Fresh Snow

Show me the Money Funding for Trails Needs Fresh Ideas

By Ron Begin

The funding of ski trails, and all non-motorized trails for that matter, is a subject of some concern to me. I write this column in hopes of stimulating some discussion, generating ideas and sharing success stories.

There are two primary financial facets of trail funding to address: development of trails – actually creating and constructing them – and maintaining and grooming them once they have been created. Both require money, but where does the money come from or, more importantly, where can it come from? What are new or different potential sources of funding?

Somewhere along the line the notion has evolved that cross country skiing on groomed trails is something that should be a free commodity.

In part the impetus for this discussion derives from what is, at least on my part, a perceived disadvantage at which ski and other non-motorized sports are forced to operate. It might be worth looking at our motorized brethren to see how their trails are funded.

Here in Wisconsin, most snowmobile trails are subsidized by a combination of registrations on the snow machines and a rebate on gas taxes. The latter is formulated via an estimate of the amount of gas used and tax paid, multiplied by the number of machines. These funds, literally hundreds of thousands of dollars, are then funneled back from the state to the counties and clubs based on the number of miles of trails to be maintained. Without these “vehicles” for funding, I’m sure snowmobiling and other motorized trail sports would find themselves in the same boat.

I am not aware of a corresponding system for non-motorized sports, since skiers are not registered. I’m not sure how registration might work, short of a state-wide license or ski pass similar to the Minnesota state trail pass. It has been suggested that fuel purchased for grooming purposes be afforded a similar rebate. But, in reality, how much funding would that generate? I would doubt enough to have a real impact.

To put this in context, one must first acknowledge that the most obvious source of funding for non-motorized trails is from those who use the trails. For commercial and even some non-profit Nordic centers it is a fairly simple business model. Customers show up, pay their trail fee and get a day of skiing on a hopefully well-designed, constructed and groomed trail. Most Nordic center operators are quick to acknowledge, however, that trail fees don’t always cover all of their costs. It is necessary to augment their cash flow with ancillary programs and products, including lessons, equipment rental and sales, food and beverage and other concession sales.

But it becomes even more of a challenge when a club or trail association does not have a formal fee system, a way to request or require the collection of such a fee, or even a realistic way of implementing or enforcing fee collection.

Somewhere along the line the notion has evolved that cross country skiing on groomed trails is something that should be a free commodity. Perhaps this just grew out of the fact that, in its most basic sense, you can ski just about anywhere and don’t even need a prepared trail. But once a system of maintenance and grooming is implemented that equation changes.

There are a lot of public-land-based trails where I live; primarily county and national forests. In some cases, the land managers take care of the trails and don’t expect much in the way of compensation for use. In these cases, the taxpayers essentially pay the way for us skiers. Not a bad deal, except that this sometimes results in a “you-get-what-you-pay-for” scenario, as municipally groomed trails may not receive the quality nor the frequency of grooming skiers have come to expect. One of our favorite local trails, for example, is groomed once a week on Thursday or Friday. If it snows over the weekend, that trail won’t see a groomer again until the next scheduled grooming.

Commonly you’ll see a steel tube or metal collection box at a trail head with a sign requesting a free-will donation. The next time you pull into the parking lot at such a place, sit in your car for a while and count how many people actually stop and drop a few bucks in the tube. Perhaps 10 to 20 percent will actually pay their way. What is the reason for this? Maybe skiers really are cheap, as the stereotyped reputation goes. Donations generate some funding, sufficient to pay for gas and some maintenance, but certainly not enough to purchase any of the big ticket machinery used to groom the trails. And were it not for volunteers that, in many cases, actually do the grooming, the true costs would be unattainable by this method.

Fees and donations aside, there are just a few other mechanisms available to help raise the necessary funds to support trails such as club memberships, special events and races, and solicitation of donations, sponsorships or grants.

Last season Cross Country Skier looked at The Economics of Skiing (December 2007), examining several good business models. This past summer I did some additional research on these same models and added a couple more to the list. Almost all of these used an area-wide trail pass approach. Most were reasonably to extremely successful in generating revenue to support their trails. For a more detailed look at several good examples, see www.crosscountryskier.com, where a summary of this information has been posted. This is a particularly good approach in areas where there are multiple trail systems under different jurisdictions. It helps simplify life for skiers, as they only need to purchase one pass, and, in the end, is more economical.

The state of Wisconsin has decided to tackle this issue head-on, in hopes of developing a system that will aid non-motorized recreation in finding additional funding sources. On one hand, while I agree that skiers should be expected to pay their way, it also makes sense for state and local governments to do more to provide healthy recreational opportunities for their citizens, particularly in light of the obesity epidemic across this country.

In Wisconsin, the legislature has established a special committee to study this issue and come up with some suggestions. A number of concepts have been floated and discussed. Some have been dismissed, while others remain a part of the mix. Ideas include a tax on specific sporting goods, state income tax check-offs, special vehicle license plates, registrations, real estate transfer fees and general purpose revenues. Right now the favorite appears to key off the gas tax concept and establishes a rebate or credit, based on activities that cause emissions; and establishing a segregated account for non-motorized recreation funding. In addition, the state is setting up a new state non-motorized advisory council to continue to address this and other related issues. For more information, see this PDF file.

One concept that I find intriguing is the One Percent approach. To my knowledge, this has yet to be tried in support of recreational trails.

The One Percent program was first employed in Crested Butte, Colorado, to help support the preservation of open space. Crested Butte’s One Percent for Open Space enlists area businesses that voluntarily collect an additional one percent on every purchase or sale. Businesses like medical or law practices or real estate agencies that don’t sell at retail, may just make a flat lump-sum contribution to the cause – not necessarily equal to one percent of their revenues.

Proceeds from the One Percent program help cover the cost of its implementation. In 2004, the One Percent for Open Space in Crested Butte generated $850,000. Other one percent initiatives have helped support environmental and social causes as well as recreational programs around the country. It would seem that an enterprising Nordic ski community could undertake a one percent program to help fund its trails, educational programs and other initiatives. A more detailed description of the One Percent concept is posted on www.crosscountryskier.com.

What works in your community? I am eager to learn of more novel ideas and successful initiatives from around the country. Perhaps Cross Country Skier can further this discussion to advance this cause and help find better ways to develop funding sources for our trails. Drop us a line at info@crosscountryskier.com or join a conversation on the new forum section on www.crosscountryskier.com.

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