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Snowmobiling and Cross-Country Skiing Contribute to Winter Economy

Cover of Cook County Winter Trail-based Visitor Study

Cook County Winter Trail-based Visitor Study

The Old Farmer's Almanac 2004 tells Minnesotans to expect near-normal snowfall. Hmmm, that means about eight feet. At least that is the reported average snowfall on the Pincushion Mountain cross-country ski trails in Cook County. Such depth might seem excessive to those in more southern climes, but people in this remote northern county bordered by Lake Superior and Canada genuinely want winter to bring this much snow.

To many residents of Cook County, particularly those operating businesses, snow is not white, it's dollar-bill green. Two winter's-worth of lackluster snowfalls and peculiar temperatures have injured an economy that partially relies on spending by snowmobile and cross-country ski visitors.

A random phone survey conducted through Sea Grant and the University of Minnesota Duluth Bureau of Business and Economic Research found that 95 percent of the 105 residents interviewed believe snowmobilers significantly contribute to the economy of Cook County. Slightly fewer (88 percent) thought that cross-country skiers add significant copper to local coffers.

The survey results, published by Sea Grant as, Cook County Winter Trail-based Visitor Study, suggest that both cross-county skiers and snowmobilers are welcomed by Cook County residents. Almost all survey respondents thought the number of cross-county skiers is fine or could be increased, and about 80 percent thought similarly about snowmobilers. Although not part of the survey, estimates of the skier-to-snowmobiler ratio in Cook County by local tourism representatives range from 50:50 to 70:30.

"Cook County seems to have enough snowmobile and cross-country trails to keep both groups happy and the trails are generally well marked," said Scott Beattie, proprietor of a bed and breakfast catering to cross-country skiers on Pincushion Mountain. "Pincushion Mountain is somewhat of an exception because its trails are for skiers but all along the Gunflint, where snowmobile trails intersect ski trails, snowmobilers, skiers, and the businesses supporting them seem to be able to coexist."

Those in the business of encouraging snowmobile activity agree.

"Cook County is not big enough to tell one group of visitors, 'We don't need you,'" said Steve Lashinski from his sports and auto shop in Grand Marais, a city housing a quarter of the roughly 5,200 residents in this trail-riddled county.

Almost all of the surveyed residents felt visiting cross-country skiers respected local values and property. Approximately 70 percent felt visiting snowmobilers were likewise considerate guests of the county.

Everyone's not one big happy winter family in Cook County when it comes to motorized versus non-motorized activities, however. Differing views are typical wherever these diverse activities coincide. Studies from Alberta to Florida reported in the Journal of Leisure Research suggest that much of the conflict associated with motorized recreation stems from indirect confrontation and anticipated experiences.

In Cook County, where many residents expect solitude and value privacy, maybe it is intuitive (as well as documented in Sea Grant's study) that most complaints against winter recreation were related to snowmobile noise (an offense against solitude) and driving off trails (especially on private property; a violation of privacy).

Residents and business owners privy to the pre-published results of the survey were not surprised that cross-country skiers are generally perceived as ideal visitors.

"It was evident in the survey data that people are giving snowmobilers a little black mark for environmental damage," said Judy Johnson, director of the Gunflint Trail Association.

"The most significant thing is that people recognize that cross-country ski and snowmobile visitors economically benefit the county," said Glenn Kreag, Sea Grant's recently-retired tourism and recreation extension educator and co-author of the study.

"The key is that local planners have an opportunity to use this information constructively as they choose what to do next. To understand the net impact of winter visitor activity to the county and its residents, a 'triple-bottom line' involving social and environmental impacts along with economic gains and losses must be considered. Understanding basic philosophical values about motor versus non-motor recreation could help orient the county toward the future most desired by residents."

Money was an impetus for this study more specifically, how to divide it to cultivate visits from snowmobilers and cross-country skiers. Currently, more emphasis is put on promoting cross-country skiing. Ironically, more economic information is available about the impact of visiting snowmobilers. In an earlier report, Minnesota's North Shore Snowmobile Trail: What is its Value (Minnesota Sea Grant, 1994), Kreag and Jennifer Moe determined that that non-resident snowmobilers, who averaged a three-day trip and traveled in parties of about seven, spent approximately $150 each day. Similar economic estimates for cross-country skiers do not exist.

As Cook County residents prepare for a possible eight feet of snow and extra ski and sled traffic, they'll need to bundle up tight. According to The Old Farmer's Almanac 2004, the coldest temperatures will occur just after Thanksgiving and between Christmas and New Year's.

This survey was funded by a grant from the Northeast Minnesota Regional Sustainable Development Partnership. To order a free copy of the survey report, Cook County Winter Trail-based Visitor Study, see item T15 under the tourism and recreation category on our products order form.

By Sharon Moen
November 2003

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