DNR delays payment to ski clubs to groom trails, leaving clubs scrambling

Mike Mankowski grooms a ski trail Friday, Dec. 13, at Northland Arboretum. This year's heavy snowfall is a blessing for skiers but the trails need to be constantly groomed for the folks who use the them at the arboretum. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

Mother Nature has been kind to those in the Brainerd lakes area who love to play in the snow — especially the cross-country and downhill skiers and snowmobilers.

The Brainerd area already has more than 12 1/2 inches of snow on the ground before Saturday, Dec. 21 — the official first day of winter.

In order for these outdoor enthusiasts to enjoy their activity, behind the scenes work needs to be completed, such as grooming and maintaining the miles and miles of trails in the area. This winter season, the Brainerd Nordic Ski Club, took a slight hit.

The Minnesota DNR informed the club in November that due to uncertainties in revenue the DNR receives from ski passes, it will not be able to make payments for the trail maintenance benchmarks, which is 40% of the grant for grooming until after Feb. 15, 2020.

This information was a shock to the ski club, as the DNR has never delayed its payments to the ski club.


“The ski club has always had a great reputation of having well-groomed trails up here, but there are only so many funds in our reserve and we won’t be able to groom to the extent we normally do, until people start buying their ski passes,” said Mary Claire Ryan, a longtime Brainerd High School Nordic ski coach and Nordic Ski Club member. Ryan also is the grooming coordinator of the trails for the club.

The Brainerd Nordic Ski Club is in charge of grooming and maintaining 21.7 miles, or 35 kilometers, of trails that are part of three state trail systems in the area at the Northland Arboretum, French Rapids (near the Brainerd Lakes Regional Airport) and Forestview Middle School. The trail at the arboretum is one of the more popular trails in Brainerd and last season from late December to March there were roughly 10,000 people using the trail, Ryan said.

Ryan said the ski club received about $18,535 annually in grant money from the DNR for the past four years. Typically, the DNR has given the club 40% of the total grant money to groom the trails in November and December, and the remaining 60% at the end of the season.

The ski club also spends its own money — about $4,500 per year — for grooming and maintaining the trails. The ski club volunteers time each year to remove fallen trees on the trail and other maintenance such as trail mowing. The ski club raises money through its ski club membership, the ski swap where it sells ski equipment, and the annual Lumberjack Jaunt set in February of each year.

“They just informed us in November that they are doing this to us and now we have to try to figure out how to plan for this,” Ryan said. “We have early snow and everyone is loving it and are out there skiing, but how many of them are supporting the grooming efforts of the Nordic Ski Club. We encourage people to get out and buy a ski pass.”

Ryan said the ski club has to figure out how it will pay the groomer out of the club’s funds until it receives the grant money. She said they may have to do less grooming this winter season.

John Waters, state trails and snowmobile program consultant for the DNR in the St. Paul office, said the DNR has heard many concerns from ski clubs around the state about the delayed funding. Waters said the DNR contacted the ski clubs as soon as they found out about the funding.

Waters said this is the first time the DNR had to delay its payments to the ski clubs. The state uses revenue in the Cross-Country Ski GIA (grant in-aid) Program that comes from the sale of the Great Minnesota Ski Pass. Revenue from the ski pass is deposited into the cross-country ski pass dedicated account and this money supports some of the costs associated with grooming ski trails at state parks. Anyone age 16 or older must have a ski pass. Ski passes are required to ski on GIA, as well as state park ski trails, including the ones in Brainerd. The GIA Program is budgeted about $285,000 each year and another $75,000 is allocated to grooming ski trails in state parks, the DNR reported.


Waters said the state has been seeing a decline in people buying ski passes for the past several years. Since 2016, on average there had been about 9,180 passes sold per year. Prior to 2016, there were closer to 12,500 ski passes sold.

With the decline in ski passes sold, the cross-country ski dedicated account balance has dwindled and, as of the end of last season, there was a balance of $100,000. If the number of ski passes continues to decrease, the account is anticipated to be operating in the red starting in fiscal year 2021 — which would be the funding during the 2020-21 winter season.

To assist with the decline, the 2019 Legislature increased the cost of the Great Minnesota Ski Pass, with daily passes increasing from $6 to $10.

“This account can’t go negative,” Waters said, as it is mandated by the Legislature. “With ... this ski pass adjustment we are now waiting to make sure the fund becomes completely solvent so we can pay these accounts. It’s a reimbursement and we usually pay out in January, so we are just asking the clubs to give us an extra month.”

The state grooms about 1,100 miles of trails for the ski program throughout the state.

“We know some of the clubs are having a hard time with it,” Waters said of the delayed payment. “We have tried to be open about this and ... we are hopeful to make those payments in February. We will keep working with the ski clubs and the Nordic Ski associations to plan better for the future.”

Wade Miller, area supervisor for parks and trails out of the Brainerd DNR office who works with the ski clubs locally and told them the news of the delayed payment, said the news was shocking. Miller agreed with Waters and said the DNR will continue to work with the ski clubs and continue to promote the purchase of ski passes to the public to help build the dedicated ski account.

The cause of the reduction in ski passes sold may be due to a number of factors, such as fewer people skiing on state park and GIA trails, lower compliance in the purchase of ski passes and people skiing at other systems not covered by the state ski pass, the DNR stated.


Miller said another factor could be that people are able to purchase a three-year pass, so those who purchased a pass in 2016, may not be aware their pass expires this year. Miller said people, as well as college students coming home for the holidays, may renew their pass during the Christmas break or into the new year as the lakes area has plenty of snow to ski on.

Miller said another possible factor in the ski pass decline could be that people are getting busier. Miller said the DNR is starting to see a decline in many of its outdoor activities, including hunting and fishing programs.

How to purchase a ski pass:

To purchase a pass a person will need their date of birth and driver's license. There is an additional convenience fee for online or telephone sales.

  • From the DNR License Center, 500 Lafayette Road, St. Paul.

  • At the front desk in most Minnesota state parks. State parks only sell daily passes.

  • Use a self-registration kiosk to buy a ski pass if no one is in the park office. Follow the instructions on the self-registration form, put your cash, check, or credit card information for the correct amount in the envelope, and deposit it into the self-registration slot. Keep a "customer copy" section of the form as a receipt and proof of purchase. Keep this copy with your person while you ski, and hang onto it until your ski pass arrives in the mail. A person may purchase a daily, one-year, or three-year ski pass using self-registration.

Ski pass rates

  • Daily: $10.

  • One-year: $25.

  • Three-year: $70.

  • Duplicate passes: $2.50.

JENNIFER KRAUS may be reached at or 218-855-5851. Follow me at on Twitter.
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