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In N.H.'s North Country, ATV Tourism Revs Up Culture Clash

Chris Jensen for NHPR

These days in Gorham and lots of other towns throughout the North Country, it’s not unusual to see caravans of ATVs (shorthand for "all-terrain vehicles" and "utility vehicles," which are often larger with multiple seats) all over. They're parked at the local gas station, in line at Dunkin’ Donuts, and zipping down local roads.

This is the result of a years-long effort, by both state and local tourism officials, to make northern New Hampshire a destination for ATV riders. While some see promise in this growing group of tourists, others worry that the region might be losing something else along the way.

Credit Sara Plourde for NHPR

This is the first story in a special series called Off-Road, which looks at the impact of motorized recreation in New Hampshire. Click here to visit the series page, where you can read and listen to more stories.

Sandy Lemire has called Gorham home for as long as she can remember. But in the last few years, it seems like the town she grew up in is getting harder to recognize.

“The machines keep getting bigger and bigger," she said, standing on her front lawn one recent morning. "And the bigger they are, the more noise they make. And if they see somebody — I’m surprised they haven’t done it now, probably because you’ve got a microphone, because usually when someone is out there doing something they—"

Almost on cue, she was interrupted by a loud "vroom."

"...They gun the engines," Lemire continued. "To show off.”

I visited Lemire the weekend of a festival that brought more than 10,000 ATV riders to the area. The center of that festival was about 10 miles away, at Jericho Mountain State Park in Berlin. As we talked on Lemire's  lawn, dozens of the vehicles zipped past — right down the main road — just steps from her front door.

Credit Chris Jensen for NHPR

This is also right on the border of New Hampshire’s Ride the Wilds network, the crown jewel of the state’s burgeoning off-road tourism industry. The network boasts more than a thousand miles of trails weaving throughout Coos County.

A key trail entrance to Ride the Wilds sits at the edge of Gorham’s main business district. Since 2013, the state and town both made the trails easier to access by allowing ATVs to drive on some of the main roads.

That, Lemire says, changed everything.

“I love it down here. It’s where I was brought up. Now, it’s to the point that my neighbor next door, they’ve gone for the day or the weekend because they can’t stand it," she says, raising her voice to be heard over the sound of nearby engines. "And I refuse to leave. This is where I am.”

The homepage of Ride the Wilds promotes New Hampshire's interconnected ATV trails, while also pointing site visitors to "Non-ATV activities" on the bottom of the page.

Others say the town’s off-road renaissance has been a blessing — that it’s brought in a whole new group of visitors. That local businesses, especially ATV dealers and hotels, are booming.

"I feel that we’ve all morphed into something really cool here. This is good. This is really really good,” says Ray Bergeron, one of the biggest boosters behind the campaign to make Gorham an off-road destination. He runs White Mountain ATV Rental and leads the Presidential OHRV Club. "It is definitely an allure to be able to pull up to Dunkin' Donuts and grab your coffee in your side-by-side, and drive into the trails."

Credit Chris Jensen for NHPR

If Gorham were to scale back on its road access for off-road vehicles, Bergeron says "it will make us a ghost town, it will be economic suicide."

But like any change, this one has come with plenty of growing pains. For one, a sharp increase in ATV-related complaints to local police — from a dozen in 2012 to more than 200 so far this year. Most of them are noise-related, according to the department.

There have also been tense public forums and pointed letters to the editor.

About 20 residents recently enlisted the help of a lawyer to try to force these vehicles out of their neighborhood. One of those residents, Dave Evankow, says he doesn't live as close to the trailhead as Lemire but can still hear a dull roar from his home on most busy weekends.

“No self-respecting town would bring this upon itself," Evankow says. "It just shows a measure of desperation. There’s very few towns in the country, especially in the northeast, that would even tolerate this sort of madness.”

Some local business owners who weren’t directly profiting from the off-road industry also expressed doubts about Gorham’s embrace of off-road vehicles — but several declined to speak on-the-record, because the issue has become so sensitive and they worried about offending their neighbors.

'The machines keep getting bigger and bigger...and the bigger they are, the more noise they make.'

One business owner who was willing to speak up was Liz Jackson, who owns Libby’s Bistro and Saalt Pub, a trendy farm-to-table spot right on Main Street. Like others concerned about ATV use in Gorham, she says she isn't against these vehicles altogether — but she worries their ubiquitous presence, especially during high-traffic weekends, was forcing away other long time visitors.

“I have asked at meetings, 'How would you feel?' " Jackson says. "If you had a quiet little town that you escaped to, and you went there during a big noisy festival, how would you feel about that little town that was your getaway?”

This interactive map from the Ride the Wilds promotional website highlights restaurants and attractions adjacent to the trails.

Jackson knows she has lost customers who came to Gorham initially seeking a peaceful weekend escape — only to be startled by the sight and sounds of so many ATVs revving outside their hotel room and along the main roads. 

“And, yeah, I filled those reservations," Jackson says. "The point isn’t that I lost them. It’s that the whole town lost them... And another town gained them.”

This debate over what these vehicles are doing to local businesses and to the quality of life here in Gorham is, at its heart, a debate over the town’s identity. And in Gorham, that identity is shaped as much by the people who live here as the visitors it decides to welcome.

'No self-respecting town would bring this upon itself. It just shows a measure of desperation.'

Over in another corner of the community that’s largely secluded from ATV traffic, Kara and Jason Hunter are trying to prove that it is possible for all kinds of tourists to coexist peacefully.

Credit Chris Jensen for NHPR
A property owner posts signs prohibiting ATV use

The couple just opened Hub North, a new lodge and campground geared toward hikers, mountain bikers and others who want to enjoy what Gorham has to offer, away from the buzz of ATVs.

But unlike some other local lodges who turn ATV riders away, the Hunters still plan to leave the door open for this group, too. They just aren’t allowed to start the engines and would have to trailer to the nearest trailhead.

“It’s hard to just be against something when you know the people who are coming here to do it are coming to be here the same way everyone else is coming to be here. They just happen to be doing something that a lot of people in town are not so keen on," Kara Hunter says. "They’re still just people coming to enjoy the White Mountains, you know.”

As long as people are willing to respect their neighbors, they like to think there’s enough room for everyone.

In part two of this series, NHPR's Todd Bookman explores the economic impact ATVs are having on Gorham and other communities.

Casey is a Senior News Editor for NHPR. You can contact her with questions or feedback at cmcdermott@nhpr.org.
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