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Snowmobiles are a boon for business in communities that cater to them

If Grand Forks doesn’t want snowmobiles, Alvarado, Minn., small business owner Ann Estad says she’s happy to have them.

Ann Estad.jpg
Ann Estad, owner of the Lightning Bar in Alvarado, Minnesota, talks about the benefits a new snowmobile trail into the community will have for her business Friday, Dec. 9, 2022.
Brad Dokken/Grand Forks Herald

GRAND FORKS – Snowmobiles might be controversial in Grand Forks – if the recent debate surrounding the Red River Snowmobile Club’s unsuccessful request to establish 7.2 miles of trail in the Grand Forks Greenway is any indication – but the sound of a snowmobile can be music to the ears of small business owners that benefit from the traffic they generate in the winter.

It's certainly cause for excitement in Alvarado, Minn., where a new trail the Red River Snowmobile Club established from East Grand Forks now brings snowmobiles right to Ann Estad’s door.

If Grand Forks doesn’t want snowmobiles, Estad says, she’s happy to have them.

Estad owns the Lightning Bar in Alvarado, and Feb. 1 marks her 27th year as owner of the establishment.

“Everybody I’ve talked to around here said it’s going to be great because now they can get into East Side (East Grand Forks) from here” by snowmobile, Estad said on a recent Friday afternoon.


And vice-versa, of course.

“There’s room for lots of snowmobilers – Oslo to Warren, Alvarado, Fisher, wherever you want to go,” said Brian Chandler, vice president of the Red River Snowmobile Club, which worked with the city of Alvarado and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources to establish the new trail. “You can make the loop even, just make a night out of it – I’m excited.”

In previous winters, Estad says, snowmobilers have mostly bypassed Alvarado and her establishment in favor of destinations such as Warren or Oslo, where trails went right into city limits. In Alvarado, by comparison, the trail stayed along state Highway 1 on the north side of city limits with no access from the south.

Now, she says, snowmobilers can stop by for a burger and a beverage from both directions, just like someone traveling by road.

That’s huge, she says, because snowmobilers spend money wherever they go. According to the Minnesota United Snowmobilers Association, the economic impact of snowmobiling in Minnesota is estimated at $1 billion annually.

The new trail from East Grand Forks to Alvarado “will be a good one,” she says.

“It’s going to be awesome,” Estad said. “A lot of people, when they’d come from Oslo (on a snowmobile), they’d just keep going” east toward Warren.

“I’m really excited.”


Bemidji a destination

Nowhere in the region, perhaps, is snowmobiling a bigger draw than in Bemidji, which is a destination city for snowmobilers and cross-country skiers.

Leroy Tennyson, vice president of the North Country Snowmobile Club in Bemidji, said downtown areas in Bemidji are closed to snowmobiles, but the city and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources work with the club to provide corridors through city limits.

“Bemidji as a city understands the economic value of the snowmobile club and the snowmobile trails coming to Bemidji,” Tennyson said. “It’s always been a fairly strong economic benefit to the community because there’s a lot of people that come here, stay in hotels, eat, ride and promote the business aspect of the town.”

Snowmobiles ride through Beltrami Island State Forest in March 2019. Snowmobiling generates an estimated $1 billion annually for Minnesota's economy, according to the Minnesota United Snowmobilers Association. Destination communities such as Bemidji definitely see the benefits.
Brad Dokken/Grand Forks Herald

Whether snowmobiling, cross-country skiing or other outdoors activity, outdoor recreationists need a place to go, Tennyson says.

“If you don’t give people a spot to go, you’re going to have more issues than if you find someplace for them to go,” he said.

The North Country Snowmobile Club grooms about 400 miles of trails.

Influx of $2 bills

Several years ago, Tennyson said, the club ran a statewide promotion asking snowmobilers who visited Bemidji to pay with $2 bills when patronizing local businesses. The sentiment around town at the time, he said, was that snowmobilers weren’t having much of an economic impact.

The promotion, he says, proved otherwise.


“You went around town about a week after they started doing this, and there was not a business in town that did not have a drawer full of $2 bills,” Tennyson said. “Then they started to realize that, ‘Hey, this is pretty crazy,’ because every business in town ended up with $2 bills.”

Even with places to go, snowmobiles occasionally draw noise complaints, Tennyson says. That also was a concern raised by some who opposed the Red River Snowmobile Club’s recent request to expand snowmobile access within the Greenway.

The request passed muster from a safety standpoint but received an icy reception from the Grand Forks City Council and vocal residents who live near the Greenway and others who use the public green space. The police chief, who was in charge of setting snowmobile routes in Grand Forks city limits at the time of the request, ultimately withdrew the proposed Greenway trail from his recommended snowmobile route.

Sure, snowmobiles make noise, Tennyson says, but they’re not in one place for very long.

“How long is that snowmobile going to go by?” Tennyson said. “You’re going to hear it for 20-30 seconds and then it’s going to be gone.”

Unfortunately, he says, there's always going to be that small percentage of riders who give everyone else a bad name.

“But once again, it falls back to the same thing as any lawbreaker,” Tennyson said. “Every user group has that small percentage of people that will do something that needs enforcement attention.”

Snowmobilers and cross-country skiers in the Bemidji area generally don’t share trails, with the exception of the Paul Bunyan and Heartland state trails and a short corridor within city limits, said Dave Schotzko, area Parks and Trails supervisor for the DNR in Bemidji.


The Paul Bunyan State Trail is a paved, 123-mile multi-use trail that follows an old railroad grade from Lake Bemidji State Park to Crow Wing State Park near Brainerd, a route that also includes Walker, Minn., another destination for outdoors enthusiasts. The trail shares 8 miles with the Heartland State Trail, a 49-mile rail-to-trail project from Cass Lake to Park Rapids, Minn.

Both trails offer connections to hundreds of miles of other state Grant-in-Aid snowmobile trails. Cross-country skiers and fat tire bikers are allowed to use Grant-in-Aid snowmobile trails on state land, but generally not on private land, said Schotzko, whose work area covers seven counties. Minnesota has 22,000 miles of Grant-in-Aid snowmobile trails, he said, of which significant portions are on private property through agreements between the snowmobile clubs and landowners.

Dave Schotzko 2017.jpg
Dave Schotzko, area Parks and Trails supervisor for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in Bemidji.
Contributed/Dave Schotzko

With the abundance of cross-country ski trails available in the Bemidji area, skiers don’t lack for options.

“I get people calling me every once in a while (wondering) ‘Hey, can I go down the Paul Bunyan Trail and ski?’ and I say 'sure you can,’ ” Schotzko said. “They don’t want to drive 2 miles or 10 miles; they want to go right from their house and start skiing.”

Still, Schotzko says, he doesn’t recommend it.

“It’s going to be much safer to go out there where it’s specifically groomed” for skiing or biking, he said. “You’d have a better experience, too.”

'Win-win' trail

More recently, the DNR worked with the city and the snowmobile club to establish about a half-mile corridor on the south side of Bemidji near Lake Irving, where snowmobilers, walkers and and fat-bike riders share the same trail, Schotzko said. The trail is also open to cross-country skiers, but that group tends to prefer using the designated, Grant-in-Aid ski trails in and outside of town, he said.

To establish the corridor, parking was removed from one side of Clausen Avenue, “which allowed us to remove the trail from the street and onto the boulevard, where a sidewalk would usually be in place,” Schotzko said. “I worked 15 years on this project, and others before me also picked away at moving this along.


“It’s just a wonderful thing,” he added. “Otherwise, (snowmobilers) are getting lost” trying to figure out how to navigate through town. “Last winter, I only had one complaint. It’s just been a win-win.”

Leroy Tennyson of the North Country Snowmobile Club in Bemidji uses a skid steer in the winter of 2022 to clean the edge of Clausen Avenue adjacent to a short stretch of shared-use trail near Lake Irving. The corridor provides snowmobilers with a safe route through the south end of Bemidji and onto the Paul Bunyan State Trail.
Contributed/Dave Schotzko, Minnesota DNR

With the new corridor, snowmobiles no longer have to ride on the street to pick up the Paul Bunyan State Trail, Tennyson said.

“(The DNR) actually bought up some of the land and widened it and made a better bike trail and snowmobile trail to get through there,” he said. “And that’s the main corridor to go to the south, to get out of town. You can get on the (railroad) grade and get out of town and head to Walker.”

In response to repeated complaints about excessive snowmobile speed along a portion of the Paul Bunyan State Trail near the Sanford Center, which also is on the south side of Bemidji, Schotzko said a DNR conservation officer spent several days conducting compliance checks to see if the complaint was valid. The officer wrote a few citations for snowmobiles without current registration, Schotzko said, but there wasn’t a single citation for speeding.

Snowmobilers in Bemidji proper must follow the same speed limits as cars and trucks, he said.

“Everybody called and complained” and said snowmobilers were speeding, Tennyson of the snowmobile club said. “They were trying to give a bad mark (on snowmobilers) so they could hopefully get the trail moved and get us out of there.”

Whether snowmobilers, skiers or bikers, users of the multi-use trails have to look out for each other, Schotzko said, just like they would have to do anywhere else. In most cases, he said, skiers and bikers wouldn’t even be on the trails if snowmobile clubs didn’t groom and maintain them.

“I’ve never heard of anybody getting run over by a snowmobile on a Grant-in-Aid snowmobile trail,” Schotzko said. “Show me one situation in Minnesota.”


No doubt, snowmobile trails – and the people who ride them – are good for businesses and local economies, Tennyson said.

“It’s the only user group that you come, and you buy gas, and you usually get a room at a resort or hotel, you’re going to eat somewhere two or three times a day – then you’ve got your snacks or whatever in-between,” Tennyson said. “I mean, they spend money.”

A new snowmobile can easily cost upwards of $15,000. Throw in insurance, clothing, helmets and other expenses, and the costs add up in a hurry.

“It’s probably one of the more expensive hobbies to get into,” Tennyson said. “You’ve got your pickup, your trailer, your sled, parts, gas, oil – the number, dollar-wise, from the sport is just unreal compared to any of the other sports.”

Brad Dokken joined the Herald company in November 1985 as a copy editor for Agweek magazine and has been the Grand Forks Herald's outdoors editor since 1998.

Besides his role as an outdoors writer, Dokken has an extensive background in northwest Minnesota and Canadian border issues and provides occasional coverage on those topics.

Reach him at bdokken@gfherald.com, by phone at (701) 780-1148 or on Twitter at @gfhoutdoor.
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