Maine businesses and snowmobile clubs are preparing to roll out the red carpet for out-of-state riders this weekend, as enthusiasts from Vermont and New Hampshire head to the state to try out the trails for free. Mainers are offered the same opportunity in those states Jan. 29-31.
The weekend is the first of two “free” opportunities on tap for this season; the second comes Feb. 12-14, when Canadian riders from New Brunswick will be welcomed to the state, and Maine riders can cross the border to visit our neighbors to the north.
On the surface, it’s a good deal for the state: Showcasing Maine’s 14,000 miles of interconnected trails, which are groomed by members of local snowmobile clubs, ought to lead to repeat visitors in the future.
That’s the hope, at least.
Bonnie Holding, the director of information and education for the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, said the free weekends are pretty straight-forward.
“The goal [this weekend] is to get more people to come to the state of Maine and look at our snowmobile trails, because we do have some great riding,” Holding said. “It also helps the other states — Vermont and New Hampshire — for us to go there.”
Make no mistake, snowmobiling is a big business in parts of Maine. Riders — especially those who travel to get here — spend money for fuel, lodging and meals, and many rural towns in western and northern Maine benefit.
In places such as Rangeley, Fort Kent, Portage Lake, Stratton and Greenville, it’s not uncommon to see 50 sleds parked outside a store or restaurant.
And allowing folks to sample those trails for free seems to make sense.
But the money spent at businesses isn’t the only piece of the puzzle.
“Free weekends” aren’t free, of course. Trips afield are expensive. The “free” refers to the fact that visiting sledders aren’t required to pay a Maine registration fee on their sleds on these two weekends.
Snowmobiling isn’t like driving a car, you see. If you or I drive our vehicles across the Piscataqua River bridge to New Hampshire, we aren’t required to stop and re-register our cars before we continue on our journeys.
Snowmobiles are different … and much of the money spent on snowmobile registrations is funneled directly back to the sport.
According to Bob Meyers, the executive director of the Maine Snowmobile Association, about 20 years ago, Maine shared “reciprocity” registration rights with 13 other states, from Washington and Minnesota to New Hampshire.
Those riders were welcome to bring their sleds to Maine and ride without paying an additional registration fee.
That, he said, was untenable.
“We just started pecking away at [the problem],” Meyers said. “If you’re going to have a user-pay system in place, the only way it works is if everyone pays.”
The math: Last year, 17,124 nonresident season-long registrations were sold in Maine, for $99 each. Meyers said 75 percent of that money goes to the snowmobile trail fund, which helps pay for grooming and upkeep on the trails that make the sport thrive in this state.
Another 62,973 Mainers purchased season registrations for $45 apiece. The formula is different for Mainers, because towns get a share of that fee, but Meyers said on average, about 60 percent of that money goes to the trail fund.
The official Maine Snowmobile Association stance, according to Meyers: “We like to see people coming from out of state [on free weekends] and visiting the local businesses.
“We also hope they’re supporting the clubs when they’re here, because the clubs just do a fantastic job,” he added.
But Meyers is concerned that offering a free three-day weekend can have an undesirable side-effect.
“What we have seen happen, which is pretty frustrating, is we’ve seen a pretty steep decline in three-day [nonresident] registrations, and what appears to be happening is that some people will plan their one week a year [for sledding in Maine] for this weekend.”
During the winter of 2011-12, the state sold 3,944 three-day registrations to nonresidents. A year ago, it sold 3,247.
And although Meyers has a few concerns about free weekends, he also wears another hat that requires him to focus on the positive.
“I’m also the current chairman of the board of the Maine Tourism Association,” he said with a chuckle. “We love having people coming to Maine no matter what they’re doing.”
And he said he expects a busy weekend as riders from New Hampshire roll into the state.
“The phones [at the Maine Snowmobile Association] have been very busy this week, as has the email, with people asking questions,” he said. “It’s not prime riding, but it’s good … the Maine clubs really know what they’re doing [when it comes to grooming trails], and they’ve really made a lady out of what’s there [for snow].”
John Holyoke can be reached at email@example.com or 990-8214. Follow him on Twitter: @JohnHolyoke.