New Hawley bridge connects region of snowmobile enthusiasts

The new 60-foot bridge the Buckland Riders Snowmobile Club helped erect over Mill Brook in Hawley.

The new 60-foot bridge the Buckland Riders Snowmobile Club helped erect over Mill Brook in Hawley. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

Steve Howland, president of the Buckland Riders Snowmobile Club, and Will Cosby of Singing Brook Farm in Hawley, stand on the new snowmobile bridge over Mill Brook on protected land owned by Cosby’s family.

Steve Howland, president of the Buckland Riders Snowmobile Club, and Will Cosby of Singing Brook Farm in Hawley, stand on the new snowmobile bridge over Mill Brook on protected land owned by Cosby’s family. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

The new 60-foot bridge the Buckland Riders Snowmobile Club helped erect over Mill Brook in Hawley.

The new 60-foot bridge the Buckland Riders Snowmobile Club helped erect over Mill Brook in Hawley. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

By BELLA LEVAVI

Staff Writer

Published: 12-15-2023 1:27 PM

HAWLEY — Snowmobile enthusiasts are connected to a network of more than 3,000 miles of trails throughout the region, thanks to a 60-foot bridge over Mill Brook that was spearheaded by the Buckland Riders Snowmobile Club.

The club works with the state Department of Conservation and Recreation and applies for MassTrails grants to fund bridge projects like this one. In the past three years, they have received $42,000 to build two bridges, one in Hawley and one in Buckland.

These grants are matched with club members’ volunteer labor and equipment. Project costs involve wetlands studies, state Department of Environmental Protection and town Conservation Commission permitting, and transportation for large pieces of steel and other bridge materials.

“I love snowmobiling, but my goal is to preserve the trail system,” said Steve Howland, president of the Buckland Riders Snowmobile Club. “If we lose the trails, we will never get them back.”

MassTrails grants are only available to nonprofits and the trails must be on public land or land where owners have signed away their development rights for at least 10 years. The new steel beam bridge is on a 400-acre piece of land managed by the Franklin Land Trust and owned by Singing Brook Farm. One of the owners of the land, Will Cosby, said he put the land in conservation to extend the area’s wildlife corridor.

The bridge is located on a secondary trail in the network known as Trial 8, which connects the center of Charlemont with the Hawley State Forest. The club used donated labor and equipment from W.R. Hillman & Sons and M.I.B. Construction free of charge for the project.

“My goal is to build bridges I don’t have to build again in my lifetime,” Howland noted.

The previous bridge was destroyed in Hurricane Irene in 2011. Although a temporary bridge was put in place, the newly completed one is safer as the railings lining the sides protect people from the 12-foot drop into Mill Brook.

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The Buckland Riders Snowmobile Club has brought in $213,000 in trail improvement grants since 2012 and has used it to build four bridges. The club maintains 70 miles of trails in a network of 3,000 miles, which are maintained by 30 snowmobile clubs in the region on public and private land. According to Howland, the Buckland Riders Snowmobile Club does about 1,000 hours of trail maintenance labor per year and has about 50 members.

The trail network is enjoyed by snowmobilers as well as hikers, big-wheel bikers, cross-country skiers and more. They are not open to all-terrain vehicles, however. In the summer, these trails are also used for horseback riding.

“We are really part of a whole world of people who like to be outdoors in the winter,” Howland said. “Snowmobilers are an underpinning of the trails for lots of users.”

Although snowmobiling was very popular in the 1960s, it has decreased in popularity over the decades, with fewer younger people getting interested in the hobby. Howland and Cosby attribute this decline to the shrinking season in the wake of climate change. Last year there was one large snowstorm that allowed people to ride. Recent years have not had any rideable days.

“Last March, we got 36 inches. It took down lots of trees. We got three days of clearing and one day for riding before the snow all melted,” Howland recalled. “We do trail maintenance every year, but we don’t get to ride every year.”

With the cost of a snowmobile ranging from $10,000 to $15,000 and the season shrinking, many people decided the hobby is not worth the costs.

Snowmobile ridership has dropped by about two-thirds, Howland estimated. He said it’s likely that when the bridge was first built in the late 1960s it would see about 100 riders on any given weekend day. Now he believes that number is closer to about 20 users.

Still, Howland and Cosby say they don’t mind the many hours of labor that benefits fewer people as time goes on.

“The point of all this is to have something to do in the woods,” Howland explained. “Some of us like to do it on foot; some of us like to do it on a snowmobile.”

Reach Bella Levavi at 413-930-4579 or blevavi@recorder.com.