November 25, 2012

Snowmobilers, wind farms talk partnership to build 600-mile trail route

BY GLENN ADAMS, Associated Press

AUGUSTA -- Maine snowmobilers love to have destinations for their wintertime rides, and they are working with the wind power industry on a plan to link perhaps 10 of the state's wind farms with trails in a unique addition to Maine's outdoor tourism menu.

click image to enlarge

Bob Myers, executive director of the Maine Snowmobile Association, stands next to a sign marking interstate snowmobile trail 85 in Augusta on Nov. 15. FirstWind and other wind power companies in Maine are working with snowmobilers' groups to make their sites destinations for winter sledders via 600 miles of trails that mostly exist already.

Associated Press photo by Robert F. Bukaty

"It's going to take some doing to pull it all together," said Bob Meyers, executive director of the Maine Snowmobile Association. "It's looking very possible."

The snowmobile group, which represents more than 285 clubs, is working with First Wind, TransCanada, Patriot Renewables and other wind power developers on the project to formalize what could be a roughly 600-mile route.

The idea developed from two directions.

Snowmobilers who like to have destinations when they set out on Maine's 14,000 miles of trails, proposed the trail, said Neil Kiely, project manager for First Wind, which provided food and drinks for the visitors. Clubs from the Penobscot and southern Aroostook county area have conducted ride-ins for the past four winters for 150 to 200 sledders to First Wind's Stetson wind farm, where two sets of windmills operate.

Sledding clubs organize trails to all kinds of other locations, often for their scenery, said Meyers.

"There's been quite a lot of enthusiasm from the snowmobile clubs that have been involved" in the windmill trail planning, he said. "At this point, it's kind of moving from the conceptual to the operational."

The wind power companies, for their part, make a practice of reaching out to those who have some connection to the land where their projects are going, through hunting, fishing or other outdoor recreational activity, or ownership of property within eyesight. They also communicate with health and environmental groups and others interested in the projects with hopes that hearing each other out will mitigate or prevent disputes in the windmill planning process.

"The industry is always looking to partner with other users of the land," said Jeremy Payne, executive director of the Maine Renewable Energy Association. Payne said the trail project is still in its early stages, with much of the discussion so far on possible routes. But not much trailblazing will have to be done.

The economic impact of snowmobiling on Maine was $261 million in a 1998 study by the University of Maine and the Maine Snowmobile Association. Meyers said that grew to an estimated $300 million to $350 million of business responsible for 23,000 jobs statewide by 2010.

Meyers pointed out that snowmobile trails already exist on about 98 percent of a proposed route linking eight to 10 wind farms, leaving very little to be added. The Maine Snowmobile Association, he noted, has never taken a position on wind power, an industry that has its critics as well as supporters.

Planners have drawn a map of a proposed route from Kibby I and II near western Maine's border with Canada, south to Record Hill near Rumford, with stops at Spruce Mountain in Woodstock, Beaver Ridge in Freedom, Rollins and Stetson in Washington County and Mars Hill nearly touching Canada in eastern Aroostook County. The map also shows a side trip to the newly operational Bull Hill in Hancock County.

Wind companies envision allowing sledders to ride near the windmills so they get a good view of them, but not on the properties, said Kiely.

Meyers said he plans to take a ride this winter to check what's been plotted out. When it's completed, he envisions marking existing trails along the route with special windmill trail markers. Other ideas include giving sledders who complete the trail special patches for their riding suits, or issuing passport-like books that could be stamped at each of the stops.

There may be a reward for the state, too, which could see a new source of revenue from trail users who buy gas, eat meals, rent lodging and buy essentials along the way.

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