Let it snow

Patrolling winter wonderlands


On January 20, 2007, two men rode their snowmobiles near Bergland Bay. With an average snowfall of 200 inches, this area in the western portion of Michigan's Upper Peninsula is a winter recreationist's wonderland. Unfortunately, these two snowmobilers experienced one of the dangers of this popular sport. Around 11 p.m., the men rode across thin ice and fell into the water of Lake Gogebic. When Michigan State Police Regional Dispatch put out the call, Department of Natural Resources' (MDNR) Sgt. Steve Burton heard it. Aware of the concentrated snowmobile patrol nearby, he quickly alerted conservation officers Douglas Hermanson and Brett Gustafson, who raced to the scene.

When officers arrived, one of the men had managed to pull himself from the icy water but his friend remained underwater. Crawling on their stomachs to within inches of the man, the officers tried to assist him in self-rescue techniques, but he was too weak. With the temperature in the teens, numbness began to overcome the submerged snowmobiler. The officers handed him a rope, which he wrapped around his waist to keep from sinking below the water. Soon, three other conservation officers arrived and using a snowmobile ramp and rope, they successfully pulled the man from the water.

Lt. Thomas Courchaine, law enforcement supervisor of MDNR's Crystal Falls field office, states his conservation officers definitely saved the man's life. "You're fighting the clock when it comes to an ice rescue," he explains. Although it was fortunate the officers were just miles from where the snowmobilers went through the ice, the main purpose of the officers' job was not search and rescue. Rather it was safety and enforcement like many snowmobile patrols throughout the United States and Canada.

Funding snow patrol

Saving lives and enforcement are just two of the many functions of this specialized patrol. There are myriad others — it varies from department to department. Although similar in many ways, the funding, training and purpose in each department's snowmobile patrol can be very different. Funding is particularly tricky.

In many areas where snowmobilers are a guarantee, departments can easily justify allocating general funds toward a snowmobile patrol. Yellowstone National Park's 44 snowmobile unit covers 165 miles of groomed roads within park boundaries. According to Dep. Chief Ranger Steve Swanke, base operating funds finance the patrols including the officers' equipment. Similar to Yellowstone's program, Fairbanks, Alaska, funds its unit through the department budget. "The department picks up my wages, (although) a lot has been funded through grants and community support," notes Fairbanks Officer Jeromey Lindhag. Many Canadian law enforcement agencies also fund their snowmobile patrol units internally.

Wages are not the only budgetary line items. Snow machines, such as those purchased by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) budget, fall high on this list. Snowmobiles fit into the department's fleet management mandates the same as a marked police car. The Greater Sudbury (Ontario) Police Department also funds its unit this way but goes a step further granting volunteers special constabulary powers to assist officers in enforcing snowmobile laws.

For departments that cannot afford a patrol, grants can be an option. In Michigan, $1.1 million was granted to 59 law enforcement agencies in 2007 to fund snowmobile units. "The legislature found it appropriate and necessary to have some of the money from registration fees help pay for patrols," states Maureen Houghton, MDNR grants specialist. Local communities along the 6,100 miles of designated trails benefit from the increase in tourism dollars, but law enforcement agencies are affected. "If we are generating traffic and interest, it makes sense to support law enforcement and first responders," she says. The MDNR distributes grants reimbursing 85 percent of costs associated with patrolling designated routes. Ironwood, Michigan, is one of the agencies relying on grant dollars to fund its snowmobile unit.

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