June might seem a strange time to talk about snowmobiles, but not for Tom D’Ambrosio. Summer is prime riding time.
D’Ambrosio is an avid hand cyclist who enjoys the northern end of the Fred Meijer White Pine Trail, in particular the 17 miles between Cadillac and LeRoy. He’s apt to ride it a couple of dozen times during the season.
What galls him is that in winter snowmobiles with studs have regularly scored its surface. For that to happen, they were on the trail during periods with less than four inches of snow. Four is required by the state in order to protect the surface. Signs have been placed along the trail saying that clearly.
D’Ambrosio, of Houghton Lake, says the wear slows him down. Worse is that the $2 million paving project was completed just two seasons ago.
“It’s to the point that there is a groove down the entire 17 miles,” said D’Ambrosio, who was paralyzed in an accident in 1993 and now rides the trail using a hand cycle.
The wear has been acknowledged by Michigan Department of Natural Resources trail managers and planners and also by the Michigan Snowmobile Association. It is a thorn in the side of the Friends of the White Pine Trail, the group instrumental in raising the money for paving.
The Friends’ website, whitepinetrail.com, has photos of patches on holes made by vandals on snowmobiles who used their studded tracks to grind holes in the surface down to the gravel below.
Dave Heyboer, chairman of the Friends, would like studs banned on trails.
“We’re firmly in favor of snowmobile use,” said Heyboer, a snowmobiler himself. “But we are very strongly against studded tracks on the White Pine Trail. The damage in just a short time is serious and unacceptable.”
Bill Manson, executive director of the Michigan Snowmobile Association, sees the wear differently. “It’s normal and acceptable wear unless there was something changed in the asphalt formula,” he said.
A special, hardened formula was developed to mitigate the problem. Manson and others in the snowmobile community played a role in its development.
Of the vandalism he says otherwise: “That’s senseless abuse. It’s not something a sane person would do
Manson does not favor banning studs. They are used by three-quarters of the riders in the state, according to an MSA survey. State snowmobile funds are available to pay for the vandalism repairs, he said. The rest, assuming it does not get worse, is simply to be expected on a multi-use trail.
M.C. Smith Associates and Architectural Group in East Grand Rapids has been contracted to study whether the asphalt met standards or whether there is excessive wear taking place.
State officials are waiting for the study results but have increased their efforts to add signs to the trail so riders know of the four-inches-of-snow rule.
“My initial thoughts are that this section gets a lot more use than other sections,” said Troy Rife, the DNR’s northwest field planner. “Cadillac is a snowmobiling destination. It’s a 15-to-20-mile ride, with nice places to stop and eat. Just south of LeRoy, beyond the restaurants, I don’t find the wear that I find to the north.
“We have put up some signs, but (people being people) if they have driven 200 miles to Cadillac and it has only three inches of snow, they will probably ride.”
And that is the real problem, more than studs. People will always be people. Some always will flout the rules.
People are riding when they shouldn’t be. That puts the onus on the DNR to correct them — along with Cadillac and other communities along the trail who benefit from the riders.
Banning studs is a regressive approach and premature if DNR conservation officers and county sheriffs are not adequately enforcing the rules or closing the trail when there is not enough snow.
Trail closures and targeted enforcement should be the first response after making repairs. The problem isn’t the studs per se. It is the people who are using them.
Any public outrage about damage to a $2 million public investment because of them is justified in June or any other time of year.
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