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Snow may be plentiful, but snowmobile clubs low on funds

There's been a lot of snow lately for snowmobilers around central New York, but last year's slow season has impacted funding for the clubs who maintain the trails.

Local snowmobile clubs say that between low registration numbers and high prices for diesel fuel, they've been strapped for cash.

It's 8 degrees with a light snow falling as Jim Rolf drives the groomer along a tree-lined bank of a very frozen Erie Canal.

Rolf is the trail coordinator for the New York State Snowmobile Association, and volunteers to help groom the 41 miles of trails maintained by his snowmobile club, the West Rome Riders.

“If we're out, five days a week, our trips are four hours each. That's a hundred gallons of fuel a week. At four-something a gallon right now, that adds up quick," Rolf said.

Most clubs in New York -- including the West Rome Riders -- are operating with approximately two-thirds of the funding they usually receive. Those trail grants come from snowmobile registration fees that vehicle owners pay annually. Because of bad snow conditions last season, snowmobilers say many people didn't register.

To maintain trails, 236 clubs around the state organize volunteers year-round to build bridges, post signs, and clear debris when it snows for a total 10,400 miles of trail. When times are tough, they host fundraisers like charity rides.

“We can make up a portion of what we're going to lose this year, but if this happens two years in a row, clubs like ours aren't going to be able to keep doing it," Rolf said.

In Rome, Cole Vergalito stands behind the counter at Cycle Shack Polaris, a winter sports store. Next to him sits a plastic jar reading “West Rome Riders, Groomer Fuel Donations.”

“Business was bad last year, we didn't sell much. Nobody bought anything until it snowed this year,” Vergalito shrugged. But he says he counts his store among the lucky ones.

“Get a little further north on Tug Hill, all the businesses there, that's all they rely on."

Club members say they'll have to hike up fundraising efforts this season, but they're thankful that the snow this year is getting more riders on the trails. For Jim Rolf, it's a lifestyle well worth the effort.

“We live in central New York. You can complain about it, you can move, or you can enjoy it,” Rolf said.