STEWARTSTOWN, N.H. — For decades, scattered trails for all-terrain vehicles have traversed mountain ridges and slipped through remote forests of New Hampshire’s northernmost county. Now those fragments have been linked in an effort to boost a long-struggling economy by offering ATV enthusiasts not only a reason to visit the region, but also to stay.
An effort led by North Country residents has connected the trails into a 700-mile network that aims to convert day-tripping ATV tourists into weeklong vacationers who will spend money in Coos County hotels, restaurants, gas stations, and other businesses.
Previously, ATV riders could only ride for hours before reaching the end of a trail. If they wanted to continue, they would have to load their machines on trailers and drive to another trail; many just went home.
But the new network, called “Ride the Wilds,” will allow them to tour for several days and cover hundreds of miles. And about a dozen communities, including the city of Berlin, will allow ATVs to come off a trail and putter along some less busy streets on their way to local services.
“We’re hoping our hotels, motels, camp areas, restaurants, service facilities will all increase business and stay viable,” said Jules Kennett, a selectman from Colebrook, a town of about 2,400 near the Canadian border.
Connecting the ATV trails in Coos County had been discussed for years as local officials, business owners, and residents looked for ways to boost an economy that sorely needed help. A decade ago, four paper mills employed about 1,000 of the county’s 33,000 residents; today, only one mill, with about 200 workers, remains.
In 2011, a group of Coos residents — increasingly worried about the area’s economy — decided to make the trail network a reality. Harry Brown, 70, a retired businessman from Stewartstown and one of the leaders, saw the project as a self-help economic stimulus package.
Businesses and ATV clubs came together to form a nonprofit corporation, the North Country OHRV Coalition, investing hundreds of volunteer hours and winning the support of state and local officials. With Brown typically the spokesman, nudging and cajoling, the coalition convinced private landowners to give permission for riders to cross their property, often using existing logging roads or snowmobile trails.
“From my perspective,’’ said Brown, “what we are doing is building a new factory.”
The model for the Ride the Wilds network is West Virginia’s 700-mile Hatfield-McCoy Trail System, which was authorized by the Legislature in 1996 as an economic development initiative. Since the ATV trail system opened across nine counties in southern West Virginia in 2001, it has created about 200 jobs and this year will pump at least $14 million in to the local economy, said Jeffrey Lusk, the executive director of the Hatfield-McCoy Regional Recreation Authority, the state agency that oversees the trail system.
Hatfield-McCoy has grown tremendously, Lusk said. In 2001 there were 5,000 riders. This year about 33,000 are expected to buy annual permits that cost $26.50 for residents and $50 for out-of-state visitors. A key to the success has been the $750,000 a year spent on marketing, said Lusk, whose agency has $3.2 million annual budget.
Hatfield-McCoy visitors have family incomes of between $45,000 and $80,000 a year, which they are willing to spend to enjoy their hobby, said Lusk. Many invest $15,000 to $30,000 in ATVs and related equipment.
“They do have disposable income,” said Lusk. “They are very good tourists to have.”
The Ride the Wilds network opened last month, when New Hampshire Governor Maggie Hassan cut a ribbon at Coleman State Park in Stewartstown, praising the organizers for “their all-hands-on-deck ethos.”
But unlike West Virginia, New Hampshire is not providing any money to promote the trail system. Marketing is a big concern, said Brown, and without it, Ride the Wilds could be “the North Country’s best-kept secret.”
The project faces other challenges. There is still no single, detailed route map, showing how trails are linked and where to find lodging, fuel, and other services. Ride the Wilds volunteers say they are working on gathering that information and creating a comprehensive map. Meanwhile, they said, local ATV club websites have maps of their areas and they can be pieced together.
Another issue: All-terrain vehicles are scorned by environmentalists. Brown admits there is some concern about a small number of thoughtless riders tearing up or going off trails. State officials and ATV club members say they will watch for such riders, with the idea of ticketing and possibly confiscating offenders’ ATVs.
“This is about family fun,” said Brown. “If you are an adrenaline junkie for speed, this is the wrong sport for you. We don’t want you.”
While employment created by the trail network is unlikely to match the pay and benefits of lost manufacturing, Coos residents say it still has the potential to generate significant economic activity. The area benefits from snowmobile tourists during the winter, they say, and Ride the Wilds could extend those benefits year round.
Already plans are in the works for a bigger network by linking another 300 miles of trails, for a total of 1,000 miles.
Whether Ride the Wilds will match the success of Hatfield-McCoy won’t be known for years. But it is providing a flash of economic optimism for Coos County citizens who have made a long-held dream of an extensive ATV network a reality.
They’ve built it: Now, the question is whether the tourists will come.