On the second Wednesday of every month at 7:30 p.m., members of the Prior Lake Snowmobile Association (PLSA) meet in the basement of the local VFW on Main Street.
Occasionally a member or two will sip an adult beverage as the evening's proceedings begin.
"Fact is, we do most of our work when there's not a snowflake on the ground," said PLSA President Tom Schutz. "We have a long list agenda of items to plan for and take care of, but we try to keep the meetings short. Very few go more than an hour."
Minnesota's much-anticipated snowmobiling season is just beginning, but for members of the PLSA and other state groups like it, their volunteer work — from trail maintenance and grooming to hosting educational events for new snowmobilers — runs year-round. But you won't hear complaints from Schutz or other group members.
"We all share a common passion: snowmobiling," said Schutz, 55. "We volunteer a lot of our time, but it's all worth it when the snow flies. Right now we're just hoping to get some snow. It will be a long winter if we don't."
Minnesota is the envy of many snowmobiling states because it has roughly 22,000 miles of public trails, the vast majority of which (about 21,000) are maintained and groomed by local groups and their volunteers. Most state groups are affiliated with Minnesota United Snowmobilers Association (MnUSA), which has roughly 11,000 members and was formed in 1978 to "protect, preserve and promote" snowmobiling throughout the state. Many say the public trail system and the MnUSA's advocacy have greatly enhanced Minnesota's snowmobiling culture and popularity.
"We wouldn't have this great snowmobiling tradition in Minnesota if it weren't for our volunteer groups and the work they do with our public trails," said Bruce Lawrence, recreational vehicle coordinator with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resource's Division of Enforcement. "These volunteers really care about their sport. And their work benefits snowmobilers who aren't affiliated with a group."
One of the biggest challenges facing volunteer groups such as PLSA is recruiting new members. Consider: Last year Minnesota registered 268,000 snowmobiles, of which roughly 51,000 were in the metro area. Of those, about 4,500 were registered in Scott County, which has four MnUSA groups (in Prior Lake, Belle Plaine, Shakopee and Savage) and maintains 258 miles of public trails. Yet county membership sits at about 182.
"We live in one of the fastest-growing regions of the state, but our membership is getting smaller and older," said Schutz, who recently wrote an op-ed for the local weekly newspaper as part of PLSA's annual recruitment drive. "That's starting to become a problem."
To illustrate, Schutz said PLSA was founded in 1970 when Prior Lake's population was 4,127. The group quickly amassed 175 members. In 2013, by contrast, Prior Lake's population had swelled to roughly 22,000, while membership had decreased to 60.
"This year we have 69 members, and most of them are 50 or over," said Schutz. "Some of our guys are getting a little burned out. We definitely could use some new blood. It's frustrating that we can't get more people interested in our club, but we'll keep trying. There's plenty to do."
Schutz said group members across Scott County spend the bulk of their volunteer time working with private landowners on acquiring riding easements for the public trail. Once the trail's established, signage and fencing must be put up. Just recently, PLSA members finished construction on an unsafe bridge south of Prior Lake.
"Our mandate is to provide safe trails and to take care of our landowners," said Schutz, adding that the Scott County groups host a landowner appreciation banquet every July and attendance often exceeds 600 landowners. "The biggest threat to snowmobiling in this area comes from riders who ignore established trail boundaries. That's the fastest way to lose an easement."
Terry Hutchinson, 66, is the past president of MnUSA and a current PLSA member. An avid snowmobiler who annually travels to Colorado, Montana and Wyoming to sled, Hutchinson testifies regularly at the state legislature about all things snowmobiling.
"I think we have fewer members because snowmobiling is more expensive than it used to be and because kids and their parents are so busy with school-related activities," he said. "New snowmobiles can run $14,000 to $15,000, and that's a lot of money for most people. In general, kids nowadays don't have an attachment to the outdoors like my generation. All of that likely plays into why we have fewer members in this area."
To get more kids involved in snowmobiling, Hutchinson said the Scott County groups teamed up in April and started a new "youth" club. It's patterned after a program run by the Association of Wisconsin Snowmobile Clubs. The goal is to increase participation and hopefully club membership.
"If and when we get snow on the ground, we will schedule club rides for the kids," Hutchinson said. "Wisconsin has 3,000 members and right now we have 27. That's a good start."
Some youngsters, Hutchinson said, already have helped put up trail signs and fencing across Scott County.
"It's good to get them involved and show them what it takes to get this public trail system up and running," he said. "Hopefully they'll learn to love snowmobiling and become members."
As for Schutz, he hopes snowmobilers near Prior Lake attend a monthly meeting at the VFW.
"Let it be known we have a lot of fun, too," he said. "If we didn't, no one would volunteer their time."
Tori J. McCormick is a freelance outdoors writer living in Prior Lake. Reach him at email@example.com.