Snowmobiling on the decline in Utah, but still moves millions through Weber Co.

Friday , December 22, 2017 - 5:15 AM

LEIA LARSEN, Standard-Examiner Staff

Jeffery Eddings loves the freedom a snowmobile provides — the thrill of following a new trail, the seemingly limitless expanse of the winter landscape, the opportunity to connect with fellow outdoors enthusiasts.

Eddings started riding as a child in upstate New York, then picked it up again in Northern Utah after retiring from the Air Force. He’s now the president of the Golden Spike Snowmobile Association. But he’s noticed some changes. 

“I feel snowmobiling used to have a big social aspect. Clubs would get together and ride, get dinner, get together once a month, volunteer together,” he said. “It’s harder and harder to get people involved in organized snowmobiling.”

Eddings used to own four machines so he could ride with his family. Now his 19-year-old son and 26-year-old daughter have lost interest, so he’s downsized to two. 

“I’m 45, probably the youngest in our (snowmobiling) club,” he said. “Most clubs are older people. ... I think the younger generation finds a different way to communicate, to connect.”

Eddings’ observations line up with a new study released by Utah State University, which tracks snowmobiling on the decline in Utah. The university’s Institute of Outdoor Recreation and Tourism found that around 11,000 households in the state owned snowmobiles in February 2017, compared to 13,000 households in 1998.

Over the same two decades, Utah’s population grew by 77 percent.

“That was really surprising; given the vast number of people who have moved in-state or the population that has grown, it hasn’t reflected in more snowmobilers or more machines,” said Jordan W. Smith, director of the institute.

The study also found that the snowmobiling population is aging. The average machine owner is now 54, compared to 43 in 1998. 

Still, the sport contributes around $13 million in tax revenue and $138.2 million in local sales.

More than half that of money comes from machine sales and maintenance. Around 8 percent of the income is derived from retail food and fuel purchases.

The Institute of Outdoor Recreation and Tourism collected Division of Motor Vehicles data for the study and surveyed 195 households with registered snowmobiles. The entire report is available on the institute website.  

Snowmobiling’s economic benefit is just a sliver of the avalanche in revenue generated by the Utah ski industry — a reported $1.43 billion last year — but the machines are especially good at banking benefits in Weber County.

“That’s primarily because people purchase snowmobiles, pay for repair and maintenance and buy all the food and fuel at their home, their point of origin, before they take off,” Smith said. “A primary example of this is Weber County — it benefits substantially from the economics of snowmobiling even though there are not a ton of places in Weber County that are major snowmobiling destinations.”

Wasatch County saw more than 26,000 snowmobile trips last season and Cache County saw 20,000. By contrast, snowmobilers visited Weber County less than 4,000 times.

But the study estimates snowmobiling creates 149 jobs in Weber County and has an economic impact of more than $15 million.

In fact, Salt Lake, Summit, Utah, Wasatch and Weber counties benefit the most from the sport, holding 67 percent of the snowmobiling-related jobs and earning 70 percent of the economic gain.

While the study didn’t offer any insights as to why fewer Utahns are buying snowmobiles or why fewer young people are investing in the sport, both Smith and Eddings said the trend could be related to cost.

New machines are nearly twice as pricey than in 1998, Smith said. Combined with fuel for both the snowmobiles and the truck to haul them, the sport may price out newcomers, Eddings said.

“Everyone wants the biggest and baddest machine, but my advice is to start small,” Eddings said. “Go rent one, take it out, see how you like it. If you really enjoy it, look for a used one — they’re probably half the price or less depeding on the age of machine. Then get a cheap trailer that’s in good shape and go from there.”

The Standard-Examiner’s own analysis shows the sport may be seeing a modest surge since 2014. Registration data gathered from the DMV shows 24,000 snowmobiles registered in Utah for 2017. 

Weber County has the fourth-largest amount of registered snowmobiles in the state. It might take a few more storms and some snow that sticks to pique the interest of more new riders in 2018. 

“The snow, it goes up and down, up and down, there are good years and bad years,” Eddings said. “That could be a contributing factor.” 

Sheila Wang contributed to this report.

Contact Reporter Leia Larsen at 801-625-4289 or llarsen@standard.net. Follow her on Facebook.com/leiainthefield or on Twitter @LeiaLarsen

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