WASHINGTON — When Michigan Rep. Bill Huizenga wanted to make the rounds to see his constituents during the President's Day recess, he hopped on a snowmobile.
Eschewing the popular image of the suit-clad, coffee-clutching Congressman cruising around town in a dark SUV, Huizenga says snowmobiles are often simply the best way to get around his rural district.
"There's not even small towns or villages. There's crossroads," he said. "There's some main roads, sure, but these are communities around the edges of the national forest."
But the method of transportation also has its political benefits back home.
Snowmobiling is a big business in the most rural parts of his district, and the tiny local communities scattered around its edges make most of their money from tourism. Replace a town's "Famous Hotdog" shop with a backwoods bar and the local President's Day Parade with a motorcade of snowmobiles, and it's retail politics at it's simplest.
Huizenga said it's "a really good way to get out there, fair enough to say that when you're walking into some these small bars and restaurants and people are like, who are these guys?"
Residents want to expand the region's snowmobile trails to help the region's economy. "It's very rural, there's no real kind of manufacturing presence or base … [so] there's lots of people very dependent on tourism dollars," Huizenga argued.
"The summer times pay my bills, the wintertime determines whether or not I make a profit," he added.
But environmentalists have thus far blocked those efforts. While off-roading may be fun for humans, it can take a toll on local wildlife thanks to stress from noise and pollution. And environmentalists are wary of expanding any sort of roads in national forests out of concern that they could end up being used to expand logging operations.
Huizenga is backing locals who want the trails, arguing in addition to the economic benefits, expansion of the trails serves a practical purpose for residents. There are "a lot of seasonal roads in the national forest" that can become impassable during hard winters.
"People have limit options … there's not mass transit or anything like that and it becomes a practical matter" for residents, the conservative lawmaker said.