YAKIMA -- Snowmobilers are reaching into their own wallets and bank accounts to help a state agency make up for a budget shortfall -- not because they want to, but because the alternative would effectively shut down snowmobiling in the Ahtanum and a handful of other popular trail areas.
Department of Natural Resources representatives told trail users at a public hearing last week in West Valley the agency would have to close the five Sno-Parks on DNR-managed land.
All are in Central Washington -- two in the Ahtanum and one each at Manastash (southwest of Ellensburg), Rattlesnake (off Highway 410 in the Nile) and Lily Lake, near Mission Ridge.
Mark Mauren, the DNR's assistant recreation manager, told about 90 snowmobile enthusiasts at the meeting that budget cutbacks had left the agency without the $25,000 it would take to provide oversight at the Sno-Parks.
And without oversight, the DNR could not allow the trail grooming -- paid for by the Washington State Parks' Winter Recreation Program -- to continue at those DNR Sno-Parks.
The snowmobilers got angry, ranted some, and then proceeded to start raising the $25,000. But they're not happy about it.
"We're going to fight it, but it's in the works. It's done," said Carl Denton, president of the Yakima Ski-Benders snowmobile club. "We're just a few weeks away from having snow, and if we don't have the Sno-Parks, we'll be parking on the road and fighting our way in to the trails and they won't let the groomers in there. And the law enforcement will be out there giving tickets for people parking the wrong way, and it'll be just a mess out there."
The Ski-Benders club will have another meeting for interested snowmobile enthusiasts to get some answers from DNR personnel at 6 p.m. Tuesday at the El Rincon restaurant in Yakima, 3702 Fruitvale Blvd.
Mauren said because DNR's recreation budget was slashed during the 2009 legislative session from $1.2 million per biennium to $440,000, the agency couldn't justify the same staff time in its winter recreation program -- including the seasonal employee who for the past two winters has overseen the Sno-Parks.
"I didn't want to spend as we would normally spend and then six months later see that, oh my god we really have problems now, and then have to make some really draconian cuts," Mauren said. The agency got nowhere with a financial appeal to the Snowmobile Advisory Committee last summer, and three weeks ago found out they had not been approved on their application for a federal grant that would have covered the winter-recreation shortfall.
That made the Sno-Parks expendable, at least in the short term.
All five Sno-Parks get lots of snowmobile use, though the two Sno-Parks in the Ahtanum (Ahtanum Meadows and the Ahtanum guard station) are particularly popular, with an estimated 28,000 snowmobile visits last winter.
Why the $25,000 figure?
Mauren broke it down as roughly $14,000 for the seasonal employee to provide a presence at the Sno-Parks; $4,000 to cover a proportional part of the salary of Southeast Region's Ellensburg-based recreation manager, Mike Williams; and the rest basically divided between travel costs, site vandalism repairs and the cost of pumping out the DNR's vault toilets at campgrounds used by snowmobilers.
Mauren made it clear that should somebody come up with the $25,000 -- through a fundraising campaign, say -- the DNR would keep the Sno-Parks operational and the trail grooming could go on as before.
Mauren then offered to contribute the first $250, and wrote out a check on the spot.
"(Mauren) put a good face on it," said Denton, the Ski-Benders president, adding that while he appreciated the gesture he wasn't at all pleased with the snowmobile community having to make up for the DNR's budget shortfall.
"It's terrible, but we're going to be proactive as heck. We're not going to be cut off at the knees on this deal."
As of Monday, Denton said, about $10,000 had already been raised.