SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — To say snowmobilers are happy with the snow conditions could be an understatement.

“It’s just awesome to look at the weekend calendar and to have multiple choices (of events),” said Duane Duerr of Brandon, the president of the South Dakota Snowmobile Association. The snow cover across South Dakota means there are many poker run and other snowmobile events from which to choose on any given weekend, he said.

It’s been years since snowmobilers had such choices across the state.

Scott Simpson, the deputy director of the South Dakota Game Fish and Parks and former GFP director of parks and recreation, told the Joint Committee on Appropriations on Feb. 1 that this season the both Black Hills and West River have snow, and so does East River, which hasn’t happened for some years.

“Most years, it isn’t that way,” Simpson said. “East River has had its best snowmobiling season in years.”

The state has 1,500 miles of groomed trails, according to the GFP. The trail miles vary in length. The Coteau des Prairie System has more than 300 miles in eastern South Dakota. The trail system in the Black Hills is about 350 total miles of groomed trails.

The Coteau des Prairie snowmobile trail system. South Dakota Tourism photo

Dave Kennedy of Sturgis has been riding snowmobiles for more than 40 years.

He credits the state’s snowmobile trail system to a grassroots effort that started in the Watertown, Aberdeen and Sioux Falls area.

Gov. Bill Janklow “helped get the program to where it is now,” Kennedy said.

Now, “other states are envious of what we were able to get started (and maintain),” Kennedy said.

The groomed trail system is maintained with a partnership between the GFP and snowmobile clubs, Duerr said. Maintenance is done with a groomer which is a small machine that creates a defined path on the trail.

“Many of the clubs operate a state-owned groomer,” Duerr said.

The state-owned groomers are groomers the state had used in the Black Hills trail system, Duerr said.

“Several clubs have their own groomer,” Duerr said.

Trail snow groomers. South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks photo.

The state provides a reimbursement to clubs that own and operate their own groomer, he said. They supply the operator, Duerr said of the snowmobile club. The club is reimbursed so much per mile of operation but the club determines how to pay the operator of the groomer, Duerr said.

Clubs with state-owned groomers have operators that are paid by the hour, Duerr said.

Clubs don’t have a coordinated grooming schedule. Most often the trails will be groomed later in the week in anticipation of a busy weekend of riding, Duerr said.

“Our club is out today grooming for the weekend,” Duerr said on Thursday, Feb. 2.

Riders can learn more about the trail conditions in a GFP trail map.

Why is snow fun?

Kennedy lived in Sioux Falls before moving to Sturgis so he’s ridden in different terrain in the state.

The Black Hills offers winding trails, wildlife and trees, he said.

“Just the natural beauty…,” Kennedy said of the attraction. “The pine trees, the Aspen, the white birch, the eagles. It’s phenomenal.”

“I like the outdoors,” Duerr said of why he rides. When he rides in the Black Hills he may come across a herd of elk.

He’s also drawn by the fellowship of riding.

A club in eastern South Dakota had a family fun day. Families snowmobiled in a field near a host’s shop. The club had an enclosed snow scoot pulled by a snowmobile so that kids could get rides.

“The snow scoot never stopped,” Duerr said.

Snow makes money

About 10 years ago, the University of South Dakota completed a study on the economic impact of snowmobiling in the state.

The study found that snowmobiling had a $131.6 million economic impact on the state. Snowmobile trips accounted for more than $15 million in lodging, restaurants, gaming, and other trip-related spending.

Other states have also studied and evaluated the economic impact of snowmobiling. Economic impact would include spending on food and lodging, clothing and other spending It can also include direct and indirect jobs in the industry.

A 2005 study by the University of Minnesota Tourism Center showed that snowmobiling had a $501 million economic impact to the state’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Several years later the Minnesota United Snowmobilers Association estimated the economic impact at about $1 billion.

In 2005, an Iowa State study found $65.4 million in economic activity because of snowmobiling. According to the U.S. Forest Service and the International Snowmobile Manufacturer’s Association, another study completed in 2010 showed a total impact of $123.2 million.

There are 1.3 million registered snowmobiles in the U.S., according to the International Snowmobile Manufacturer’s Association.

The South Dakota snowmobile trails system has its own separate budget outside of any division budget in the GFP. The fiscal year 2024 proposed budget is $1.4 million which is funded by a snowmobile license, a snowmobile gas tax and a snowmobile excise tax.

“It’s self-funded,” Simpson said at the Feb. 1 joint appropriations committee meeting. “A lot of the income comes from gas tax and the registration of snowmobiles,” he said.

Snowmobiles in the Black Hills. South Game, Fish and Parks photo.

Snowmobile clubs will partner with local businesses for events, Duerr said. A poker run includes stops at participating local bars and restaurants, he said.

In general, snowmobiling benefits businesses in the state. Duerr said many bars and restaurants are associate members of a snowmobile club.

When a business changes hands, clubs may need to explain the benefit of being an associate member, Duerr said.

The South Dakota Department of Tourism also promotes snowmobiling as a winter activity in the state. The department includes links to trail systems on its website.

Snowmobilers come from multiple states to ride in the Black Hills or other regions of South Dakota.

Mary Anne Grabow, the secretary/editor for the South Dakota Snowmobile Association, lives in Gary. The area draws snowmobilers from Minnesota, she said.

“There is definitely crossover…,” Grabow said.

What could ruin the ride?

Snowmobilers don’t always need to ride on groomed trails when there is other appropriate public land available for use, Duerr said.

One of his biggest is when a rider gets on private land without permission, he said.

“That’s one of the struggles we have in the Black Hills,” Duerr said. A rider will decide to leave the trail and ride across a private meadow, he said.

Such trespassing could put the groomed trails in danger because portions of a public trail use private land. Too much trespassing off the trail and the private landowner may deny use of land for the trail, Duerr said.

It may be only 1 out of a 100 riders but that “one out of a 100 is risking the entire trail system,” Duerr said.

Another challenge in the Black Hills is the influx of new residents who want their roads plowed of snow in the winter, Duerr said.

Snowmobile trails cannot by law use a plowed road which means trails have been adjusted, Duerr said.