Insurance a shared concern of snowmobilers

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Insurance a shared concern

Fred Labrun, Albany Times-Union'

November 28, 2002

Winter is coming early this year, you can feel it sharp on your face.

The Indian summer that wasn't is a fading memory. The reality is snow, piling up a few inches at a time, packing down but not going away. Before Christmas, it's a good bet we can break out the snowshoes, go winter bird watching, slip on the ice crampons over the hiking boots.

And hear the hum of snowmobiles.

Don't be rude. Hikers, we have to make our peace with organized snowmobilers. The outdoor world is big enough for all of us. Snowmobile clubs have become impressive self-policers in recent years, disciplined. Unfortunately, your basic yahoo creating mayhem is unlikely to belong to the 250 clubs in the state, and that's a problem.

Apart from a nasty bit of illegal grooming along a few trails in the Adirondack Park, snowmobile clubs seem to have their acts together.

Besides, organized hikers and snowmobilers, you have much more in common than you might know. Namely, shared trouble ahead that could negatively impact all sorts of recreational uses on the state's public and private lands. Even for the yahoos.

It's over liability insurance, or potentially the lack of it, or an impossible price tag for it.

According to Jim Jennings of Long Lake, executive director of the New York State Snowmobile Association, last year a standard $1 million policy for a snowmobile club with a clean record cost $1,200 to $,1400. This year that same policy costs $5,000 and the number of insurance carriers even willing to insure clubs is dwindling fast.

The phenomenon of the disappearing insurance carrier and skyrocketing cost is by no means unique to snowmobilers. Hiking clubs, horseback riding clubs -- virtually any outdoor organization is running into variations of the same problem.

Then again, it's not just recreation either, says attorney Neil Woodworth, spokesman for the Adirondack Mountain Club, the state's premier hiking organization.

Woodworth believes insurance companies have gone conservative across the spectrum because of heavy losses in stock market investments, and as the result of a string of costly disasters, from the collapse of the World Trade Center back to Hurricane Andrew 10 years ago.

The potential impact is dramatic. There are 150,000 registered snowmobiles in the state owned by about 100,000 households. Only 20 percent of the households belong to clubs. They should all belong.

Because these 250 clubs maintain the trail systems at $750 a mile for everybody, by using moneys from the $25 registration fee funneled through counties and towns. The counties and towns won't deal with clubs that are uninsured, however. Meanwhile, the state Office of Parks and Recreation and the Department of Environmental Conservation do not have the staffs to be stewards to the thousands of miles of various trail networks. These state agencies rely on volunteers and contracted work by these clubs.

You can see an ugly Catch-22 shaping up here, where in short order we could have wilderness barely usable by most of the general public. That potentially includes hikers and horses.

Recently, recognizing the seriousness of this, Parks and Recreation Commissioner Bernadette Castro convened a first-ever multistate agency and multi-stakehold meeting. It's all still in the talking stage, but one possible direction is having the state Office of General Services facilitate the availability of insurance to qualified clubs.

So organized hikers, snowmobilers, shake hands, exchange breath mints. We all have problems, and many of them are the same. We'll get through it.

Fred LeBrun's outdoors column is published Thursdays. To reach him, call 454-5453.
 


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