In an effort to increase oversight and amplify visibility for Blaine County’s state-mandated snowmobile grooming program, its commissioners took the first steps towards bringing operations in-house during a preliminary meeting on Wednesday afternoon.
For years, the Sawtooth Snowmobile Club has handled the service on contract with the county. But now the club wants out—and, with more users taking advantage of the trails for a wider range of uses, the commissioners think it’s an opportune time to take a more active role.
“I want to thank the club for taking something we had no solution for and stepping up,” County Administrator Derek Voss said. “They’ve done it remarkably well. But now we can step up, and this is something we should absolutely be doing ourselves.”
That would bring operations under Blaine County’s existing liability insurance, eliminating a significant outstanding risk, Voss said. Plus, it would give the county more control over standards, and the ability to broadcast grooming reports more efficiently, according to Commissioner Angenie McCleary.
“More and more people care about this program, and I want us to do it as best we can,” said McCleary, who serves as board liaison for the snowmobiling program. “The club has put in an immense number of hours, but this is a county function. We need to take responsibility.”
Idaho Code requires all counties to maintain a grooming operation, funded in part by a portion of fees paid to register snowmobiles. The state provides a snowcat, valued at $325,000, according to Mike Robinson of the Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation, for the county to store and run.
Blaine County typically gets about $15,000 from the state earmarked for the use, and the club has tried to stretch that as far as possible—though rarely far enough. Last season, maintenance costs on the state-owned cat drove expenditures up to $28,000, according to Club Treasurer Stephanie Eisenbarth, though it can “range massively,” she said. Typically, Blaine County supplements the state money with $5,000 to $10,000. When the money runs out, grooming stops, Eisenbarth said.
So far, the commissioners don’t know how they’ll take over operations. Options Wednesday mentioned a contractor, seasonal hire, or a part-time task for a county employee run out of the Road and Bridge Department.
Sawtooth Snowmobile Club Grooming Coordinator Chad Sluder, a volunteer, said it takes “one or two days a week” for a couple of trained members to set the trails. Currently, his crews maintain four networks in various part of the county: connecting Croy Creek west of Hailey to Glendale Road and Highway 20 southwest of Bellevue; Muldoon Canyon and Bell Mountain east of Bellevue; Quigley to Cove Creek east of Hailey; and the extensive system around Baker Creek north of Ketchum.
Lately, the Baker Creek trails have become increasingly popular with backcountry skiers, and as an entry points for accessing yurts in the Sawtooth National Forest, McCleary said; many of those snowmobilers—both residents and visitors—aren’t members of the club, and don’t know where to go for conditions or grooming information. (Reports are posted on the Sawtooth Snowmobile Club’s Facebook page.)
“Every year, I seem to get more and more calls and emails about this,” she told the board. “There are a lot of things I’d like to see changed for next year. We’ll discuss how to make them happen.”