By Carl Stoddard
Capital News Service
Warmer weather and a cool state economy have teamed up to mean fewer snowmobile riders on Michigan trails — and less money in the pockets of those who rely on them.
A snowy winter at the peak of the snowmobile era could pump nearly $1 billion into economy of the state, with its nearly 300,000 registered snowmobiles and thousands of miles of snowmobile trails.
But snow hasn’t always been a sure thing in Michigan’s winter wonderland recently.
And, according to the Secretary of State’s office, registrations have been falling over the past decade.
In October, 283,884 snowmobiles were registered in Michigan, said Laura Lehman, a communications representative for the Secretary of State. That’s down from October 2007, when 390,168 snowmobiles were registered.
A three-year registration costs $30, the Secretary of State says.
Snowmobilers need an annual state-issued trail permit sticker to ride on public roads “where authorized,” and on public lands and trails, according to the Department of Natural Resources (DNR).
An annual trail permit is $48. Snowmobile trails officially open Dec. 1 and close March 31.
During the 2016-17 winter season, about 130,000 trail permit stickers were issued, said Paul Gaberdiel, a trails specialist with the DNR in Newberry. That’s down from about 200,000 issued in the 2006-07 season, Gaberdiel said.
He said he blames the downturn on the cost of snowmobiling, inconsistent temperatures and snow, and the Great Recession of 2007-09, which hit Michigan especially hard.
“It just hasn’t rebounded from there,” Gaberdiel said.
Bill Manson, executive director of the Michigan Snowmobile Association, says snowmobiling depends on disposable income, and there has been less of that since the recession.
But he is optimistic about the future of snowmobiling in Michigan.
“We’ll come back,” said Manson, whose 17,000-member organization is based in the Grand Rapids suburb of Wyoming.
In the late 1990s, sales of new snowmobiles in Michigan reached about 20,000 a year, he said. By 2008, sales had plunged to about 3,000 units a year, he said, but rebounded to about 6,000 last year.
“There’s a good feeling among hard-core snowmobilers that this is going to be a good winter,” said Manson, who counts himself among those hard-core riders.
“We’ve stabilized. If we have a good winter, I think we’ll see permits, sales, registrations all go up,” he said.
Back in 2007, before the recession hit, snowmobiling was a $1-billion-a-year industry in the state, he said. These days, the industry has slipped but still contributes about $800 million a year to the state’s economy, he said.
Sales, permits and registrations account for much of that impact. In addition, the average snowmobiler out on winter trails will spend about $150 a day for gas, food, lodging and other expenses, he said.
State officials don’t break down how much is spent on snowmobiling but do know how much vacationers spend overall in the state in the winter months.
Last winter, leisure travelers in Michigan spent nearly $3.9 billion, out of $15.3 billion for the entire year, said Michelle Grinnell, director of media and public relations for the state’s Economic Development Corp. Travel Michigan program.
At Copper Country Rentals in Calumet, about 10 miles north of Houghton and Hancock, snowmobile rentals have been on the rise, said owner Susan Bushong.
“I see that trend toward renting” and away from buying snowmobiles, Bushong said.
With renting, she said, snowmobilers avoid a lot of expenses, but still “get a new sled every year.”
Bushong, who has 30 snowmobiles available for rent, said it already is snowing in the Upper Peninsula, but she expects business to pick up by late December as the snow starts piling up.
In Michigan, wetter-than-average weather is expected in the coming months, according to the most recent winter outlook released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).That same report said Michigan has an equal chance of being warmer or colder than normal this winter.
Blame the uncertainty on La Niña, which is “potentially emerging for the second year in a row as the biggest wildcard in how this year’s winter will shape up,” NOAA said in its report. During La Niña, parts of the Pacific Ocean are cooler than normal, affecting the weather in North America.
The 2018 edition of The Old Farmer’s Almanac predicts a warmer than normal winter, with slightly above normal precipitation in most of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula. In Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and the tip of the Lower Peninsula, the almanac says, winter will be warmer than normal, while precipitation and snowfall will be below normal.
The Pure Michigan website says Michigan’s more than 6,500 miles of groomed snowmobiling trails “are one of the most extensive interconnected snowmobile trail systems in the nation, made even better by the state’s abundant and dependable snow.”
About 3,000 miles of the trails are in the remote, rugged and typically snowier Upper Peninsula.
According to the Otsego County Historical Society, the first U. S. patent for a snow machine, the predecessor of the modern snowmobile, was awarded in 1916 to Ray H. Muscott of Waters, which is south of Gaylord.