of snowmobiling on local business, we felt you would want to be made aware of the pending change in the county's position."

For their part, county officials say there's no reason local snowmobile clubs can't handle trail grooming and maintenance, since that's how it's done just about everywhere else in Minnesota.

"I think the clubs can do a better job (of trail grooming) and do it more efficiently," Commissioner Barry Nelson said in an interview. "The clubs have a better understanding of the trails -- they can respond better (to the needs as they arise)."

The Lake Park-based Midnite Riders club has agreed to take over responsibility for the trails in western Becker County, and the Wolf Lake-based Wolf Pack snowmobile club already grooms trails in southeastern Becker County.

If the ULTRA club doesn't want to take on the responsibility for trails in the Detroit Lakes area, the county may turn to a newly formed snowmobile club in the Ice Cracking Lake area that is willing to do the job.

"The new club came to Winter Trails (Advisory Committee) and asked for more miles to groom," said Nelson.

ULTRA is reluctant to turn over grooming of trails it has long helped maintain to a new club, and yet has concerns about being able to properly do the job itself.

"We believe it is in the best interest of the community, and particularly the business community within Becker County, that the snowmobile trails continue to be maintained to the quality they have been in the past. We also believe Becker County is in the best position to do this," ULTRA says in its letter to businesses.

There are about 220 miles of snowmobile trails in Becker County, and 80 miles is about the maximum number of miles a groomer should do in a week, said Dick Schmidt, a former president of ULTRA.

He is worried about money, the number of trail groomers available, and how they will be split up among snowmobile clubs.

The county pays for trail grooming and maintenance with state DNR funds collected from snowmobilers themselves, in the form of registrations, trail stickers for instate and outstate riders and unrefunded gas tax.

The county has about $106,000 in the snowmobile fund right now, and expects to collect $114,500 this year.

Maintaining the trails isn't cheap: It received $117,000 from the state for the fund in 2010, $109,000 in 2009 and $105,500 in 2008, according to Becker County Auditor-Treasurer Ryan Tangen.

The county is leasing a groomer this year, but plans to buy one for $120,000 in July (groomers aren't cheap either). That money will come from the snowmobile fund.

It has applied for a $50,000 DNR grant to help offset the purchase price. If approved, the snowmobile fund will only take a $70,000 hit in July.

But one sticking point is which club would get which groomer, and how the clubs would cooperate if a groomer breaks down and there are not enough to do all the trails, Schmidt said.

He said the existing system isn't broken and doesn't need to be fixed.

The county is making much of the fact that snowmobile clubs groom the trails in something like 83 out of Minnesota's 87 counties. But a lot of those clubs are struggling to raise funds and "wish they were in our shoes," in Becker County, Schmidt said in an interview.

By promoting snowmobiling, he said, Becker County can provide all the related business and jobs for its residents without spending local tax dollars for maintaining the trails.

What Becker County must do, he added, is manage those grant dollars effectively to maximize the attractiveness of the trails, so that out-of-county riders come here to spend their recreation dollars.

The county will continue to serve as financial agent for the snowmobile fund even if the county gets out of the grooming business, Nelson said.

He believes the county could save man-hours, and ultimately money, by reorganizing its current system.

Snowmobile club members don't have to do the work themselves, they could pay part-timers to groom the trails, just like the county does, he said. The money would be reimbursed out of the snowmobile fund, as it has been with the county.

"We're not trying to set someone up for failure here, we want them to be successful," said County Administrator Tom Mortenson. "We want our trails to be the economic engine for the future and attract people to our county."

"The discussion needs to start and see how it pans out," Nelson added. "Is it a done deal? No. We want to look at all the options and at the end of the day, make the best decision for the county."

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