SHERIFF'S CORNER: Banning of ORVs in the winter?

You would think the last thing I would talk about would be snow or snowmobiling in the middle of June. However, there is a bill in the Michigan legislature that I think you need to be aware of that may greatly impact ORV riding during the winter months.

In this edition of the "Sheriff's Corner," I discuss the pending legislation to ban ORV and wheeled traffic on the mixed used trails here in Lake County during the winter months.

ORV MIXED USE TRAFFIC ROUTES

Many of you have ridden your quad, dirtbike, jeep, side-by-side or your old three-wheeler on the Little Manistee ORV Route or the Lincoln Hills ORV Route. These are both "mixed-use" routes. In short, you can pretty much ride anything on them provided you have the correct licenses (stickers, plates, etc...). This is true for the entire year.

DESIGNATED SNOWMOBILE ONLY TRAILS

Way before there were ORV's, there were snowmobiles. Keeping that in mind, the state established "snowmobile only trails" many years ago.

In many parts of the state, you will see public and private property turned into a large snowmobile trail system during the winter months. You will notice this when you are driving in the country and see small stop signs and small arrow signs near the side of the road as well as through fields and parks.

These trails are ONLY for snowmobiles and not ORV's. However, there are snowmobile trails that "share" routes with ORV routes (called “mixed trails”) that are used by both snowmobiles and wheeled vehicles as well as county roads that are open to both. There are about 6,000 miles of designated, snowmobile only trails and about 1,500 miles of snowmobile trails shared with other vehicles (mixed trails).

STATISTICS AND REVENUE

Snowmobiling dominated Michigan motorized sports until around 2008. That year there was a sharp decline in snowmobile permits that never fully returned. (Coincidentally, this was the same year that the Polaris RZR 800, the first side-by-side ORV, was introduced.) By 2015, ORV trail permits surpassed snowmobile permits and currently, ORV trail permit revenue is approaching double that of snowmobile permits.

At the end of last year, ORV permits saw an increase of 30.8% and trail use had risen to 48.6%. Demand for all ORVs is very high and dealers are having a hard time obtaining product to meet the demand.

In the past, snowmobiles were the dominant revenue generator for many counties; however, the decline in riders and greatly shortened winters (especially in the LP) have changed that dynamic. ORVs have become the dominant revenue generator and according to a recent survey, about 1/3 of ORV riders, ride during the winter months. Most counties and townships have recognized this explosion and those areas with open ORV roads in the upper LP are quickly becoming the norm rather than the exception.

SNOWMOBILE TRAIL EXPENSE

Snowmobilers need inclement weather just to enjoy their sport, and whether it can be attributed to climate change or just bad luck, it seems the winter riding season gets shorter each year. This reduction in riding opportunity has probably contributed to fewer snowmobile registrations and permit sales. This means less revenue to support the system and equipment needed to maintain the trail. With groomers costing about $280,000 per unit, they need a lot of sticker sales, and you still have to put fuel in it every day, or fix it when it breaks down.

In addition, the snowmobile trail system operates on 50% state owned land and 50% private property, of which some parcels are leased or have paid easements to use for the season. All of this amounts to millions of dollars of growing annual expense with withering revenue.

ORV TRAIL EXPENSE

ORVs have the advantage of being able to use their vehicles year-round, and they pay an ORV trail sticker fee which is allocated towards trail improvements and maintenance. To make the best use of their overall funding, the Michigan trail systems try to have as many miles of multiple use trails as possible, allowing more than one type of recreational user.

Both the ORV’s and snowmobiles benefit from this with approximately 1,500 miles of “shared” trail. (ORV Permit revenue is also used to support many non-motorized trails and activities as well). It’s the maintenance costs that are the bone of contention on these trails with snowmobiles being concerned that ORVs are riding on mixed trails maintained by snowmobile dollars; however, the mixed trails are maintained by dual sport clubs which maintain the trails year round and receive funds from both snowmobile and ORV permit revenue.

HOUSE BILL 4535 (2021)

There is a current bill on the floor of the house that would restrict all wheeled vehicles on mixed trails in the winter with the caveat that it is snow covered and groomed. This impacts not only ORVs but all who use the mixed trails during the winter months, e.g. hunters The specific wording of the bill is as follows:.

"Sec. 82163...(2), during the period from December 1 through March 31 annually, a person shall not operate a motor vehicle other than a snowmobile on a trail if both of the following apply:

(a) The trail is part of the statewide trail network established under section 72114 and is designated for snowmobile use.

(b) The trail is snow covered, and the snow is groomed for snowmobile use."

THE ISSUE

Laws are best when things are black and white. Clearly defined and easily applied in a situation. “Snow-covered and groomed for snowmobile use” is subjective and open to a wide range of interpretation.

What is “snow covered”? We all know of carbide busters that consider 2 inches of snow a rideable situation and others that won’t get a sled out until there is at least 6 good inches of snow. We all also know that a trail can be snow covered in some sections and down to the dirt in others and all within shouting distance of each other.

What is “groomed for snowmobile use?" Does that mean that it is “actively” being groomed or it was groomed a few weeks ago and folks are just riding snirt?

How can a person reasonably tell if a mixed trail is being “actively” groomed for snow? It doesn’t take long for a groomed trail to get beat up by normal traffic to the point that one can’t tell the last time the tractor went through (the same applies when grooming the sand).

This ambiguity makes the law somewhat unenforceable and can also suppress ORV usage and the revenue it brings in the winter months (who wants to risk a ticket with ambiguous laws?). While trying to fix a perceived problem, it may have unintended, negative consequences that are far worse than sharing 1,500 miles of mixed trails as has been the case for decades.

To avoid tickets, ORVs will probably increase usage of state forest roads and county roads during the winter months. The latter could cause further issues because many snowmobile trails are on county roads which are open under the ORV Ordinance and not affected by the proposed House Bill. We could have an issue where complaints from snowmobilers simply shift from wheeled vehicles on the mixed trails to complaints of ORV usage on open roads

THE CONCLUSION

It is still uncertain if this bill will pass the House and Senate, but if it does, it will bring new challenges to the county. We will need to bring clarity to the interpretation of the law in Lake County specifically and manage the expectations of all riders, both snowmobilers and ORV'ers.

It will be important for ORVs to know when they can and can’t ride the mixed trails and it is equally important for snowmobilers to know when the conditions are such that they can expect to see ORV traffic in those areas. You may not always get the change that you want but it is important to manage the change you get.

— This information is provided to you for clarification on specific laws, and not legal advice. This is not to be construed as a personal opinion, agreement or disagreement of any specific law. Topics covered are for educational and informational purposes only. As needed, excerpts from other articles are used for reference and/or content. If you have any questions on any specific topic, you may always email me your questions to rmartin@co.lake.mi.us.