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Snowmobile clubs step up to the plate

Local snowmobile clubs in Becker County are looking both ways and crossing into new territory, as the County Board has now granted them all rights to trail maintenance, grooming and the financial responsibilities that go with it.

Some of the trails in Becker County were already being managed by snowmobile clubs, but the over 200 miles of county trails left in county hands are now being handed over to Midnight Riders, ULTRA (United Lakes and Trails Riders Association) and a new group called North Country Trails.

"We've always took care of them, cleaned them up and had them ready for the county to groom, but now we're assuming the grooming duties and the financial responsibilities and paperwork involved," said Tom Holmes, president of the Midnight Riders Association.

Club members say getting the money directly from the state will allow them to more efficiently run maintenance issues because when the county dealt with it, they ended up missing opportunities for grants.

"Anytime you deal with government, you deal with a lot of red tape," said Joel Matter, who is a member of both ULTRA and Midnight Riders.

The snowmobile clubs have a Winter Trails Advisory Committee (WTAC), which would notify the county when there were grant opportunities available, but that red tape meant delayed reactions and missed money.

"When the winter trails advisory wanted something, we would have to send it to the natural resources committee, from the natural resources committee it would have to go to the finance committee, from the finance committee it would have to go to the county board," said County Commissioner Gerry Schram. "So, by the clubs handling this directly, it takes away jumps of hoops."

The clubs will now get the $382 per trail mile designated by the state (raised through snowmobile permits and gas tax), along with the state-owned equipment for grooming and managing.

Both the county commission and the clubs agree that this transfer of power will result in better groomed trails throughout the area, as club members won't have to wait for approval to groom every time there is a snowstorm.

"It's a managerial nightmare for the county to do this (managing the grooming) because we could get six inches of snow a mile south of here and not get an inch in the north," said County Commissioner Larry Knutson. "These club members live in the area where the trails are and have a much better handle of when groomers should be out. It's a much better fit."

Holmes agrees.

"We can call an emergency board meeting since we're not a government agency, so we can more efficiently, on a high snow year, move something along faster. If we see a blizzard, we don't have to ask for overtime; we can just go get the groomers and do it without being on a set schedule like the county."

Having three entities involved (the clubs, the county, and the contractors hired by the county) is also a complication the clubs won't miss.

"We're on the ground; we knew what needed to be done," said Matter. "So many times it would have been better if we could have just been able to talk to them (the county-hired contractors) directly to tell them what we needed."

Now, with no middle-man, the Clubs are ready to go.

Not all members of ULTRA and Midnight Riders wanted to take this ride though, but Holmes and Matter say the younger generation of riders is willing to step up and handle it.

"It's going to be a lot more work for the club with budgeting funds and taking care of the grooming aspect of it, but we are going to able to do it in a much more efficient manner than the county was able to do it," said Holmes.

But as Commissioner Knutson puts it, they're "not re-inventing the wheel" by handling the trails this way, as Becker County was one of only two counties left in Minnesota managing snowmobile trails.

The county will still be involved as a sponsor of the trail system though, doing the actual writing for the grants and acting as a liaison between government agencies and the clubs.

"In case DNR has any questions or complaints, they would call us and we could help investigate," said Becker County Board Chair Barry Nelson.

The WTAC will now meet with two county commissioners in an open forum to hammer out which clubs will take which trails and how much money they will need to do so.

The meeting is set for 5 p.m. Thursday in the County Board Room, and is open to the public.