Bill Would Bolster Montana’s Snowmobile Grooming Fund

Currently, snowmobile owners pay one time for a snowmobile registration that's good for the entire time they own the machine

By Dillon Tabish

BOZEMAN — A bill has been proposed in the Legislature that would bolster state grants for grooming Montana’s snowmobile trails, which are seeing increased use.

House Bill 300, sponsored by Rep. Kerry White, R-Bozeman, will be heard in the House Fish, Wildlife & Parks committee on Thursday.

Currently, snowmobile owners pay one time for a snowmobile registration that’s good for the entire time they own the machine.

The problem is that people sell used snowmobiles with the registration stickers still attached so the new owner doesn’t have to pay.

“You can go on Craigslist, and they advertise them with the permanent sticker on it. When (rangers) check them on the trail, they check for the sticker, but they don’t check that the sticker matches the registration,” White told the Bozeman Daily Chronicle. “Nobody is re-registering, so the grooming fund is taking a dive.”

Montana State Parks administers the snowmobile program, which distributes funds collected from registration fees to 27 snowmobile clubs that are part of the Montana Snowmobile Association.

The clubs groom trails that are primarily on Forest Service land, post trail signs and provide safety education.

Mary Sue Costello, of the West Yellowstone Chamber of Commerce, said people who come to snowmobile in West Yellowstone expect groomed trails. And as with many recreational sports, the number has jumped in recent years.

Statewide, the number of registered snowmobiles has jumped from about 22,000 to almost 60,000 in 10 years, according to a July report by the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at the University of Montana. That’s in spite of the fact that snowmobile use was sharply curtailed in Yellowstone National Park over the same time.

But it’s not cheap to groom the almost 4,000 miles of snowmobile trails in Montana for all those machines.

For this year, State Park grants totaled more than $388,000.

Most clubs receive grants of less than $20,000, although a few grants of up to $75,000 have been awarded.

Costello said more money is needed.

White noted that the UM report showed that residents spent a total of more than $96 million on snowmobile-related expenses last year. That’s double the total spent just eight years earlier.

He wants the grooming program to benefit from some of that spending.

His proposal would create an $18 trail pass that is good for three years. That would avoid the loophole created by a permanent sticker.

Also, the sticker is not limited to snowmobilers. It would also be offered to people who wanted to ride the new sled bikes and fat-tire pedal bikes on groomed trails.

A legislative fiscal analysis predicted that the sticker would bring in more than $393,000 in the first year, drop to about $36,000 the next two years and then spike again.

White said the revenue would probably be greater because the analysis didn’t include the bikes, which are increasingly popular.

“I’ve talked to so many people in Helena that are like, ‘Dude, all my buddies want one.’ This trail pass would pick up the new technology, which currently can’t use the trails, and bring in more money,” White said. “This is not a tax — it’s pay-to-play.”