By Katy Savage, Standard Staff
BROWNSVILLE — Dennis Lemire used to be able to ride his snowmobile virtually anywhere he wanted, back 40 years ago, before trails were so specifically mapped.
But little by little, Lemire, 70, of Brownsville, has lost the ability to snowmobile so freely. He can’t ride his sled in his backyard, over the hill to his neighbor’s property, down onto another neighbor’s land and then onto a logging road anymore.
Now, as concerns for the environment have grown and the loud sound of snowmobiles has been scolded, Lemire is only able to snowmobile on trails where he has permission. Obtaining access is a statewide problem for snowmobilers like Lemire.
“We have people who just don’t understand what snowmobiling is all about and how important it is,” said Windsor County Trail Coordinator Gordon Holmes.
“It’s getting harder to maintain the trails; it’s getting harder to relocate trails,” he said.
Statewide, there are about 8,000 landowners, which give permission for snowmobilers to ride on roughly 5,000 miles of trails.
Though the amount of land in the state available to snowmobilers has remained about the same throughout the years, more and more, the state has to reroute trails to accommodate angry landowners.
Just this fall, Holmes resolved a dispute in Bridgewater after a landowner that bought a large parcel of land, closed his property to snowmobilers. Sleds consequently had to be rerouted over 2.5 miles of town road.
“That was a major loss for us and had a major impact on the snowmobilers in this area,” Holmes said. “It also had an impact on the businesses they patronize along the way.”
Every time a landowner shuts off their land to snowmobilers, Lemire, who has been president of the West Windsor Moonlighters snowmobile club for more than three decades, has to look at tax maps to find an alternative path for snowmobilers.
“There are some people who don’t like snowmobiling period,” he said.
But trail access isn’t the only issue facing the Vermont Association of Snow Travelers. Membership has declined about 50 percent since the downturn of the economy in 2008.
VAST used to have 45,000 members, but it dropped to 25,000 members last year due to the economy and lack of snow.
Hartland Hill Hoppers, the snowmobile club in Hartland, sees close to 400 members in a good year, but this year, it only has about 100 members.
“It’s definitely on a decline,” said Hartland Hill Hoppers President Yvonne Rice. “The cost of sleds, the cost to be legal and ride legal all is a contributing factor. I just think that we’re at a point where not everybody can afford it.”
In good years, snowmobiling can bring more than $500 million into the state’s economy, but with the dwindling numbers, snowmobiling contributed about $350 million to the economy last year.
“It’s not only the users that are benefiting, it’s also the gas stations, motels, the general stores, the repair stations, everybody benefits to some capacity because we have such a large presence across the state,” VAST Executive Director Alexis Nelson said.
Snowmobilers can bring $75,000 each winter to the Mike’s Store and Deli in Hartland, which is right near a snowmobile path. Mike Pierce, the owner of the store, can see 125 sleds a day if there is a lot of snow.
But in recent years, he’s lucky to see any snowmobilers.
“It’s a long winter without them,” Pierce said.
Lemire started snowmobiling in the early 1970s, when he went to demo one in West Claremont with a friend.
“I got on that thing and I loved it,” he said. “This was my answer to wintertime travel.”
Lemire snowmobiles every Saturday that he can. A tradition of his is stopping for lunch, either at the local stores along the way or setting up a campfire on the trial and burning hotdogs on a stick and hamburgers on hot coal.
Every fall, Lemire goes out and cuts trees that have fall in the trails to prepare for the upcoming year.
It’s a hobby that requires patience in terms of weather and landowner cooperation.
“If you’re going to get into snowmobiling you’re going to get into it for the long haul,” he said.