As snowmobiles lose popularity in Utah, retrofitted UTVs and motorcycles gain more traction

Still, the national forests near the Wasatch Front are more crowded than ever, officials say.

(Scott Sommerdorf | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Varvell family visiting from Connecticut rented snowmobiles at Daniel Summit Saturday, December 23, 2017. While the number of snowmobile licenses in Utah is declining, trail usage is up dramatically.

In the past two decades, snowmobile registrations in Utah have edged lower even as the state’s population has grown by 77 percent, according to a new economic-impact study by Utah State University.

The average age of Utah snowmobile owners has soared to 54, yet by all accounts more people than ever are riding the state’s famous snow found in the Wasatch, Uintah and Bear River mountains.

“The number of registered snowmobile owners within the state has not been keeping pace with population growth, suggesting either snowmobiling is declining in popularity, or that as aging snowmobilers quit the activity, they are not being replaced by younger riders,” wrote Jordan Smith, director of USU’s Institute of Outdoor Recreation and Tourism, in the report commissioned by the Utah Snowmobile Association.

Possible explanations could be that some motorized enthusiasts are installing tracks on their less expensive rubber-tired vehicles to adapt them for use on snow, or that some owners have held off on registering snowmobiles during the recent string of low-snow winters, instead leaving them stored in the garage.

State parks officials, however, suspect that changing demographics — an aging population, with Baby Boomers retiring — may be driving a trend toward more social, less costly motorized recreation opportunities, unleashed by the sudden rise of side-by-side utility task vehicles, or UTVs, which can seat up to six.

“The invention of the UTV has allowed them to join our sport,” said Chris Haller, Utah Division of State Parks’ off-highway vehicle coordinator. “They might not buy the motorbike or snowmobile, but with the UTV you can take your spouse and your grandkids.”

Utah’s riding season for UTV owners can last 11 months in some areas, while snowmobiling lasts six months at best. Registrations of off-highway vehicles of all types has grown to 202,000, driven mostly by the UTV boom. But Haller predicts a resurgence in snowmobiles.

Kids currently riding as passengers will soon become drivers, he noted, and many will choose the thrill and independence of snowmobiling over lumbering around behind the wheel of their parents’ UTV.

“We are sitting in a good situation where registrations are going to increase in the next 10 years,” Haller said. He noted that snowmobile registrations surged by 1,800 machines this year, probably thanks in part to epic snowfall that buried northern Utah last winter.

As of February, according to Smith’s report, 22,803 snowmobiles were registered to 11,350 Utah addresses. By comparison, in 1999, 25,000 snowmobiles were registered to 13,163 owners. Snowmobile registrations peak at 32,000 several years ago, according to Haller.

The average age of registered owner increased by 11 years during the same two-decade period. At least 97 percent of registrants are men.

Despite stagnant numbers overall, Smith still found robust economic activity associated with snowmobiling, supporting nearly 1,400 jobs and $138 million in local sales. “In 2016 alone,” Smith wrote, “over $13 million in state and local tax revenues were generated by snowmobiling activity.”

But the apparent decline in ownership has stumped the researcher, who said further investigation is needed to assess why growth is not keeping up with population. He speculated that people are choosing to spend their money on other outdoor activities, discouraged by rising participation costs of snowmobiling and increasingly variable snow conditions.

Yet winter motorized use on U.S. Forest Service lands adjacent to Utah’s population centers has climbed at popular destinations, such as Mirror Lake Highway, Nebo Alpine Loop, American Fork Canyon, Daniels Summit and Monte Christo.

“We have seen a trend toward a conflict with other users, cross country skiing and snowshoeing,” said Loyal Clark, spokeswoman for the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest. “We have so much use occurring on the national forest people are moving to areas where they hope there is less use and less conflict.”

Utah snowmobile registration includes a $22 annual fee. The approximately $500,000 in revenue generated is used to groom 1,200 miles of routes and clear trailheads across the state, from Duck Creek to Logan Canyon. Haller estimated groomers cover 25,000 miles a year. These winter trails typically follow summer routes used by rubber-tired vehicles, and 90 percent are on national forests, he said.

These developed snow areas are often full on weekend, particularly the Monte Christo complex on State Route 39 outside Huntsville. The 92-mile network connects with Logan Canyon and Hardware Ranch.

“People come from everywhere to ride here,” said Sean Harwood, the national forest’s Odgen district ranger. “We get out-of-state riders on Monte all the time. Utah’s claim to the greatest snow doesn’t apply to just skiing.”

By the far the state’s most avid snowmobilers reside or ride in Cache and Wasatch counties, which accounted for 20,012 and 26,467 trips respectively over the previous 12 months, according to a survey of 1,500 snowmobile owners. That’s nearly half the snowmobile trips for the entire state.

Plenty of people still enjoy on-snow motorized sports, but now many use machines other than snowmobiles, according to Jay Ombach, president of the Utah Snowmobile Association.

“They are still using the trails but they are registered as motorcycles. We have people putting tracks on UTVs,” Ombach said. “The overall trend there is less people [riding snowmobiles] because they are becoming more expensive. A brand new one is $14,000 which is a lot more than an ATV, but not more than a UTV.”

Ombach said he rarely saw a motorcycle on snow just a few years ago.

But now, he said, “snow bikes are piling up steam because people can use them year round. They take off the back wheel and put a track on the back, take off the front wheel and put a ski up there.”

But the decline in snowmobile registrations means less cash to pay for trail grooming and keeping parking lots clear of snow — and that’s a real concern for Ombach.

“If we lose grooming or a parking area,” he said, “it would make it very hard for those who don’t have access, who are new.”