North Country
5:45 pm
Thu May 31, 2012

Linking ATV Riding Areas And Hoping To Boost The North Country's Economy

Harry Brown shuts off his ATV on the side of a cross-country ski trail notched in the woods above the Balsams Grand Resort.

 “We’re going to head north out of the Balsams property,” he says.

Brown is among those working on a new network of ATV trails through the North Country.

Currently ATV enthusiasts have permission to ride in a half dozen places including Jericho Mountain State Park in Berlin and on private land.

But ATV enthusiasts say touring the same trails again and again can be boring.

And, getting from one area to another currently means trailering the ATVs.

Supporters of the network, like Harry Brown, say that allowing ATV enthusiasts to tour the North Country on one network of trails means riders will stay longer and spend more money.

 “We’re building a new factory in the North Country,” says Brown.  “It is an industry. It is certainly an economic stimulus package that will create, work, jobs.”

Riders could go from Gorham, to Berlin, then Errol and then west to ride near Stratford, Colebrook and Pittsburg.

Organizers say they are aware of potential environmental concerns so they’ve chosen logging roads for most of the new links.

Brown says the new trails are “not to allow rampant riding all over through an area but just to have an interconnecting trail that goes from Pont A to Point B.”

ATVs are used in the spring, summer and fall and Craig Washburn, who heads up the Metallak ATV Club, says there is a lot of economic potential.

“I think it is going to amaze people and very easily equal, if not surpass, snowmobiling,” he says.

Such a network would be unusual in New England but George Bald, the commissioner of the state’s Department of Resources and Economic Development, says predicting the economic impact is difficult.

 “I don’t know I can quantify exactly what that would mean in terms of additional revenue to Coos County,” says Bald. “But it certainly will cause more activity for hotels, motels, restaurants and other uses.”

But there is potential for economic gain. Many ATV owners have the kind of disposable income that makes them alluring.

New ATVs easily cost $10,000.

ATV Rider magazine says 32 percent of its readers make at least $75,000 a year.

And they are apparently willing to spend it.

Michael N’dolo is a consultant who did a 2006 study of the economic impact of a huge network of ATV trails on the Tug Hill Plateau in upstate New York.

“In total $35 million dollars was the impact that is almost all due to visitors spending additional money that would not otherwise be there,” he says.

That’s $35 million each year, including everything from lodging to equipment.

At the Moose Muck Coffee House on Route 26 in Colebrook people are ordering sandwiches or a quick cup of coffee.

Owner Carol Sandhammer-Pires says she would like to see more customers in her café, but one thing worries her.

 “They are going to zip right by us just like a lot of the car traffic does,” she says.

But to boost business – and help riders find services they need - Colebrook could give permission for ATVs to putter around in town.

For some a strong and longstanding concern about ATVs is environmental damage.

That ranges from wrecking wetlands and causing erosion to disturbing hikers and wildlife.

But ATV enthusiasts from the North Country stress their plan is not to open up new territory but to implement what amount to commuter links.

And they say strong enforcement of existing laws, getting judges to impose maximum fines and having clubs demand thoughtful behavior by riders can minimize if not prevent damage.

Michael N’dolo, the consultant who did the Tug Hill Plateau study, found it is difficult to calculate environmental effects.

 “One of the things we had a bit of a frustrating experience with is that it was almost impossible for us to quantify economically anyhow the environmental-damage question as well as whether this was displacing other types of recreation,” he says.

But so far the plan in Coos hasn’t prompted an uproar from environmentalists, perhaps because the network basically links existing areas.

In 2002 the legislature recognized the environmental problems of ATVs.

But it also recognized the recreational rights of ATV owners – who pay the state to register their vehicles.

 It ordered state officials to somehow balance environmental protection with helping ATV owners.

DRED commissioner George Bald says the economic benefits are the upside.

The downside, he says, would be “if the trails are not well maintained and that the local clubs aren’t ensuring people adhere to the laws.”

But, he adds, he thinks the clubs in the North Country recognize the importance of this project and will be vigilant.

State officials and organizers still have work to do.

One task involves a land swap with the Umbagog National Wildlife Refuge. State and federal officials are working on that but it is not expected to be done until next year.

State officials also have yet to approve the use of logging roads through the Connecticut Lakes Headwaters.

But the hope is that by late summer most of the riding areas will be connected and the whole network will be completed next year.

For NHPR News this is Chris Jensen.