December 9, 2012

Tough going for snowmobilers

With a lack of snow hurting registrations, the state's clubs are doing more with less to get trails ready for the season.

By Leslie Bridgers lbridgers@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

The Windham Drifters Snowmobile Club may have to institute a spending freeze, but the weak economy isn't to blame for its revenue shortfall.

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Brian Williams, left, and Joe Sayah, members of the Windham Drifters Snowmobile Club, erect a fence between a trail and a field as the club gets ready for the upcoming riding season.

Photos by Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

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Brian Williams clips branches to improve safety on a snowmobile trail in Windham. Snowmobile clubs across the state are operating on reduced budgets with both snowfall and registrations on the decline.

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REGISTRATION FEES

BREAKDOWN OF $40 RESIDENT REGISTRATION:

$20.24 to snowmobile program for trail maintenance grants

$8.14 to Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife

$6.62 to municipality of registrant

$5 to snowmobile program for equipment grants

BREAKDOWN OF $88 NON-RESIDENT REGISTRATION:

$60.36 to snowmobile program for trail maintenance grants

$22.64 to Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife

$5 to snowmobile program for equipment grants

Source: Maine Dept. of Conservation, Bureau of Parks and Lands

The culprit is last year's lack of snow.

As snowmobilers keep their fingers crossed for heavy snowfall, clubs throughout the state are watching their spending, after a 32-percent drop to a record low last year in sled registrations -- the clubs' primary source of funding.

"When they don't see snow in their backyard, they don't register," said Bob Meyers, executive director of the Maine Snowmobile Association.

The 62,000 snowmobiles registered last year -- down from almost 91,000 the year before -- was the lowest number in state records, which date back to the winter of 1992-93. For the first time ever, there were fewer registered snowmobiles than ATVs.

Although members of Maine's nearly 300 snowmobile clubs maintain the state's 14,000 miles of trails for free, they rely on a share of state registration fees to cover their expenses, mostly fuel for grooming the trails. Last year, the Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands allocated more than $2.6 million from registration fees to clubs and municipalities.

Michael Constantine, president of the Windham Drifters, said if the club can't cover costs this winter, it has two choices: groom less or do more fundraising.

He's determined not to let the former happen. "We'll go door to door if we have to," he said.

Meyers said that's the attitude of snowmobile clubs statewide, which will all carry a bigger burden this year in making sure the quality of Maine's renowned trail system doesn't suffer. "They find a way to do it," he said.

Every year, the snowmobile industry pumps more than $300 million into Maine's economy, only slightly less than the skiing industry. Unless, of course, nobody's going.

Meyers said snowmobiling conditions in the northern half of the state weren't bad last year, but people who had brown lawns all winter couldn't be convinced to make the trip across the 45th parallel.

While Caribou was near normal with over 100 inches, Kennebunkport got 20 inches -- less than half its annual average.

"You've got to have a little bit out there, just to get people in the mood," Meyers said. He believes the still-recovering economy and the ease of registering online, which can be done right before snowmobilers ride out their driveway, could have also contributed to last year's record-low registration numbers.

The Bureau of Parks and Lands is cutting its grants by 10 percent this year. That's a $26,000 loss for Somerset County, which administers the state's largest grant for six snowmobile clubs -- mostly in unorganized territories that have few residents but a lot of visitors riding their trails.

Those tourists are what keep Gray Ghost Camps in Rockwood from losing money during the winter, said owner Steve Lane.

So it's no wonder he spends hundreds of hours every winter grooming the 35 miles of trails into the woods and back, as trailmaster for the Blue Ridge Riders.

The snowmobiling season in Rockwood, just off the western shore of Moosehead Lake, was about a month shorter than normal last year, but much better than most of the state.

"We were pretty fortunate here in our little bubble," Lane said. "Most other clubs never turned a track."

This winter, the Blue Ridge Riders will undoubtedly see a reduction in their $20,000 cut of the Somerset County grant, but Lane refuses to see gloom and doom.

"We just make it work whatever way we can," he said.

While most of the registration money goes to the grant program, a portion of the money goes to Maine snowmobilers' hometowns, which usually turn it over to the local snowmobile club, if there is one.

(Continued on page 2)

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