Much-needed SnowTRAC program needs snowmobiler support to thrive
For the February edition of Alaska SnowRider, I am starting a conversation about the SnowTRAC Point of Sale Registration program. As we’ve discussed before, there are issues with this program that, with the help of you snowmobile enthusiasts out there, we intend to remedy. For the next couple of editions, I will detail the program in three areas:
This month’s edition will focus on the creation and historical challenges of the program;
The second installment will give current status and program features, and;
The third section will give our – and by that I mean organizations around the state – proposals and key initiatives for reformatting this program to meet specific goals. It also will outline what help we need to move this reform forward.
For some snowmobilers, the registration program is something that doesn’t gets much thought. After all, $5 per year is basically one latte or a gallon of gas in some areas. Fewer snowmobilers are aware that the legal registration of snowmobiles has been in effect in Alaska for decades.
Up until 1997, there was no legal penalty for not registering a snowmobile that is used on public property. There were some codes that addressed riding on State of Alaska lands with no registration, but once again, without any enforcement or mandatory registration, I cannot recall one instance of enforcement.
At the same time, snowmobilers in Alaska began to realize that there was no infrastructure to support their choice of recreation or in many instances, no infrastructure to support destinations or community trail systems that they availed themselves of. This was also a time in Alaska of some land managers that were, to put it charitably, ambiguous about snowmobiles in general and not supportive of trail systems they were suddenly being asked to create and maintain, specifically.
There were increasingly more people entering snowmobiling for recreational purposes, equating to increasingly more requests for trails, signage and safety programs.
To address this shortage, the organized snowmobile community proposed a solution. The registration fees collected would be returned to the snowmobile community to self-fund the creation of new trails, maintain these trails and begin the process of a statewide safety program to address many concerns of the community at large.
At this time in the evolution of snowmobiles, there were tremendous leaps being made in the capabilities of the “backcountry sleds” of the time. This increased ability of these snowmobiles resulted in a tremendous influx of riders entering previously unattainable backcountry. Partially as a result of this access, the avalanche deaths in Alaska snowmobiling reached record numbers.
In response, a proposal was put to the Legislature to address these problems. Snowmobiles would be required by law to be registered at the point of sale. That money would then be returned to the snowmobile community for support of a program to create new trails, maintain existing ones and establish a safety program that would address Alaska’s unique requirements.
In June of 1997, with the support of the Legislature, ASSA, ASRA and other snowmobile groups, Gov. Tony Knowles signed into law the Alaska Point of Sale Snowmobile Registration program. This program itself was not fully fleshed out yet, but it provided for administration by the Department of Natural Resources, office of Outdoor Recreation. The department was to administer the program within the parameters set by a volunteer advisory board that, at that time, was made up of a mixture of nominees from the Alaska State Snowmobile Association, the Alaska Snow Representatives Alliance and general snowmobile advocates.
The DNR was selected for because it had the infrastructure to deal with State of Alaska requirements for grant funding, as well as mirroring the general snowmobile programs set up in other successful snow-belt states. Our constitution requires that all funds go directly into the General Fund and cannot be earmarked for specific programs. Therefore DNR had to put this item into its budgetary request for the year, and the Legislature had to approve it. The language in the original POS legislation included a nonbinding agreement to return an equal amount of snowmobile registration funding to DNR to support this program. The Legislature has made good on its commitment each and every year since the implementation of this agreement.
Since its 1997 implementation, tremendous changes have occurred in the program focus, the board makeup, the DNR administration and support, as well as the community requirements and requests from the program.
One of the largest changes is the constant turnover at DNR, and with each director having separate visions of this portion of his/her job responsibilities. Each director has complete authority over the final product of this advisory board, and we have seen as many program visions as we have directors. Add in the minor assignment of administration staff to carry out the director’s vision of the program, and you begin to see where this program has the potential to go completely off the rails.
Goals and final funding ratios are wholly in the hands of the administration, sometimes in direct conflict with the advisory board. The advisory board makeup itself has been changed from a totally snowmobile-focused board to one that meets DNR’s vision of diversity. A result of that change is that there are several board members whose recreation/avocation focus is not on snowmobiles. At present, these members have added, more than subtracted, from the discussion and we hope that continues.
A second, and possibly more impactful change in the program, is the increased requests for funding from an ever-expanding constituentency. Funding a statewide trails program for the same amount that was received in 1997 is a painful reminder that the one snowmobile program in the state (and the only self-funded one) has neither kept up with inflation nor the increase in project requests. A functional and comprehensive statewide safety program, for example, would require more than half of the total amount received.
Next month’s installment will address the current situation for the SnowTRAC board and the immediate challenges that we face as we move into our goal of making this program more effective for the snowmobilers who pay for it. Our responsibility is to make this program successful, protect our riders with a statewide safety program and make the creation and grooming of a statewide trails program a reality.
Stick with us, and remember: This trails program belongs to each and every one of us. We fund it; we should make it reflect our needs.