VAST seeks legislative support for snowmobile trails

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(Host) Vermont snowmobilers want landowners to be paid for the use of their property. That’s at the top of an ambitious legislative agenda that the snowmobile association will bring to Montpelier later this month.

VPR’s Steve Zind reports.

(Zind) The Vermont Association of Snow Travelers says it will take to the Legislature the most sweeping set of proposals in the over 30 years the group has been in existence. A summer study committee mandated by lawmakers last spring crafted the recommendations.

Most of the state’s trails are on private land and currently landowners are not compensated for the use of their property. Bryant Watson is Executive Director of VAST.

(Watson) “We have a number of landowners who are asking the question out there, What is in it for me? I see all of my neighbors benefiting from the sport of snowmobiling. I see all of the motels, the hotels, the mom and pop stores making millions of dollars a year in the state of Vermont because of the sport of snowmobiling.”

(Zind) VAST wants the state to compensate landowners based on the acreage affected by trails. The estimated one and a quarter million dollar cost annual cost would come out of the general fund. Watson says the expense is justified in light of the economic benefits of snowmobiling.

He says he hopes the plan will help stabilize a trail system that is increasingly a struggle to maintain as property changes hands. Last month, VAST lost part of a key section of trails after property in the Northeast Kingdom was purchased by a New York family.

(Watson) “We come up against that every year more and more. It’s an indication that Vermont’s landscape is becoming more and more fragmented.”

(Zind) The landowner compensation proposal is only one part of VAST’s legislative package. The association is proposing raising money through a special license plate for cars, similar to the current conservation plate.

VAST also wants a portion of the gas tax redirected and used for recreational programs like management and maintenance of snow machine trails. Watson says the reallocation would more accurately reflect the amount of the tax that’s raised by gassing up off-highway recreational vehicles.

Finally, VAST will also ask the state to assume the cost of insuring the trails. Watson says most of the money could come out of an unallocated portion of the snowmobile registration fee.

Watson says the intent of each of the proposals is not to expand the number of trails in Vermont, but simply to insure that the existing trails are better protected and managed.

(Watson) “This by no means is any attempt to try to increase the number of miles that we have on the land currently. We’re looking to try to maintain the system that we currently have.”

(Zind) Watson says the state needs to recognize the economic contribution made by snowmobiling and be willing to support it in the same way it supports the ski industry.

(Watson) “I’ve asked the question and I’ve never been given a figure – How much money does the state of Vermont spend each year maintaining the highway systems that go directly to those ski areas, and only to those ski areas in many locations?”

(Zind) Watson says even if all the proposals don’t pass the Legislature, discussing them will help increase awareness of the problems facing Vermont’s snowmobilers.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Zind.

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