Snowmobile Task Force helps to promote safety on Vermont's 'winter highways'
On a snowmobile, riding over miles of snowy trails in Vermont's impressive trail system, you come to an intersection and are waved over by a law enforcement officer. Instead of the usual "license and registration" request you might get on the highway, you're asked for your trail maintenance assessment paperwork and proof of liability insurance.
The officers of the Southern Vermont Snowmobile Task Force patrol the network of trails maintained by the Vermont Association of Snow Travelers. These are miles of paths cut through the woods and maintained so that snowmobile and other snow-sport traffic can safely travel them.
"When we first started doing patrols, there was very little enforcement," on the snowmobile trails, said Joseph Szarejko, Wilmington's chief of police and a member of the snowmobile task force since its inception. "It wasn't unusual for officers to go out and go through a book of tickets. They were writing 30 to 40 tickets during a patrol. Today, snowmobilers are becoming more aware of the police presence on trails, and it's rare to find someone without a trail pass, inspection and insurance."
Years before the task force was formed, the two local snowmobile clubs -- Woodford SnoBusters and Deerfield Valley Stumpjumpers -- had already recognized a need for safety enforcement and were requesting snowmobile patrols, according to Szarejko.
The task force includes about 25-30 officers from the Bennington, Dover, Wilmington, Winhall, and Dover police departments as well as from Vermont State Police and the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department.
The aim of the task force isn't to write tickets -- it's to enforce safety so the sport can be enjoyed by people of all ages.
"Prior to the snowmobile task force, there were a lot of accidents on the trails, a lot of drinking," said Bennington Police Chief Paul Doucette, a member of the task force. "For the members of the task force, the educational piece is integral to what we do."
He added, "Generally, tickets can be avoided if the snowmobilers operate safely."
During the winter months when there is sufficient snow cover on the VAST trails in Woodford State Park, the snowmobile task force patrols during high-traffic times.
Woodford is "one of the largest areas for snowmobiling in the country in terms of mileage," according to Rep. Mary Morrissey (R-Bennington).
Morrissey has supported the Southern Vermont Snowmobile Task Force since its early days, when former state representative Richard "Dick" Pembroke of North Bennington was chair of the House Transportation Committee and sought state funding for it.
In March 2000, according to the minutes of the annual Bennington Town Meeting, Pembroke announced that the House Transportation Committee had obtained funding for snowmobile enforcement for patrols on Woodford Mountain that year.
"This is the home of the largest snowmobile club in the world," he said of the Woodford SnoBusters, a club that today numbers more than 2,000 snowmobile enthusiasts. "The amount of land and the number of snowmobiles do not equal out. They were able to get $35,000 into the budget for a joint enforcement team made up of law enforcement from Windsor, Windham, and Bennington counties."
At that time, there was no enforcement of safety for those who rode snowmobiles in that popular area, accessible off Route 9. Interest in the sport and in the trails the area has to offer continued to grow.
VAST calls the more than 5,000 miles of snow trails in Vermont the state's "winter highways." As with regular highways, there are a few preparations a snowmobiler must take to travel these routes.
A message posted on the VAST website, www.vtvast.org: "Vermont makes it easy to go snowmobiling. We set the standard for well-marked trails, readable maps, easy access to fuel stops, food and accommodations. Our many convenient trailheads mean snowmobilers can hook up to trails anywhere in the state. And all it takes to snowmobile is a simple trail pass and a valid state registration."
Additionally, liability insurance is necessary, according to the task force. Many of those who travel from near and far to snowmobile in Vermont have all of those credentials in hand and appreciate a safe, fun place to ride.
"We have large numbers of people who come to the Woodford Mountain area for snowmobile recreation," Morrissey said. "It's really important to have safety for everyone."
A snowmobile destination
Woodford is a destination area for snowmobile operators from many surrounding states, Szarejko said.
Over the years, Morrissey has remained instrumental in securing the annual $35,000 appropriation that helps to fund the work of the task force. The amount of that appropriation has never increased, she noted, and doesn't go toward buying equipment.
"It's not always easy in these years to keep that funded every year," Morrissey said. "It's an important but small appropriation -- an important piece for our region and recreation."
She continued, "Whether people like snowmobiles or not, it brings in tourism -- over $400 million a year. It brings in hundreds of millions of dollars in state revenues in the form of taxes."
Additionally, businesses all over the state benefit from the snowmobile tourism -- from hotels to restaurants to retailers, she said.
"That's why I've stayed diligent to make sure this money is available," Morrissey said.
She described the task force as "a great group of law enforcement officers providing a great service in our region."
In 2013, the task force provided just under 600 hours of patrol, issued 103 tickets and 1,100 written snowmobile inspections, according to Szarejko.
"It's a fun detail for them, but it's work. You get to interact with the operators, and 95 percent are good people and are very thankful we're out there," Szarejko said. "Of course, you get a few people who don't want us out there."
Most people the task force encounters are up-to-date on registration, trail pass and insurance and simply get waived through the checkpoints, he said.
On weekends there might be six to eight task force officers out on patrol at various times. To make sure people aren't getting pulled over several times in one area in a day, the task force coordinates patrols "so we're spread out a bit and not in close proximity to other officers," Szarejko said.
Safety has been built into the sport in recent decades. Any snowmobile driver born after 1983 is required to have taken a snowmobile safety course.
"It's a family sport, and this is really a safety issue," said Doucette. "It's great to have organizations like Woodford SnoBusters, which sponsors several courses throughout the year in snowmobile education. They're a great organization because they offer it for free."
Szarejko added that "The volunteers and clubs do an amazing amount of work on those trails" to make them safe for snowmobiling, building bridges and clearing trees.
In pairs, the officers patrol anywhere from only 15-20 miles a day to several times that, depending on the number of riders they encounter. They go where the greatest concentration of riders are expected to be. Sometimes they set up at corners of the trails and look for people operating out of control.
Fines for "operating a snowmobile in an unreasonable manner" can top $392, Szarejko said. It's a hefty price to pay, but can help to ensure that the trails can be enjoyed by all levels of riders.
"That's what a lot of the families want -- for everybody to be safe," Szarejko said. "I think it's a relatively safe sport. There's a few people out there who make it dangerous for others."
On Saturday, Feb. 15 -- a day that followed a weekly snowfall of about two feet in Woodford -- Bennington Police Officer Lawrence Cole and Doucette invited a reporter to tag along and observe them on patrol. They encountered about 50 riders in the course of the morning, most at trail intersections.
The snowmobile enthusiasts were of all ages, from young children to senior citizens. Many rode in groups, enjoying the new snow and a chance for a family outing. Most were headed to a bonfire and hot dog roast put on by the Woodford SnoBusters in the woods.
The officers, clad in black and neon yellow jackets with "POLICE" written on the back, waved over snowmobiles and asked to see a current trail pass, inspection stickers, and proof of insurance. Most riders were prepared to show these items. Some who didn't have the proper paperwork received violations. Some got inspected on the spot. Of the few dozen people the duo spoke with, maybe one or two expressed contempt for the officers' presence on the trails.
Doucette and Cole said it's a very small percentage of riders who are unhappy with the enforcement.
"Before we started patrolling, it was like the Wild West out here," Cole said. "Most people are very happy to see us here, and they thank us for being here."
The task force officers also help to pull people out of deep snow, assist with any collisions or first aid needed.
"This year we have assisted people back on the trail and recently took part in a rescue where a person sustained very significant back injuries. Fortunately we were able to go (out on the trail) and assist Bennington Rescue," Doucette said.
The on-snow work is a departure from some of the more serious day-to-day police work the officers on the task force usually see.
"I thoroughly enjoy being out in the woods on a snowmobile, but I also think in order to enjoy the sport there needs to be safety," said Doucette. "It's no different from running radar on Route 7 or Benmont Avenue. The next time someone comes through they might just slow down."
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