2012-05-24 / Front Page

Trail damage incidents increase

A vehicle is shown trapped in mud on a snowmobile trail in Schoolcraft County. According to the president of the Schoolcraft County Snowmobile Association, trail damage has been becoming more frequent, with three incidents in just six months. Due to this damage, the organization has run out of grant money to repair and maintain the trails and is now considering pursuing prosecution for ORVs that cause damage to snowmobile trails, particularly those in wetland areas.

MANISTIQUE – Snowmobile trail damage in Schoolcraft County is becoming more frequent, and one organization is speaking up about the potential effect on the community and tourists.

According to Gerry Reese, president of the Schoolcraft County Snowmobile Association, for the third time in six months, two separate sections of trail have been damaged by the use of large four-wheel drive trucks or ORVs. One trail is located by Brayce Creek Swamp, approximately seven miles north of Manistique, on what are commonly referred to as the “low-high rollaways.”

Damage along the Brayce Creek Swamp snowmobile trail is shown. 
Courtesy photo Damage along the Brayce Creek Swamp snowmobile trail is shown. Courtesy photo “This is a snowmobile trail, not an ORV trail,” explained Reese. “We have a problem driving a groomer there in the winter – it just breaks through the ice because it’s a swamp. After a while, we can pack enough snow to groom without a problem, but in the spring, when it thaws out, it’s basically impassable.”

Despite this, Reese said that there have been two incidents involving four-wheel drive trucks venturing out onto the trail, only to get stuck in the mud. When the drivers try to get unstuck, the truck becomes deeply entrenched in the trail, he explained, causing significant damage.

According to Reese, the snowmobile association had applied for and received $12,000 worth of grant money from the Recreation and Snowmobile Trail Grant Program (a state program). While these funds were designated, and used, to repair snowmobile trails, he said the amount of damage caused by ORVs has been so substantial they have been depleted.

“We’re about halfway through a fix project, and we’re out of money,” Reese said. “The damage and subsequent repair is way more expensive than we anticipated. Who pays for this additional damage?”

While “The Handbook of Michigan Off-Road Vehicle Laws” states four-wheel drive vehicles can be used as an ORV, with proper licensing, Reese explained ORVs can still only travel along ORV designated trails.

Since the snowmobile association is a nonprofit club, they rely on grants and donations for their grooming, signing and trail brushing responsibilities. When people bring an ORV onto a snowmobile trail, especially one located in swamplands, Reese notes countless hours and funds are spent trying to correct the damage.

“We either have to hire contractors, who we pay, or have volunteers fix the damage,” he said. “Since ORVs are causing the damage, we are going to try to get ORV restoration money (a DNR grant program) but this is meant for ORV trail development and maintenance, so we don’t know if we can get it.”

In the meantime, Reese said the association has already begun reporting incidents to the DNR and police, and is now considering prosecution or seeking compensation from individuals who cause trail damage. Since snowmobile trails are statedesignated and can be located on federal, state, county, municipal, and private land, he explained incidents, like those at Brayce Creek Swamp, may be prosecuted under state or federal wetland protection laws.

According to the “Handbook”, published by the DNR, ORV operation is prohibited “in or upon the waters of any stream, river, bog, wetland, marsh, or quagmire.” Penalties for violating this rule, or others listed in the handbook, can include: misdemeanor or felony charges, financial reimbursement for ecological damage caused by the ORV operator, and an order to restore damaged land, among others.

“We’re in the ‘warning’ mode right now,” said Reese. “But we’re creating a history with these violations by reporting them, because, as it continues, and continues to get worse, we are going to consider prosecution, because we have to pay for the damage somehow.”

He explained the pervasive “I didn’t know” response, will not work much longer, and that riders should access the Michigan ORV laws and check maps before heading out onto the trails.

“We need the community’s help to maintain and minimize damage caused by ignorance and arrogance,” he said. “The trail system brings outside money into the community. We are not trying to beat up on the local community, but common sense must direct our actions.”

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