By John Koziol
BERLIN - In a testament to its popularity and just a little
more than a year since its dedication, Ride the Wilds, the 1,000-mile North
Country network of off-highway recreation vehicle trails, will add another main
connector later this month. On Aug. 28, at a 10 a.m. ceremony in North
Stratford, Gov. Maggie Hassan is expected to sign into law several pieces of
trails-related legislation dealing with safety and speed. Then, the governor
will take an OHRV ride on the newest stretch of the trail system, this one
between Colebrook and Lancaster.
The dedication of the connector follows a $152,000 grant awarded in June by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to be spent on a three-year marketing campaign. In 2013, Ride the Wilds had $35,000 available for promotion, which Harry Brown, president of the New Hampshire Off Highway Vehicle Association, said was a "drop in the bucket" compared to the $750,000 spent annually by the Hatfield-McCoy Trails in West Virginia.
By not being as well-funded for marketing purposes, the program still represents the "best-kept secret going and that's a good thing," Brown said. The challenge is to "make sure we have growth that isn't too sharp an angle on a graph."
Since the shuttering of paper mills and other manufacturing facilities in the North Country in recent years, many have turned to OHRVs as the region's next economic engine. For its part, the state purchased the land in Berlin that became Jericho State Park which, among its other attractions, is a playground for a variety of motorized vehicles - snowmobiles in the winter and OHRVs in the spring, summer and fall.
Around that time, a number of stakeholders, including representatives of OHRV clubs that own and maintain their own trails, began laying out plans for the network that is now Ride the Wilds.Although no study has been done, Brown said the trails are having "a positive impact" on the North Country economy and that officials are working to improve the current riding experience while ensuring there will be future ones.
As with the 7,000 miles of snowmobile trails in the Granite State, the majority of OHRV trails in New Hampshire are on private land, with landowners granting access for periods ranging from one-year to indefinite. Landowners can revoke the permits with 30 days notice.
Brown agreed with Capt. John Wimsatt, head of Fish and Game's Law Enforcement Division, that the quickest way to lose access to private land is to damage it, and nothing damages land more than riding off trails.
Although Brown said he was aware of some illegal off-trail riding, he said it was not occurring anywhere near the network.
Communities decide how much access they want to give OHRVs. Berlin opened every road in the hope riders will spend money on food, gas and other amenities within Berlin.
While the network has the support of the Coos County Commission, the county delegation and many residents, Brown said "not everybody loves it.""We totally respect and we totally understand that this certainly puts some new dimensions on somebody's rural lifestyle by having a significant amount of motor vehicles passing by their homes but the majority of people have supported the (OHRV initiatives) because of the positive economic impact," he said.
Keeping neighbors and landowners happy is a priority, said Brown."Without the landowners, there is no trail system and if people do not respect the landowners' generosity to allow the trail to go through their property by staying on the trail, that's how you lose it," he said. Keeping people on the trails starts with education and includes "trail patrols" by various OHRV clubs, said Brown.
Two bills Hassan is expected to sign will help make the network safer by raising and lowering speed limits for OHRVs. On public roads, the speed limit for the vehicles will be raised from 10 to 20 miles per hour, while on logging roads, the speed limit will drop from 45 to 35 mph.
The network is on a five-year plan to address problems before they become larger problems, he said. Plans are underway for network-wide signage and the installation of 15 emergency kiosks. Brown said the discussion has also included providing additional hotel beds for visitors and developing after-riding activities for them. Wimsatt said the network's growth has been quicker and greater than expected, placing some stress on Fish and Game's trail-enforcement efforts.
Although there were about 24,000 OHRVs registered in the state in 2007, that number dropped to around 18,000 between 2011 and 2013, before coming back up to 20,927 in 2014, said Wimsatt. That said, from last year, when the Ride the Wilds network opened and continuing into this year, Fish and Game has added new responsibilities, but with less revenue than seven years ago.
A portion of every OHRV registration fee goes to Fish and Game, Wimsatt said. Most goes to the Bureau of Trails, which then grants that money back to OHRV clubs to maintain trails. Because of the network, Wimsatt said Fish and Game needs three more conservation officers in Coos County. He said the agency will do what it can with the resources it has, especially to curb off-trail riding.
Anyone found riding off trail will have their vehicle seized and could face a $1,000 fine per violation, plus $240 in court costs. Riding in wetlands carries a special penalty of up to $10,000 per offense, Wimsatt said.