Cuts Could Make for Bumpy Ride

By Beacon Staff

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COLUMBIA FALLS – Montana’s share of a grant program funding the maintenance and creation of trails all over the state has been cut in half, and as a result, users from snowmobilers to hikers could find themselves encountering rougher terrain.

Robbie Holman oversees the maintenance of a sprawling trail network stretching from Canyon Creek to Olney, as the grooming chairman of the Flathead Snowmobile Association. Last week Holman learned his club would receive about half of the approximately $30,000 it has relied upon in an annual grant from the Recreational Trails Program to help pay for trail grooming. Before then, he didn’t think the funds were coming through at all.

“This isn’t just snowmobiling,” Holman said. “I mean, snowmobiling is small.”

Montana usually receives about $1.1 million from the Recreational Trails Program, which is then divided among more than 40 individual grants throughout the state, according to Tom Reilly, who administers the program for the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks. This year, the funds came in at about 54 percent of what was expected, so all grant recipients will receive 54 percent of their requests – in what Reilly described as the “only fair way we could figure out to do this.”

“That’s obviously quite a reduction from what was anticipated,” Reilly said. “It’s unfortunate for a lot of people on a lot of fronts that it’s reduced this much.”

The U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Highway Administration offers the Recreational Trails Program, funded by federal gas taxes. No state money is included in it, Reilly said. Congress appropriated $85 million to the program in 2009.

In the Flathead, recipients of the trail money include the Bob Marshall Wilderness Foundation, Flathead County’s Herron Park, the Foys to Blacktail trail project, the city of Columbia Falls for its River’s Edge trail project and Rails to Trails of Northwest Montana.

Horace Sanders, a Rails to Trails board member, said receiving half of the $14,000 his group applied for would mean less maintenance than planned on the 22 miles of paved trail that now run from Kila to Flathead Lake.

“It’ll probably mean maybe a couple miles of trail that won’t get top-coated this year,” Sanders said. “It just means we do less.”

Though trail users may not notice radical changes in the near future, over time, a decrease in maintenance could impact some favorite local trails many take for granted – and affect local recreation-based businesses that rely on Northwest Montana’s reputation as an outdoor mecca.

Pat Clanton and Jason Lee own J&L Snowmobile Rentals in Columbia Falls, where they regularly provide guided tours along the Flathead’s 180 miles of groomed trails. A typical client, Clanton said, is someone who travels to the valley for a week of skiing, and includes a day or two of snowmobiling as part of their activities. He is concerned trails in worse condition could discourage repeat business.

“It will affect the happiness of the nonresidents because the trail will get bumpy,” Clanton said. “If the trail is bumpy and they don’t have as much fun as they thought they would, they’re not going to come back.”

Holman and Clanton took a Beacon reporter and photographer along last week for a day of snowmobiling to reveal the extent of terrain groomed by the Flathead Snowmobile Association, all of which would see less maintenance under reduced funding levels in the trail grant programs.

Heading west from the Canyon Creek trailhead, the route climbed gradually, with tracks visible from the trail where snowmobilers climbed and descended slopes, curving around and between trees. One stop included the survival cabin, maintained by the club, providing a woodstove and shelter from harsh winter conditions. Along the way, Clanton stopped to give a skier a lift to where he could ski back to Big Mountain.

At one point, Holman led the group off groomed terrain onto deep fresh snow, making control of the snowmobile significantly more difficult as it pitched from side to side. He also pointed out the mild washboard-like bumps on the groomed trail that grew bigger over the course of the day from snowmobiles.

While the more challenging conditions make for fun riding for more experienced snowmobilers, it’s harder on beginners, and Clanton noted with less maintenance, the bumpier trails could lesson the enjoyment of the sport for families out for a day in the mountains.

During a discussion at the Whitefish Mountain Resort summit house, Holman acknowledged that the reductions in the trail maintenance program are likely a harbinger of a system based more on user fees, and less on federal dollars – at least in the case of Montana snowmobiling.

“Sooner or later, probably, we’ll end up having a direct user funding mechanism,” Holman said. “Because sooner or later the feds are going to think that they can do something better with the money.”

But any transition in funding is likely to be bumpy. Clanton wonders whether user fees, along with the steady climb of fuel prices, could cut more deeply into the margins of his business over the years. And Holman knows user fees are going to be a tough sell for Montana snowmobilers accustomed to well-maintained trails at little to no cost. He thinks it may take a winter of rough riding before snowmobilers, who already invest heavily in their sport, are ready to pull out their wallets at the trailhead.

“It’s just a psychological change,” Holman said, then laughed. “I have no idea how to pull it off.”

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