Ride the Wilds opened in 2013, after a land exchange helped to complete the 1,000-plus-mile trail system. Photo courtesy of N.H. Dept. Resources & Economic Development.
ATV Users and Conservationists Find Common Ground
The jagged spit of New Hampshire’s Coos County reaches north to Canada, with Vermont at its western border, Maine to the east, and the White Mountain National Forest stretching along its southern edge. Small towns along rural highways interrupt the landscape of thick forests and tall, craggy peaks. The open fields of old farms appear sporadically. Remote lakes dot the topography, some with shorelines bordered by cabins and luxury homes, others primarily the domain of the wilderness that has defined and supported the northernmost reaches of the Granite State for generations.
Once the domain of timber barons and paper mills, Coos is the only county in New Hampshire to have seen its population decrease since 1970, the economy and populace decimated by the closure of all but one of the county’s paper mills and the subsequent gradual loss of some 4,000 jobs.
In light of these economic hardships, Coos County has worked to develop its tourism economy, promoting itself as a spot where birders, hikers, hunters, and paddlers can find a bit of quiet solitude. The area’s wild-land rich – more than 300,000 acres in Coos County are publically owned, and tens of thousands of additional acres are held in conservation easements. The crown jewel of the region’s protected lands is the Lake Umbagog National Wildlife Refuge. Established in 1992 with 128 acres, the refuge has grown to over 25,000 acres, reaching beyond Coos County into western Maine.
Juxtaposing the tranquility of Umbagog and other quiet places is the development of trails for motorized vehicles, commonly called ATVs (all-terrain vehicles) or OHRVs (off-highway recreational vehicles). In 2005, the state acquired 7,200 acres in Berlin – New Hampshire’s northernmost city, once at the center of the logging and paper mill economy – to create Jericho Mountain State Park, which is dedicated to motorized vehicle use. The summer of 2013 marked the much-anticipated opening of Ride the Wilds, a system of more than 1,000 miles of connected trails crisscrossing Coos County.
The creation of Ride the Wilds has been a collaborative effort of ATV clubs, local municipalities, state and federal agencies, and land conservation groups. And despite the seeming improbability of hosting both non-motorized recreational pursuits and an extensive OHRV system on the same site, the two seem to operate harmoniously in Coos County, thanks mainly to the willingness of various parties to compromise and collaborate.
“We have some beautiful places that should be a draw for people to come from around the country. But they’re not going to come for one thing,” said Harry Brown, president of both the North Country OHRV Coalition and the New Hampshire Off Highway Vehicle Association.
A Vermont native whose resume includes working on the Appalachian Mountain Club’s hut “Croo” as a young man, a career as an alpine ski racing coach, and another as owner of a road construction company, Brown retired to northern New Hampshire several years ago. He was drawn to the area by its remoteness and unpopulated land, and he’s spent a good portion of his retirement drumming up support for and working out the logistics of Ride the Wilds, which he considers a “new factory” to boost the flagging economy of Coos County.
“I’m not an OHRV recreationalist,” said Brown, who rides only occasionally. “I’m a catalyst to try to do good things in the North Country. The goal of Ride the Wilds is to allow consumers to ride door-to-door, go out to dinner, get to the gas stations and lodging – all on their machines.”
There were plenty of bumps along the road to creating Ride the Wilds, including gaining permission to access town and state roads (a dozen Coos towns now allow OHRV travel on their roads) and creating new trails to connect different sections of existing trails. The biggest impasse, however, was securing access to Seven Islands Bridge – the only Androscoggin River crossing for several miles.
To access the bridge, motorized users would have to cross through a small portion of the Lake Umbagog National Wildlife Refuge, whose conservation plan does not allow OHRV use. Without that connection, Ride the Wilds could not link its eastern section to the rest of the trail network. And that eastern section held a big draw for OHRV users: Jericho Mountain State Park.
With a focus on protecting wetlands and uplands and the migratory birds that rely on those areas for breeding, Umbagog’s conservation plan allows for regulated winter snowmobile use, but no motorized use during warmer (breeding) months.
“We consider the economic impact of our [conservation plan] on the local communities, and we want to be benefitting the communities,” said Paul Casey, manager of the refuge. “ATVs are an important portion of the economy. We recognize that if you put them in the right place, they’re not going to bother what we’re doing at the refuge.”
Casey understood the economic importance of the Ride the Wilds system and knew motorized access to the small tract needed to access the bridge would have a minimal impact on the refuge. But his hands were tied by the plan.
Cue the Trust for Public Land. Having recently completed the six-year, $17 million Androscoggin Headwaters Project, Trust for Public Land representatives were well versed in local issues, including the Ride the Wilds project. They knew Ride the Wilds was important to the community, and that continued protection of wildlife habitat and access to non-motorized recreation were also important.
“Our core mission is conserving land for people who enjoy the outdoors. Usually in northern New England that means focusing on hiking, paddling, mountain biking, cross-country skiing, hunting, fishing, and other traditional uses,” said JT Horn, senior project manager at the Trust for Public Land. “However, we have learned through hard experience that we will get broader public support in many rural Northern Forest communities if we also address the needs of responsible motorized trail users.”
And so the Trust for Public Land helped broker a compromise. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service gave a 233-acre piece of the refuge (and $6,200) – which included the road to Seven Islands Bridge – to the state. In exchange, the refuge gained a conservation easement over 280 acres in Big Island State Forest, providing habitat that supports the migratory birds and waterfowl the Umbagog refuge aims to protect.
Brown said the Ride the Wilds network could not have been completed without the land exchange. While the exchange was not finalized until January 2014, Casey issued a special use permit to allow motorized access to Seven Islands Bridge so Ride the Wilds could open for the summer of 2013. As Casey sees it, the exchange benefited all parties.
“I think it’s important for the North Country to offer a mixture of recreation opportunities, land ownership opportunities, and business opportunities. We all have to be willing to compromise,” he said. “The refuge is not going to be open for ATV use. It’s open for other activities that people might want to do. As long as we work together, the eventual outcome is going to be diverse opportunities for recreation and business, with a high level of conservation.”
Meghan McCarthy McPhaul lives in Franconia, New Hampshire, where she writes on a variety of subjects and maintains a blog: Writings From A Full Life.