In these jaded times, Washington D.C. has been called many things – a swamp, a cesspool, etc. – but snowmobile capital of the world? It might not seem completely fitting, but that’s exactly what it was recently.
About 50 representatives of grass-roots snowmobilers from 16 states recently “stormed the hill” as they say, participating in an annual event called the American Council of Snowmobile Associations (ACSA) Fly-In, representing snowmobilers to the folks who make decisions on vital issues like land access, trail funding and more.
It was the 20th such visit by ACSA and state snowmobiling officials – and the sort of thing the vast majority of riders don’t even realize happens or how vital it is to protecting their right and ability to enjoy the great sport of snowmobiling.
Know The Right People
The annual springtime visit to Washington D.C. started with a simple concept, according to Christine Jourdain, executive director of ACSA.
“Twenty years ago, we decided that our member of Congress – those people who make decisions – needed to hear from us, the riders, to hear what’s important to us and what they can help us with,” Jourdain said.
It has grown into a multi-day, multi-faceted event, all focused on getting the right message and information to the right people on a federal level, whether that’s the actual elected officials, their key staff members or important officials in the government bureaucracy over oversee federal lands and/or key budgets.
After a Sunday of ACSA meetings this year, the next day (Monday, April 29) consisted of broad-based meetings with leaders of key governmental offices like the Department of Agriculture (which oversees the U.S. Forest Service) and the Department of the Interior (which oversees the National Parks, Bureau of Land Management and Fish & Wildlife). For instance, Vicky Christiansen, the chief of the U.S. Forest Service, addressed the snowmobile leaders.
Having relationships with land manager groups is a key step that some amateurs who appeal to Washington can overlook.
“The snowmobile community has been known to talk to those agencies about the opportunities as well as the challenges being faced, and we are very well known for not just bringing the challenges to their attention but also some possible solutions,” Jourdain said. “They are the managers of the public lands. There are people on the ground” in each state who are vitally important to know, “but those people ultimately report to decision makers in Washington. The folks in Washington are then the ones who are often called upon to testify in front on the Congress, and the Congress ultimately decides on the budget for all of those agencies.”
There were also other meet ups with “coalition partners” like the American Motorcyclist Association, the National Off-Highway Vehicle groups and others who share similar interests, according to Nancy Hanson of the Minnesota United Snowmobilers Association (MnUSA).
“They talk about their issues and what they are doing, and that gives us background on what we talk about the next day,” Hanson said.
Relationships, And Issues
That next day is key – that’s when the ACSA sessions basically break up, and each state’s snowmobile representative group goes to meet with the elected officials and their respective staffs from their states. This year, Colorado, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Utah, Wyoming, Washington and Wisconsin had snowmobiling delegations working “the hill” at the Fly-In.
We asked representatives of Michigan and Minnesota to paint us the picture.
“Usually we try to knock off all 10 offices in one day, and it’s 15 minutes from the House buildings to the Senate buildings, and there are three of each building so we do a lot of walking, and a lot of standing out in the hall!” Hanson said. Often, it leads into a second day of meetups with lawmakers and staff meetings.
Bill Manson, executive director of the Michigan Snowmobile Association, explained the purpose.
“We’re going there to enlighten all of our representatives and our two senators about access to public lands, especially federal lands, and make sure that they understand what motorized recreation is all about,” Manson said. “There are so many groups out there that have nothing good to say about motorized recreation – whether it’s snowmobiling or ORVing – and they keep droning that out, that we’re out there ruining the environment and doing everything wrong, and we’re not.
“We’re there to enlighten those legislators to let them know not only what the snowmobilers do as far as putting in a beautiful trail system, but letting them know how important we are to the economy in Michigan.”
The actual elected official is often too busy to meet with every user group that comes to Washington with a cause, but meetings with key staff members can actually be just as fruitful.
“The congressmen and senators cannot be experts on every issue that’s brought in front of them, so they rely very, very heavily on their staff to collect information on how [a given issue] will impact their district and their constituents, and then the legislator will have a better idea on how to vote on any issue based on their staff’s recommendation,” Jourdain explained. “That staff is just vital, and once you have a relationship with that staffer, they feel comfortable calling you for additional information they need or questions they may have.”
“With the Michigan delegation, we’ve been pretty lucky, we’ve been able to get in and see most of our delegation,” Manson said. “This year was a little different – we did get in to see both of our senators and out of the 14 reps we actually had face-to-face time with six of them, and the other guys we met with legislative staff people.”
As far as the individual meeting go, Hanson said they vary in length and detail depending on the background of the person with whom the snowmobile representatives are meeting.
“If they aren’t snowmobilers and [a staffer is] not from Minnesota, we explain snowmobiling and MnUSA and why we are there in Washington,” Hanson said. “Our topic almost every year is the Recreational Trails Program (RTP) – that’s just one of our items, but usually the main one.”
The RTP program returns $84 million annually to states for trails, with the funding coming from the gas tax that is collected by the government for fuel used in recreational vehicles that never see the road.
“Those dollars come back to the states based on registrations of all motorized vehicles, and then that money is put back into the trail system as well as the maintenance – from parking lots to improving trails to gaining trails to building bridges, buying groomers and equipment, etc. It’s just getting our federal highway taxes back,” Journdain said.
“This year we are looking to increase the funding amount,” Hanson said. “Right now we get $84 million out of a projected $270 million” that is collected in off-road gas taxes. “We’re asking if we can have a little more of the money that we spend on off-road recreation coming back to recreation.”
Educating lawmakers and staffers is also key. Manson noted that most of Michigan’s population lives in the southeastern part of the state, where there are few trails. “Many of the snowmobilers live down there, they pay their taxes down there, but they put their snowmobiles on a trailer and head north to recreate in the northern regions. Our northern representatives know what it’s all about, but there are only two or three of them, as most of our representatives are from down where the bulk of our people live.
“A lot of [the congress members] come from southeast Michigan, where so much [talk about trails] is about hiking and biking – the big thing is bike trails,” Manson said. “So, we’re enlightening them about Recreation Trails Program funds – they just see it as recreational gas tax money, and snowmobilers get money. But it’s not just snowmobilers – 30 percent of that RTP money goes to non-motorized [recreation], so it helps their hiking trails and their biking trails, so it behooves them to vote positively on that legislation and make sure we get a better return of the gasoline tax that the motorized community pays in to the federal government.”
Making the Fly-In an annual event for 20 years has borne a lot of fruit.
“The first year we went, everyone we met with wondered why we were there – ‘What are you doing here and what do you want?’” Jordain said. “Now they’re very receptive – ‘Hey, I knew you guys were coming, and I want to talk to you about this or that’ often times very local questions.”
“It’s important to do it every year because it’s Washington – there are so many things on their plate, they need to know we are out there to use as a source, that we’re there watching what they do and how they vote on issues, and they frankly get calls from others constituencies that may be complaining about motorized and so on, and we want to make sure they have our information to use as a source,” Manson said.