The number of people buying Minnesota cross country ski passes has dropped dramatically in recent years, down more than 50% from peak winters, throwing the state’s trail grooming grant fund into the red.

The problem is so severe that the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources is delaying payments to local clubs and cities, grants used to pay for trail grooming, until more money flows in.

The Great Minnesota Ski Pass has been around since 1983 and is required on most public trails that receive state funds for grooming. The idea was that skiers could buy one pass and ski on trails across the state, knowing they were paying their fair share for grooming and maintenance. Sales of the pass peaked at just over 24,000 in 2001 and hit nearly 20,000 in 2004.

But since then sales haven’t been near that high, dropping as low as 4,500 in the no-snow winter of 2012 and hovering near 10,000 the past few years.

Darin Franckowiak, a City of Duluth park maintenance worker, drives a PistenBully snow machine while grooming the Magney-Snively Nordic ski trails Thursday in Duluth. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)
Darin Franckowiak, a City of Duluth park maintenance worker, drives a PistenBully snow machine while grooming the Magney-Snively Nordic ski trails Thursday in Duluth. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)

The pass costs $25 per season, with the money going into a state account to be doled out as DNR grants, about $285,000 annually, spread among 40 different cities, counties and ski clubs that groom 735 miles of trails across the state (grants are based on miles of trails groomed.) Another $75,000 goes to groom ski trails in state parks and state forests.

The City of Duluth, for example, gets $11,000 in state state grants annually to help maintain nearly 30 miles of the city’s cross country ski trails, which is why the state ski pass is required on most city trails like Lester, Hartley, Chester, Piedmont and Magney Snively. (Not all trails are part of the state system. Duluth’s Grand Avenue Nordic Center is operated by Spirit Mountain, with a separate fee structure and no state pass required. Private ski areas like Korkki and Snowflake also charge a fee or membership separate from the state pass system.)

"That's an important $11,000 for our trails program. That's probably 25% of the cost of running our cross country trails,'' said Matt Andrews, Duluth city trails coordinator. "We're hoping we don't lose that."

Grant fund depleted

The decline in ski pass sales has depleted the state’s cross country ski fund, and now those grooming grants are in jeopardy. Expenditures have been higher than revenues every year since 2014 and the fund balance, which sat over $700,000 as recently as 2014, is now down to nearly zero.

It's not clear if there are fewer skiers, fewer people paying, or both.

“I think it’s a combination of several things. There may be fewer people skiing… we’re seeing some people age out of the sport. And there have been some low-snow winters, especially in the Twin Cities, that have seen sales go down,’’ said John Waters, trail grants coordinator for the DNR in St. Paul. He’s also worried that it’s part of a larger trend of “fewer people getting outdoors” that's also reflected in declining hunting and fishing license sales.

Darin Franckowiak, a City of Duluth park maintenance worker, drives a PistenBully snow machine while grooming the Magney-Snively Nordic ski trails Thursday in Duluth. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)
Darin Franckowiak, a City of Duluth park maintenance worker, drives a PistenBully snow machine while grooming the Magney-Snively Nordic ski trails Thursday in Duluth. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)

But it’s also an issue of people who are skiing and not buying the pass. Minnesota conservation officer reports each winter week describe running into skiers who say they didn’t know they needed a pass, even though signs are clearly posted at most trailheads. Others forgot to renew their pass. Still others knew they needed a pass but took the chance that they would get caught, like gambling by fishing without a license.

“We really haven’t done a good job of education and outreach’’ about what the pass money is used for, Waters said. “We know we have a lot of people skiing on (grant-in-aid trials) who are not buying the pass.”

Nationally, the sport appears to still be holding its own. The National Cross County Ski Areas Association reported 5.1 million people skied in 2018, about the same as 2016 but up by a million participants from a decade ago.

Dan Maki, president of the Duluth Cross Country Ski Club, said he hasn't seen any drop in interest in cross country or Nordic skiing. If anything, Maki said more Northlanders are trying the sport. He said the DNR recently contacted the club to spread the word on trail pass sales.

"We were contacted by the DNR requesting to promote our membership to buy a ski pass and that they were short on funds,'' Maki said. "I think most of the people who are active (in skiing and the club) have the pass. It's probably the more causal skiers who may not know they need it."

Forgetful or freeloaders?

In response to the growing deficit in the ski pass fund, the 2019 Minnesota Legislature moved to raise ski pass prices by $4 daily and $5 per year. That’s expected to help close the fund’s deficit, and Waters said sales so far this year are brisk, thanks to early snowfall.

Still, the fund remains short, and DNR officials recently announced that they would have to delay the first round of 2020 grants to local clubs and municipalities until after Feb. 15, when more ski pass money from this season’s sales will be in the fund. Those grants normally go out in mid-January. If the fund doesn't recover grants will cease — the state can't deficit-spend out of dedicated funds.

“It is hoped that (after Feb. 15) there will have been enough revenue into the ski account to fully process these payments,’’ the DNR wrote to grant recipients. But even that depends on how many passes are sold, which often depends on how much snow falls. “If not enough passes are sold, grants may have to be reduced,’’ the memo noted.

Waters said 2019 is the critical year for the ski fund. If the combination of higher-priced passes and more snow doesn’t bring the fund into the black, major changes will be needed in coming years.

Unless a lot more people buy the pass.

Minnesota Conservation Officer Jylan Hill of Tofte noted in a recent report that “ski pass compliance was very poor and multiple tickets and verbal warnings were issued.”

Meanwhile Conservation Officer Mary Manning of Hovland said last week that she “rang in the new year by being berated by a would-be skier upset about needing a Minnesota ski pass to use an area trail system.” Manning said she explained the expenses involved in maintaining and grooming the outstanding cross country ski trails in the region and how the pass pays for that work. “But the skier opted to skip buying a pass and went elsewhere.”

Waters hopes more snow and more people skiing this winter will lead to more passes sold.

“We need to do a better job explaining what the pass is for, that most of the money goes back to local ski trails,’’ Waters said. “We're hoping more people will step up and pay for the service they're getting.”

To buy the state ski pass

The Great Minnesota Ski Pass is required for anyone 16 and older on state park, state forest or state grant-in-aid ski trails. The cost is $10 for a daily pass, $25 for an annual and $70 for a three-year pass. Buy online (fees are added) at www.dnr.state.mn.us/licenses/online-sales or in person at any vendor that sells DNR licenses, including many sporting goods stores. You can also call 888-665-4236 or buy the ski pass at any state park with ski trails. For a map of state tails funded by the ski pass go to www.dnr.state.mn.us/skiing/skipass/map.html.