Pay to Play

New winter-recreation pass pays for trail grooming.

When the snow piles deep, snowmobilers around Montana hit their favorite trails in search of winter fun. Yet few of them give any thought to how those trails are created. Overnight, as if by magic, the buttery smooth trails appear, inviting riders into Montana’s backcountry. But it’s not magic. There are no trail elves to cast spells over the snow-covered hills. Instead, trail grooming is thankless, exhausting, and expensive work. If you wanna play, you’ve got to pay.

The responsibility of grooming Montana’s 4,000 miles of trails is in the hands of 26 private snowmobile clubs and their groomer operators. Using a combination of skill, snow science, and “feel,” caffeine-fueled groomer operators work through the night to create a trail that begs to be ridden. Typical grooming shifts last anywhere from six to 12 hours. Some groomer operators are paid, but 15 of the 26 clubs rely entirely on volunteer hours to complete the work.

In the Bozeman area, the Gallatin Valley Snowmobile Association (GVSA) and West Yellowstone Chamber of Commerce groom trails. The costs of grooming trail runs from $18 and $26 per mile. Both clubs rely on a variety of funding sources to support their efforts: everything from membership dues, raffles, and bake sales, to private donations and grant money. One major source of support snowmobile-trail grooming is the Montana State Parks Snowmobile program.

The Snowmobile Program supplies the clubs with groomer equipment and operating funds through a grant program. The program is funded through a combination of fuel tax and snowmobile registration revenues. Last year, the program gave out $388,000 in grants. In recent years, however, revenues for the grooming fund have dipped while operating and maintenance costs for the program have increased. The Snowmobile Program’s maintenance expenses for the upcoming 2015-16 season have already reached $100,000 with half of that going toward an engine rebuild for the GVSA groomer.

Last spring, the Montana Legislature recognized the need for a new revenue source to sustain the Montana State Parks Snowmobile Program. That’s where HB 300 and the new Groomed Snowmobile Trail Pass come in. The new law establishes a trail pass for Montana residents who operate mechanized vehicles on any of the state’s groomed trails. These permits apply to snowmobiles, converted snow bikes, and fat-tire pedal bikes.

The three-year pass is only $18. Revenues from each pass go back to the Snowmobile Program where 40% is used for trail grooming and 60% is used to maintain and buy new grooming equipment. The pass is estimated to bring in approximately $475,000 over the first three years. “Every year my program costs increase,” said Seth McArthur, Montana State Parks Snowmobile Program Manager, “This new revenue will help us grow the Snowmobile Program and keep the trails groomed for years to come.”