UTICA — Come this winter, Oneida County is poised to have what is believed to be New York’s first countywide officially designated snowmobile season in hopes of reducing conflicts between snowmobilers who want to ride before crops are in or when it’s still hunting season and the landowners who allow trails on their property.
County legislators on Wednesday, Oct. 9 approved legislation establishing a snowmobile season on designated club-maintained trails. The local law defines the season as starting no later than the end of the state-designated big-game, or deer, hunting season, which is generally the first or second weekend of December, through April 15.
The legislation requires the signature of County Executive Anthony J. Picente Jr., who has endorsed it.
It will be up to the clubs that maintain the nearly 600 miles of snowmobile trails in the county to declare whether their trails are open or closed during the season. If there isn’t enough snow, trails would be closed, and anyone riding on them would be subject to fines.
“Passage of this will reflect the Legislature’s understanding and respect of the landowners as well as of the local club volunteers who provide this county with the network of trails we have,” said Jim Rolf,trail coordinator for the New York State Snowmobile Association and a member of the West Rome Riders snowmobile club, in a letter delivered to legislators before their regular October meeting on Wednesday.
The law grew out of last snowmobile season when significant early-season snow drew some snowmobilers out while it was still hunting season and before all crops had been harvested. It led some landowners to close trails to snowmobile use.
It’s a significant recreation and tourism issue in Oneida County, where many hotels, taverns and restaurants, as well as fuel suppliers depend on snowmobilers for winter income. Snowmobilers from elsewhere are drawn to the Tug Hill Plateau region, which includes northern Oneida County and which can get up to 300 inches of snow a year from lake-effect events off Lake Ontario.
The law notes that the end of the hunting season varies within the county because it’s bisected by the border between the state’s northern and southern big-game hunting zones. The line doesn’t follow town lines but generally speaking is along Routes 49, 365 and 28.
The proposal would also specify that it’s illegal to stray from the trail system or ride on closed trails.
Legislator George Joseph, R-Dist. 10 of Kirkland, Rome and Westmoreland and the majority leader, voted against the measure. Joseph said afterward that as a landowner who has granted trail rights to snowmobile clubs, he objects to clubs turning over enforcing trail use to the sheriff’s office.
Skepticism that the set season will work was also expressed by Eric Centro of Rome and a snowmobile club member, who spoke to legislators before their vote Wednesday. Centro thanked legislators for trying to address the problem but said having a set season may give out-of-town riders the idea that as soon as the season opens, Oneida County trails are fair game regardless of whether there is enough snow. He predicted riders in places like Pennsylvania and New Jersey will come, even after the inevitable early-winter thaws that leave trails unsuitable for riding and when local snowmobilers know not to ride.
“Their trucks and trailers are pointed in our direction,” he said. “What you’re telling them is the season is open.”
Centro suggested the county pursue a trail assistance program to help private landowners who allow trails on their land.
Tax credits on state income or local property taxes were pursued earlier this year in the state Legislature but never made it beyond the committee level, according to legislator Brian Mandryk, R-Dist. 17 of Lee, who led the writing of the season law.
As for a county-level fee for landowners who agree to have trails, that may leave property owners no longer eligible for liability insurance coverage under the state snowmobile association, Mandryk added.
The details of the season, particularly that it depends on trail conditions, will also be publicized, Mandryk said. Most riders are in clubs -- membership comes with a break on state snowmobile registration fees, which help pay for trail maintenance -- and clubs will explain it to members and on social media, Mandryk said. In addition, the county tourism bureau will publicize trail conditions, lodging and restaurants will help, and the online state trail system map notes conditions, he added.