Warm winter could affect next year's snowmobile season

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CONCORD, N.H. >> The warm winter is proving to be a double whammy for snowmobilers in northern New England.

Not only are thousands of miles of trails closed due to lack of snow, but the corresponding drop in snowmobile registrations and club memberships could jeopardize money aimed at maintaining trails in future years.

In New Hampshire, registration fees range from $66 to $116, some of which funds a grant program to help clubs buy trail grooming equipment and complete trail construction and maintenance projects. But with so little money coming in this year, the state is considering imposing a two-year moratorium on capital equipment grants.

"We understand club and riders' frustrations; this has been a very unusual winter and the realities are that (grant) revenues are not what they need to be," Chris Gamache, chief of the New Hampshire Bureau of Trails wrote to club officials earlier this month.

Parts of New Hampshire, Vermont and Maine experienced the warmest Decembers on record this winter, and snowfall in all three states has lagged behind usual since then. Last winter, there were nearly 48,000 registered snowmobiles in New Hampshire. This winter's total so far is about 19,000, said David Murray, vice president of the Town Line Trail Dusters Snowmobile Club in Boscawen, which was hoping to get $13,000 to finish refurbishing a trail grooming machine.

"It's really sad that we have to sit out a winter, and then take the financial hit," he said. "Looking at trying to keep our equipment current and running after a bad snow year under the current system is really going to put a hard squeeze on a lot of clubs statewide."

The Vermont Association of Snow Travelers also might put its equipment grant program on hold due to declining membership. Cindy Locke, the nonprofit's executive director, said a 40 percent drop in membership since last year has left the organization short about $1 million, and it could end the year $500,000 in the red. It will still distribute a guaranteed minimum $1.1 million in grooming grants but may hold off on equipment grants, which last year amounted to $280,000.

The number of memberships is down about 10,000 from last year's 24,000, said Locke, who called this the most snowless winter she's seen in 30 years in Vermont.

"We've had like four months of spring," she said.

In Maine, where registration fees fund a grant program similar to New Hampshire's program, the director of the state's Off-Road Recreational Vehicle Division said a dip in registrations could affect grants for next year. Maine sold registrations for about 82,000 snowmobiles in fiscal 2015, and officials would be surprised to reach that number this fiscal year, said Scott Ramsay.

"We are watching it very carefully," Ramsay said, adding that February will be a "critical month" for new registrations.

Officials with several New Hampshire clubs are pushing for changes in the funding system, such as giving snowmobilers a discount for registering their sleds early in the season instead of waiting until they know there will be snow. Doing so would capitalize on the natural anticipation for the upcoming winter, he said.

"Whether you golf or whether you ski or whether you're a boating enthusiast, you will invest in a major way toward your sport ahead of the season," Murray said.

Bruce Blye, president of the Fort Mountain Trailwinders in Epsom, said his club is hoping to get reimbursed for the work it did to replace a bridge that washed away during a flood several years ago. Like Murray, he noted that even in a quiet year when clubs aren't using their grooming equipment, they still have to pay costly insurance premiums and other expenses.

"We're a small club, but we still have big club problems," he said. "Every little dollar makes a difference."


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