CARROLL, N.H. (AP) – Tensions between snowmobilers and environmentalists are rising as late-winter snow blankets the state’s North Country.

A lack of snow had largely prevented snowmobiling on a new trail near the Appalachian Mountain Club’s year-old, $9.5 million nature center and lodge in picturesque Crawford Notch. But more snow this month is changing that, much to the consternation of visitors and club members.

“If you were going to pick a place that was going to be worse, you could run a trail right through a grade-shool playground,” said Ann Isenberg of Bow, who visited the lodge in January. “But this is right up there in my opinion.”

The trail nearly surrounds the club’s property, which primarily caters to environmentalists, hikers, snowshoers and skiers. The state estimates about 2,000 snowmobilers travel through the area weekly in peak season, and the trail lies within 300 feet of the center, which also is used for conferences.

Crawford Notch, nestled in the White Mountain National Forest, features several trails through old-growth wilderness and near alpine lakes.

“It can be a transformative place,” said Walter Graff, the club’s deputy director. “I think that would be so changed if you cross the track and there’s snowmobiles just zipping by.”

The Concord Monitor used a stronger tone in a December editorial, calling the state’s decision to build the snowmobile trail “stupefyingly bad.”

The state has spent at least $225,000 to create another trail in the area, beside a road serving the Mount Washington Cog Railway. Club officials said the state should widen that trail rather than building the new one near its center.

But Wayne Garneau, Twin Mountain Snowmobile Club director, said the state plows the railway road, reducing the adjoining trail’s value. Widening it would require U.S. Forest Service approval, and while at least one other option exists for a trail that wouldn’t cross club property, creating it also would require Forest Service approval and a lengthy public process, he said.

“Time didn’t allow that to happen,” he said.

February and March are peak snowmobiling season, and Garneau said area businesses, which include restaurants, hotels and sporting goods stores, depend on snowmobiling – a $1.2 billion industry concentrated in the rural and relatively poor North Country.

Restrictions on national forest land already make it difficult for riders to snowmobile between hotels, restaurants and natural attractions, Garneau said. He called such trail networks “a very big asset to snowmobile areas.”

He said the club could turn a tidy profit by allowing the snowmobile trail on its property and extending it slightly to let riders reach its restaurant. But he predicted the club would consider such an arrangement anathema.

“They have a different feeling about people in a snowmobile suit,” he said. “They really do.”

Club officials say the trail is incompatible with their goals for the property. The center, built with environmentally friendly techniques, is tucked into a fold of land that hides it from nearby Route 302.

“It was really designed to separate it out from the motorized world,” Graff said.

Loggers and other North Country residents who live off the land have clashed before with the club, a Boston-based conservation group founded in 1876.

The club stresses low-impact recreation, with one workshop teaching hikers and campers how to leave no trace in the wilderness. Graff said snowmobiles not only would clash with the center’s atmosphere, but would ruin activities such as tours to spot owls and other nocturnal wildlife.

“The idea of doing that at night with snowmobiles ringing this place with lights and noise is kind of the antithesis of what we designed this place for,” he said.

He said he hopes negotiations will lead to the creation of an alternative trail.

Garneau said he’s sympathetic, but everyone needs to cooperate to make the most of the area’s recreational opportunities.

“It’s only two months a year we have to get along,” he added.

The club challenged the state’s right to put the trail on its property in November. Merrimack Superior Court Judge Edward Fitzgerald agreed the trail would cause “irreparable harm,” but he declined to temporarily close it. Speed limits and other measures are restricting its use.

A trial is set for July.

The core legal issue is whether the state has the right to use land under a seasonal railroad on club property. The state has designated the track a snowmobile trail in winter.

The club also contends the state forged ahead without sufficiently considering safety, without notifying the state’s trail advisory committee, on which the club sits, and without public discussion. Graff said club had to file a Right-to-Know request to learn anything about the change.

“It was all really done kind of under the cloak of darkness,” he said.

State officials, including Trails Bureau chief Paul Gray, said public hearings aren’t required to designate snowmobile trails. Gray said right-of-way privileges also make a public process unnecessary.

But he urged patience and said the government is open to negotiation.

“Give us a little time here,” he said. “We’ll get this all worked out.”



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