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Jefferson County snowmobile trail aid declines

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State snowmobile grant-in-aid money to help clubs maintain trails in the north country has fallen 26 percent from last year with the passage of a resolution Tuesday by the Jefferson County Board of Legislators to accept $53,135 from the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation for the program.

That’s down from $72,110 in 2011-12 and $98,925 during the program’s height in 2008-09.

The money, awarded on a use-it-or-lose-it reimbursement plan, is distributed by Jefferson County, the state’s partner in administering the program, to four local clubs: Winona Forest Recreation Association, Barnes Corners Sno-Pals Snowmobile Club, Thousand Islands Snowmobile Club and Missing Link Snowmobile Club, Carthage.

The snowmobiling industry, which has a statewide annual economic impact of $868 million, according to a study commissioned by the New York State Snowmobilers Association, lost a step after last year’s mild winter and is trying to recover.

Gary R. Stinson, president of the Barnes Corners Sno-Pals and alternate NYSSA regional director for Lewis County, said the cost of the program isn’t borne by taxpayers. Instead, money comes from the registration fees snowmobilers pay to use their sleds in the state. It costs $100 to register a snowmobile on your own or $45 if you pay an additional $25 to join a club. A portion of that money goes toward Department of Motor Vehicles costs while the majority goes toward a dedicated trail fund. Anyone wishing to ride a snowmobile in New York must register it with the state.

Snowmobile registrations were down by approximately 40,000 last year, Mr. Stinson said.

Money is disbursed according to the number of miles of trail in a county, with 163 miles in Jefferson.

Mismanagement of the program landed Franklin and Herkimer counties in hot water after the state comptroller found evidence of improperly redirected funds and the practice of paying some volunteers. Lewis and St. Lawrence counties were mildly criticized while Jefferson County went unmentioned with an ostensibly clean record.

Last year, Jefferson County requested $12,000 less than its allotted amount from the state after it became clear the Winona Forest and Missing Link clubs couldn’t document enough activities because of the light snow cover, according to county planner Andrew R. Nevin, the official who manages the program.

“The state appreciates honesty and doing things the right way,” he said. “If you do it right, it’s a good program.”

The accuracy of GPS units installed on groomers has increased accountability, even to the point of reducing trail mileage in the county.

Carolyn K. Rees, president of the Winona Forest Recreation Association, said the money is employed year-round to maintain and groom trails, build bridges, remove logs, install stone culverts, trim “face slapper” branches from the trail and fix water holes in the summer.

“Maintenance is extremely important,” Mr. Stimson said. “Snowmobilers will not ride otherwise. They expect trails to be groomed.”

While the Christmas snowfall engendered optimism for 2013, a pending onslaught of spring-like conditions over the next week threatens to hamper the process of getting trails back to normal.

Ms. Rees said the club shouldn’t take too big of a hit this year, but the future is uncertain if the warm weather trend continues.

Clubs in the Tug Hill region benefit from operating in a high-snow area. The outlook is graver for areas that don’t receive as much annual snowfall.

“Two or three years like last year and we would definitely be hurting and probably wouldn’t even exist.” said Jerri E. Lothrop, president of the Thousand Islands Snowmobile Club.

Before this weekend’s foreboding forecast — highs could reach into the 40s for three or four days — entered the picture, the enthusiasm for winter sports was in full swing.

Ms. Rees said the parking lot for trails at Winona Forest has been packed the past couple of weekends, with overflow spilling into at least two adjacent lots.

“The place is crazy,” she said.

Mr. Lothrop said the Thousand Islands trails were well used but not overly crowded.

Despite his prediction the club would no longer exist if the warm weather continued, Mr. Lothrop said he believed the trend of having occasional warm spells throughout the winter has been happening since the 1990s.

“We have shirts that say ‘Think snow,’” he said. “We’re always praying for snow up here.”

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