MADISON — A stretch of Maine’s largest network of snowmobile trails is in danger of closing if the club that oversees them can’t recruit more people to work on maintenance.

Members of the Abnaki Sno-Riders, one of 289 snowmobile clubs in the state, said volunteer participation is dropping, and it’s a problem.

The clubs are responsible for most of the maintenance on Maine’s 14,000 miles of snowmobile trails, including the Interconnected Trail System, which runs from Biddeford to Edmunston, New Brunswick, just over the border from Madawaska, and connects riders to Canada and New Hampshire.

“If people don’t come, if they’re not interested in helping out, there will be no club. Without the club there is no grooming of trails and there are no trails,” said Bonnie Moore, 69, secretary for the Abnaki Sno-Riders. “I don’t think people realize that they won’t have a place to ride.”

Abnaki maintains 14 miles of the trail system along ITS 87, which runs from Lewiston through Skowhegan and northern Somerset County, where it connects to trails leading to Moosehead Lake, one of the state’s most popular snowmobile regions.

Last year snowmobiling generated about $350 million of economic activity in Maine, according to the Maine Tourism Association.

Club members said a lawsuit resulting from the death of a rider on ITS 87 in 2011 is one reason they are worried about the future, but Abnaki is not the only club struggling. Across the state, other snowmobile clubs face similar problems because of a changing economy that has resulted in fewer people riding snowmobiles and fewer people volunteering.

“Unfortunately, the Abnaki club is a pretty typical scenario. Brushing the trails, getting landowner permission and grooming the trails in the wintertime is a tremendous amount of work; and getting people to do it is an issue,” said Bob Meyers, executive director of the Maine Snowmobile Association, which represents snowmobile clubs’ interests in Maine tourism and legislation.

Because of a poor economy and rising fuel costs, the number of snowmobile registrations in Maine has been declining, according to Bill Swan, licensing director for the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.

According to the department, registrations during the last 20 years were at the highest in 2002–2003, with 107,285 snowmobiles. In 2012–2013 there were 78,543. It is normal for the number of registrations, which is required for all riders in the state, to fluctuate from year to year because of weather and how much snow falls, Swan said, although he said it is hard to ignore the drop in trail use.

“It’s hard to take the weather out of it, but no one will dispute the fact that the economy has had an impact on snowmobiling in the state,” Swan said. “There are people who have decided, ‘I can’t afford to do this.'”

One of the advantages of the trails in Maine is that everything is connected — riders can travel from Sanford, in the southern end of the state, to Fort Kent, at the top of the state, a distance of about 350 miles, just by snowmobile, Meyers said. For the most part, the system is maintained by volunteers at clubs including Abnaki, although in some remote areas the state or municipalities perform trail maintenance, he said.

“That whole trail system is made up of about 290 different parts; and if one part falls away, there’s a gap,” he said.

Thomas Moore, Bonnie Moore’s son, said the trails bring people into Madison, where the ITS runs along U.S. Route 201, making it easy for riders to travel to Jackman or Greenville. In the winter, Moore, who is also a member of Abnaki, said he sometimes sees as many as 100 sleds a day on the trail, which runs through his backyard in Madison.

In Bingham, about 20 miles north of Madison, about 98 percent of visitors to the Bingham Motor Inn & Sports Complex, on U.S. 201, are snowmobilers, owner Anita Andre said. ITS 87 and another route, ITS 84, run through the property.

“If there is no snow, we practically die up here. There are very few people traveling back and forth to Canada in the winter. Sometimes there are people who come for work, but it’s mostly all snowmobilers,” said Andre, who is also a member of Bingham’s snowmobile club, Valley Riders. She said snowmobilling supports the area in many ways — through lodging, restaurants and shops that repair snowmobiles or sell parts.

“There are businesses that depend on the trails for extra winter business. It will affect quite a few of them,” said Moore, 49, who resigned in March as the club’s trail master in part because of a lawsuit filed against him and the club.

Effects of lawsuit

The suit claims negligence that contributed to the wrongful death of a 29-year-old Madison man, Richard Pepin II, who died on the ITS 87 in February 2011.

The night of Pepin’s death, Moore was operating a groomer on one of the trails when it broke down and he had to leave it overnight. Pepin collided with the disabled groomer, although a path had been created around the groomer and it was marked with signs and other caution material. A toxicology report showed that Pepin’s blood alcohol content level was 0.119 percent, almost 1 1/2 times the legal limit, according to court documents.

Last week, Somerset County Superior Court Justice John Nivison granted a motion by the Pepin family’s attorney for additional time to gather evidence about the accident, which has been in court since February.

Rhonda Pottle, Abnaki’s club treasurer, said the lawsuit could be scaring people away.

“Nobody wants to step up and take responsibility and be a trail master if you could get sued. If people hear that if you’re a trail master and a machine breaks down and someone gets hurt and killed hitting this machine, there’s going to be a lot of people that are scared and just won’t do it,” said Pottle, 58, who lives in nearby Bingham but joined the Madison club three years ago because she said the people were friendly and it seemed fun.

In the last year the club has lost its president, who Bonnie Moore said moved out of town to start a business; and its vice president, one of the club’s few younger members, who left Madison to attend college.

Pottle said last week the club had a meeting, which it advertised on its Facebook page, but only 10 people came.

“We need new officers,” she said. “We need to discuss the impact of this lawsuit, but no one shows up. Apparently they don’t care if the club closes or not.”

Work never ends

Last year Thomas Moore recruited a small group of people to repair eight bridges, but one of the bridges already needs additional work. There are also two others at nearby Lakewood Golf Course in need of repair. The work never seems to end.

Bonnie Moore said she thinks anyone who has a snowmobile should be required to join a club.

“It doesn’t need to be this one. It could be any club, but without registrations the clubs have no money,” she said.

Fewer people also means less money for the club because there is no one to help with fundraisers, said Pottle, who said that in the past the club used to raise money by baking and selling turkey pies, the sales of which would usually make the club about $2,000.

“It was overwhelming to make that many and not have anyone help you,” she said.

Swan said people, especially young people, generally don’t have time to volunteer or get involved with clubs and organizations. Twenty years ago one person could work a full-time job to support a family in Maine comfortably, but today it is not unusual for two people to work full time and just scrape by, he said.

“Not only do people not have as much time to recreate, but they certainly don’t have as much time to volunteer. So then it tends to be people that are either retired or through the point of their lives when they have children. It’s tough, but I think it’s something facing a lot of volunteer organizations,” Swan said.

Also, a large number of club members live out of state. Meyers said 14 percent of the association’s membership are nonresidents who either have a camp or stay in motels, and although they may support the clubs financially, they are not always available to do trail work.

At Abnaki, Bonnie Moore said an aging membership also affects availability to help with the trail maintenance. She and her son estimated that the average club member’s age is about 55, while the average rider age is roughly 35.

Even without the litigation, Thomas Moore said he thinks it would be a struggle to recruit volunteers.

“People have to work two jobs; their kids are into everything else, and the trails are there. They’ve always been there. People get used to bringing their snowmobile out every winter and they don’t think about what makes that possible,” he said.

Rachel Ohm — 612-2368
[email protected]