Snowmobiling is a relatively new form of winter recreation. It's only been around as a popular diversion from the angst of winter for about 40 years. Prior to that, the silent sports such as downhill skiing, cross country skiing, ice skating and ice fishing were the staples of winter recreation and had been for a long time. Snowmobiling altered that.
With the advent of snowmobiling, people had a way to ride a machine over the snow and were able to go fairly long distances with relative ease.
In the beginning, there were no designated places or trails where one could ride a snowmobile. Consequently there was a lot of riding that involved trespassing as riders looked for any place that had open space where a snowmobile could go. This, of course, did not go well with landowners.
It was clear that something needed to be done so that snowmobilers could ride their machines without breaking the law. The answer to that problem was the development of the snowmobile trail system.
Early on, snowmobilers gathered together and formed clubs for the companionship and fun of riding together. They recognized the need to have designated trails upon which to ride and since there weren't trails available for them, they built their own. Eventually, all those individual trail segments were connected and the trail system evolved into its present form. Today, we have about 18,000 miles of designated snowmobile trails in Minnesota.
The people who built those original trails back in the 1970s were in their 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s (for the most part). As time went by and those folks aged, they dropped out of the clubs. They either retired from the sport or died. The amazing thing about them though is that, for the most part, they have been taking care of the trails all this time. A great deal of thanks is owed to those volunteers by the snowmobilers who ride those trails. Granted, there has been some influx of younger people into the clubs and that has been a great help, but it's not enough.
Far too many snowmobilers don't belong to a club and are not helping to maintain the trails. The reasons are many. Some say they don't have enough time. But look at the founders and builders of the trails. They had jobs, kids, and kid's sports teams too and they found the time to do the actual building of the trails and then take care of them. Some don't want added responsibilities but if they don't step up and help, who will?
Younger riders have always had a trail system ready and available for them and perhaps they think that they don't need to get involved. They can't be more mistaken.
In a few years, the founders of the trail system will be gone. The few younger members of the clubs will be left to shoulder the burden of trail maintenance and that of course will lead to problems. Too few club members and too much work for them will lead to burnout. If that happens, the few people still there will quit and the clubs will become history. The trail system will not have the care it needs and will fall into disrepair and will quickly be lost. If this ever happens, the chances of reopening closed trails will be slim.
This is the crisis that we who love snowmobiling will be facing soon. If you think the DNR will take over the maintenance of the trail system, forget it. They don't have the money and they're not volunteers.
If you are a snowmobiler and want to ensure that there will always be a designated trail system for you to ride upon, I suggest that you find a club in your area, join it and start helping now so that you'll be ready to step in when the founders retire. That day is not far away.
Mike Hughes is Region 2 director (Itasca County) of the Minnesota United Snowmobilers Association.