Families enjoy snowmobile rides around Echo Lake during Family Fun Day at Aroostook State Park in this 2018 file photo. Credit: Melissa Lizotte / Star-Herald

HOULTON, Maine — Snowmobilers who come through Oxbow will have easier access to Maine’s Interconnected Trail System thanks to a new measure the Aroostook County Commissioners approved.

The board on Wednesday unanimously approved a request by Ryan Bushey, who lives in Houlton but owns property in Oxbow, to allow sledders to legally travel along the edge of the Oxbow Road in order to reach their destination safely.

Snowmobile enthusiasts hope that the change in regulation will prove more enticing to sledders from around the state, encouraging more visitors to the area to explore the North Maine Woods and boosting the local economy. ITS 85 connects northern areas to central Maine, thus making Oxbow a destination for sledders from throughout the state.

Sledders will be permitted to travel roughly six miles on the edge of the Oxbow Road, along the easterly side of the town to the public boat launch along the Aroostook River.

“What we are trying to do is provide access for the citizens of Oxbow when they go snowmobiling from their camps and homes, by traveling safely along the edge of the road to reach the trails and businesses,” Bushey said. “We don’t want visitors having to worry about any issues with Wardens or the Sheriff’s Office when they are just trying to get from point A to point B.”

Ryan Bushey, left, of Houlton speaks to the Aroostook County Commissioners Wednesday afternoon to request snowmobile access rights on the Oxbow Road. Listening to his request are County Administrator Ryan Pelletier and Commissioner Paul Adams. The board uanimously approved the request. Credit: Joseph Cyr / Houlton Pioneer Times

Bushey, a member of the Oxbow-Masardis Snowmobile Club, said the club was interested in gaining snowmobile usage on the road to have better access to International Trail System 85, as well as locally groomed trails.

“The Oxbow Road has minimal traffic, but some years there is trucking traffic for woods operations,” Bushey said. “The road is engineered to allow two large trucks to  pass.”

Under current laws, snowmobiles are not permitted to travel on the roads legally, but many sledders do regardless — often at very high rates of speed in the hopes that they are not spotted by a game warden.

Bushey added that the new access could also be an economic boost for The Homestead Lodge, which offers dining, gasoline and lodging for visiting tourists. In addition, the Umcolcus Sporting Camps on the Smith Brook Road and Libby Camps on Millinocket Lake in the North Maine Woods would benefit from the increased access.

“It’s hard to get to many points, depending on the logging operations, without traveling a great deal of [unnecessary] miles,”  he said. “It just doesn’t make sense.”

Paul Bernier, community services director for Aroostook County, said he supported the request, provided that proper signage was erected saying that drivers need to be on the right-hand side of the road at a maximum speed of 20 mph.

“The club has been looking at this issue for the last three or four years,” Bernier said. “The snowmobile riders need to realize, however, that they will be riding on asphalt. That road is going to be plowed. That will probably force them to slow down.”

Bernier recommended including language that allows the Commissioners to revoke the access rights at a later time, if the riders do not abide by the new rules.

Bushey said the Snowmobile Club would take on full responsibility for installing signs, but if the Commissioners wanted to use any funds in the Unorganized Territory budget to assist, the financial help would be welcomed.

“We feel this will be much safer [for sledders],” Bushey said. “Plus it would really help out that community, which in the winter the only thing they have is snowmobiling.”