By Russ Ehnes
During the 2019 Legislature Montana Trail Vehicle Riders Association (MTVRA) worked with Montana Legislator Kerry White to pass HB 355, which among other things, created a “Summer Motorized Recreation Grant Program”. The program will be funded through the sale of a “Summer motorized recreation trail pass”, which will cost $20, will be good for two years, and will be required to ride on summer motorized recreational trails on public lands in Montana. To quote the law, "Summer motorized recreation trail" means a trail designated as open to motorized use and approved for inclusion in the summer motorized recreation trail grant program established in [section 4] by the land management agency with jurisdiction over the trail.
Why did we need to pass this new law? Simply put, there isn’t enough money available to OHV clubs and associations or land managers to maintain our trails. Of course, we’ve all heard about federal budget cuts that affect agency trail budgets and while that’s a real problem, it’s only part of the problem. Another part of the problem, and the part MTVRA could affect, has been the loss of funding for the Montana OHV Grant Program.
An Important History of the Montana OHV Grant Program
In 1985 the Montana Legislature passed a bill that required every OHV to have a $25 registration decal to operate on public lands. The problem was every penny went to county budgets, not OHV trails. MTVRA entered the legislative arena in 1987 in an effort to change this misguided law so it would benefit OHV users. MTVRA succeeded in getting the law changed so $5 from each $25 decal went to an OHV grant program while the balance still went to the counties. In 1991 MTVRA again worked to change the law so a portion of the Montana gas tax, 1/8 of 1%, would be returned to the OHV program. This is a refund for the taxes we pay on gasoline that is not used on-road, similar to the snowmobile program. Every OHV user was required to buy a $25 decal annually (every year) for every OHV they used on public lands.
As the annual decal sales increased because of increased compliance and increased numbers of riders registering machines, the grant program grew to its peak in the late 1990’s when about $300,000 was available each year for grants to maintain OHV trails and for educational efforts in Montana.
In the 1999 legislative session legislators changed the law to give owners the option to register motorcycles and quadracycles (ATVs) 11 years or older permanently. In 2003 the legislature changed all registration of motorcycles, ATVs, Boats, RVs and trailers to permanent registration at the request of Montana counties. The reason was legitimate; county motor-vehicle registration offices were being overwhelmed by the sheer volume of registering and selling annual plates and decals for these vehicles.
While the permanent registration eased the burden on the counties, it was based on flawed information. The assumptions made by the bill drafters and used in the fiscal note for the bill said that OHV users bought new vehicles about every three years, therefore the permanent registration would be sold for $61.25 with about $15 of that going to the OHV fund, roughly triple the annual rate.
MTVRA presented data at the bill hearings acquired from actual sales numbers from the Motorcycle Industry Council that proved the average rider purchased a new OHV about every seven years, but our data was ignored. In addition, the law required sellers of used vehicles to remove the permanent decal and the new buyer would be required to buy a new permanent decal. That simply doesn’t happen in the real world. Montana Snowmobile Association (MSA) found snowmobiles with permanent decals that had been through six different owners without a new decal. The same is true for OHVs.
The result has been that almost all permanent decals sold now are for brand new units and our OHV grant program has declined from a high of $300,000 annually in the late 1990’s to a low of $75,000 several years ago. The fund has been hovering between $75,000 and $100,000 for the past several years.
The permanent registration had the same devastating effect on the snowmobile program so MSA worked to implement a “Winter Trail Pass” in the 2015 Legislative session to restore funding to their trail grooming program. The new Summer Motorized Recreation Trail Pass closely resembles the snowmobile trail pass and was created to restore funding for OHV trail maintenance.
More information about the Montana Summer Motorized Trail Pass program can be found on the Montana State Parks website at https://stateparks.mt.gov/activities/off-highway-vehicles
Questions and Answers
Where do I buy a trail pass?
Trail passes can be purchased online at stateparks.mt.gov/recreation/ohvProgram.html and will be mailed to the address you specify. To buy passes in person, visit any Fish Wildlife and Parks office or an authorized vendor. A list of vendors can be found on the same site listed above.
Where does my $20 go and what is my money used for?
If you buy a trail pass from a vendor, $18 goes to the grant fund and the vendor gets $2. All $20 goes in the grant fund If you buy a pass from Fish, Wildlife, and Parks either in-person or online. The grant funds are administered by Montana State Park Department. Up to 5% of the fund can be used by the department for administration of the program, $1 from each pass is to be granted for mitigation and eradication of noxious weeds along summer motorized recreation trails, and the remainder of the grant funds are available for designation, maintenance, and improvement of summer motorized recreational trails.
Who can apply for grants?
Only private clubs and organizations can apply for grants from this grant fund. Therefore, any grant money spent on trails must be done through cooperative agreements and partnerships with the agencies managing the trails. While this gives OHV riders assurance the money is being used to benefit them, it also means that local clubs and the state association will be responsible for acquiring grants, spending the money responsibly and working in cooperation and partnership with the managing agencies.
How will MTVRA use money they get from the grants?
In western states the vast majority of trail maintenance on Off-Highway Vehicle (OHV) trails is performed by state operated OHV trail programs and volunteer organization. In Montana there is no state sponsored OHV trail maintenance program so that burden has fallen to MTVRA and its member organizations.
For the past seven years MTVRA has operated a statewide OHV mechanized trail maintenance program in cooperation with the BLM and USFS. MTVRA has applied for and received grants from the Recreational Trails Program (RTP) each year. The grants have been $45-90,000 each year and are used to hire a contractor to perform trail maintenance with a Sutter Trail Dozer on OHV trails in five National Forests and three BLM areas in Montana.
The maintenance program has been exceptionally successful but the demand for maintenance from other USFS and BLM areas far exceeds the capacity MTVRA has with the current $90,000 limit on RTP grants. The Summer Motorized Recreation Grant Program will provide a reliable funding stream and allow additional funding for the maintenance program so MTVRA can expand it to additional areas across Montana.
Why not just rely on the Recreational Trails Program (RTP) money?
The RTP is a federal program derived from a gas tax refund for fuel we use off-highway. The RTP Program must be reauthorized every few years and is under constant threat of being eliminated from the federal budget. While MTVRA and others will continue to defend RTP, it is a very real possibility the program could end at any time.
Additionally, the program is extremely competitive and while MTVRA has been successful every year we have applied, the $90,000 request has been reduced to $45,000 in the past. This is less likely to occur in the Summer Motorized Recreation Grant Program.
Can my local club get grants?
Absolutely! Your club can get money for trail signing, trail repairs and maintenance, or to develop a maintenance program of its own. MTVRA and State Parks will be glad to share examples and information to help you and your local club succeed.
Why do I need a permanent sticker and a trail pass?
The permanent decal requirement was not changed because the existing OHV Grant Program is still funded by permanent decal sales and gas tax refund. The existing program and the new Summer Motorized Recreation Grant Program complement each other since the existing program allows grants for educational programs and allows agencies to apply for small grants. Both programs can be used as matching funds for RTP grants which require 20% match.
Also, in order to purchase a trail pass, your vehicle must be registered and titled, which is accomplished when you buy a permanent decal.
What is a designated trail?
A designated trail is a "Summer motorized recreation trail", which means a trail designated as open to motorized use and approved for inclusion in the summer motorized recreation trail grant program by the land management agency with jurisdiction over the trail.
Why do trails need to be enrolled in the program?
The trail pass differs from the permanent decal in a technical sense because the trail pass is not a “registration” which is applicable to all OHVs owned by residents of the state (with few exceptions). The trail pass is required under this new state law (HB0355) for users of trails that are included in the OHV grant program by the land management agency. Trails included in this program are designated as open to motorized use and approved for inclusion (“enrolled”) in the summer motorized recreation trail grant program by the land management agency with jurisdiction over the trail. The system of “enrollment” allows users of the facilities to know where the pass is required. This is the same system that has been used in Wyoming for their trail pass for over a decade. While this is a little complicated and confusing, it is necessary to comply with federal laws.
How are trails enrolled?
On Forest Service lands, nearly all Rangers Districts have completed travel management decisions in accordance with the 2005 Travel Management Rule (TMR). The TMR requires each unit to produce a “Motor Vehicle Use Map” (MVUM) that is the legal document that designates trails and areas where motorized use can occur, the type or class of vehicle allowed, and when use may occur. The MVUM also includes a complete table (list) of every legal OHV trail. The USFS is working with Montana State Parks to finalize a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) that will recognize every MVUM and accompanying table in Montana as the list of enrolled trails. The MOU will also allow Rangers Districts that have not completed travel planning in their districts to list routes open to summertime OHV use individually or through other means of description as enrolled. This will be completed in the spring of 2020.
The BLM is working with Montana State Parks on a similar MOU that will be completed in the spring of 2020.
Will the pass help open trails that have been closed?
Trails are closed and restricted for a variety of reasons. Some are closed because they are eroded or damaged by use or storm events. In many cases these trails can be reopened after being repaired, redesigned, or relocated using money from the Summer Motorized Recreation Grant Program. Money from the grant program could be used to mitigate other problems that have caused trail closures. For instance, a trail could be rerouted to avoid riparian habitat, raptor nests, other critical habitat, or sensitive cultural sites.
Will the pass help build new trails?
Yes. While not as common as we riders would like, new trails are being built on public lands. The Summer Motorized Recreation Grant Program will be an excellent source of funding for new trails and can be used as matching funds for the RTP program. A good example of new trail construction are the new system trails being constructed near Lincoln by the USFS using RTP funds.
Do Jeeps need the trail pass?
Full size street-legal vehicles like Jeeps meet the definition of “motorized equipment” in HB 355 and will be required to buy a trail pass to be used on USFS trails and open to vehicles greater than 50” and BLM “primitive roads” enrolled in the program. The USFS 2005 TMR specifically defines trails over 50” and several forests in Montana have utilized this designation. BLM defines their routes as trails, primitive roads, and roads. Full size street-legal do not need a trail pass for USFS roads or BLM roads not designated “primitive roads”.
My side-by-side is over 50” wide. Do I need a trail pass?
Side-by-side vehicles greater than 50” will be required to buy a trail pass to use USFS trails open to vehicles greater than 50” and BLM “primitive roads” as described above. Side-by-side vehicles are not required to buy a trail pass to use unpaved roads on USFS and BLM route systems. For more specific information about the use of OHV’s on unpaved roads in Montana, consult your local land manager or look at SB 314 at https://leg.mt.gov/bills/2017/billpdf/SB0314.pdf
Do I need a trail pass if I rent an OHV from a rental vendor?
No but you will need to carry a copy of “proof of rental”.
Where can I read HB 355?
Permanent means permanent doesn’t it?
In the case of a permanent OHV registration, permanent means “the time period you own the vehicle”. If the vehicle transfers ownership, the new owner is required to buy a new permanent registration.
I bought a permanent registration. Haven’t I already paid my fair share of trail maintenance?
When you bought a permanent registration decal for $61.25 you paid approximately $15 to the maintenance fund one time. In the future, if you buy a vehicle and purchase a $20 trail pass, you can then purchase a permanent registration decal for $41.25. You will be required to buy a new trail pass for $20 every two years.
Do I need a trail pass if I don’t live in Montana?
If you are not a resident of Montana and you would like to bring your vehicle from another state, you will be required to purchase a non-resident temporary use permit for $35, of which $27.50 will be used for trail maintenance.
Non-resident temporary use permits are good for the calendar year in which they are purchased. They can be purchased online at https://stateparks.mt.gov/activities/off-highway-vehicles will be mailed to the address you specify. To buy passes in person, visit any Fish Wildlife and Parks office or an authorized vendor. A list of vendors can be found on the same site listed above.
If you are coming to Montana and want to order your temporary non-resident use permit online, it’s a good idea to order at least two weeks before you depart.
If I’m from another state but ride a borrowed vehicle that has a trail pass, will I also need a non-resident temporary use permit?