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Outdoor finances being crunched by users

December 3, 2010
By Tim Kobasic

ESCANABA - Tuesday I had the opportunity to attend the regular meeting of the Michigan Snowmobile and Trails Advisory Council (MSTAC), held in Higgins Lake at the Ralph E. Mullen Conference and Education Center.

MSTAC is made up of volunteer representatives from the equine trails user, snowmobile and off-road vehicle user groups and non-motorized (hiker, biker) trails user groups. The council is a composite of all disciplines put together when Governor Granholm dissolved the separate councils under one of her last executive orders that re-structure the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (MDNR) and combined it with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) currently known as the MDNRE. MSTAC is chaired by Natural Resources Commissioner Frank Wheatlake.

When I first learned of the consolidation, I was one who sent letters and made phone calls requesting that the license buying recreational trails users should receive majority representation on MSTAC, given that we pay for the lion's share of trail establishment and maintenance. I held an attitude that the non-paying groups should not have an equal say in this particular aspect of resource management.

Well that mindset changed as I witnessed the reception by those on the MSTAC Council, from the presentation by MDNRE Forest Management Division (FMD) Chief Lynne Boyd on the financial constraints they are currently experiencing and the gloomy forecast through fiscal year 2011, to continue all trail recreation opportunities in Michigan.

One common misconception by the public is that profits from the sale of hunting, trapping and fishing licenses are paying a good part of trail recreation in the state. The fact is they don't.

The revenue received from the sale of such licenses is constitutionally protected (restricted) from diversion to other uses. Those areas that once seemed to overlap are also now gone, thanks to the close scrutiny of the Natural Resource Commission - recently championed by UP Commissioner John Madigan.

The money used to fund all Michigan trail systems comes in part from the sale of permits, registration and licenses on recreational vehicles (both land and water although waterways is not part of the equation here), federal grants, private contributions and a small portion of the FMD General Fund.

Please keep in mind that each MDNRE Division has a General Fund and that the State of Michigan General Fund also allocates a very small portion of its holdings to the MDNRE where it is then shared among the Divisions.

Are you following this?

The license-registration-permit revenue is matched against money received from the Pittman-Robertson (PR) Act and the Dingle Johnson (DJ) Act, returning money raised at the federal level to the individual states from excise taxes paid on outdoor recreation equipment. Michigan ranks as one of the highest in the Union for annually receiving these funds. Even in those areas where PR/DJ was used for a minute portion of land acquisition, today a large share of those funds is used for maintenance which requires statutory compliance, especially regarding over-use.

While the sales side of trail use is mostly paying for itself, there are some grave problems on the horizon, one of which is the ORV/ATV fund. It has not kept pace with inflation since fees cost was last adjusted in 1996.

Even with increased sales, the cost of doing business is now exceeding revenue and the account will be in a deficit within the next fiscal period. That resolve on this issue can and will be addressed soon. To put it simply, the cost to users is likely going to increase.

The real problem again goes back to those uses not funded under a fee structure. The non-motorized groups are facing major access closures because of a lack of funding.

Most of what has been used to finance them in the past came out of the FMD General Fund, with FY2010 general purpose expenditures of $563,000. That budget line will shrink to $242,000 in 2011 with an anticipated additional 25% hit during the year.

The only other sources of revenue to pay for non-motorized trails is by the honor system where fees are supposed to be placed in collection pipes at trail heads and from private donations and bequests.

Last year donations totaled as much as $50 thousand. The pipe payment fees were so low they're not worth mentioning.

To give you the immediate impact of the financial impact of what is expected in FY2011, there will only be three cross-country ski trails maintained throughout the state. The rest will either have to rely on volunteer adoption, similar to that realized on snowmobile and ORV/ATV trails, or a revenue generator will have to be established that will not only pay for upkeep, but will provide adequate money to make new acquisitions as the interest in use expands.

This is part of Governor-elect Snyder's plan to rebuild Michigan's economy.

Agriculture and Tourism (Recreation) will be a main contributor to our industrial base in the future. If we maintain a solid and quality base for people to enjoy, it will do more to make Michigan a destination point for non-residents to enjoy.

What I would have previously expected to see as a result of the news was an attitude by non-motorized users that conveyed a sense of entitlement as general tax payers. What I instead did see, was a true empathetic, compassionate group of true Michiganders who collectively said - "What can we do to help?"

That folks, is what makes this such a great place to live!

Tim Kobasic is outdoors editor for KMB Broadcasting and host/producer for Tails & Trails Outdoor Radio aired on six radio stations over three networks, Charter Communications cable and the Internet Saturday mornings.



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