The VAST Expanse

This statewide organization keeps sliding along

by Heleigh Bostwick

VAST-0141_leadIn 1992, Bryant Watson left a career in the electric power industry and his place on the board of the Vermont Association of Snow Travelers to turn his hobby into a career as the association’s executive director.

When asked about a typical day as executive director of the Vermont Association of Snow Travelers (VAST), Bryant Watson just chuckles. “There is no typical day,” he says.

And Watson, who has served as executive director since 1992, likes it that way.

On any given day, he is just as likely to be found documenting storm damage along the organization’s 6,000 miles of snowmobile trail system as applying for grants to get the Lamoille Valley Rail Trail up and running, or lobbying the Legislature at the Statehouse in Montpelier on behalf of private landowners, on whose land much of the snowmobile trails system operates.

“One of the key things we do is work with the Vermont Legislature and the Current Use Tax Coalition,” says Watson, who is a registered lobbyist for VAST. “Eighty-two percent of our trail system is on private property, so a large part of our job is advocating for private property owners so they continue to allow access to recreation trails on their property — not just for snowmobilers, but horseback riders, hikers, and bicyclists, too.”

Permission from public and private landowners is required to operate snowmobiles on the trails, explains Watson. “Initially, individuals had to have signatures from all the landowners permitting use, but a new law was adopted. Now if you belong to one of the 132 snowmobile clubs around the state, permission is already granted because the club is responsible for obtaining permission.”

VAST was incorporated in 1967 — the result of a brainstorming session by a group of avid snowmobilers that took place in the South Burlington home of Bill and Mitzi Oakes. It was originally located in the Masonic Temple on Main Street in Montpelier. VAST purchased property in Berlin in 1997 and built a 4,000-square-foot facility, which houses the organization.

“Back in the early 1970s, there were only a limited number of trails for snowmobilers to use,” says Watson, who was actively involved in the organization even back then. “The trail system — 250 miles located mostly in state parks — was managed by the Vermont Department of Forests, Parks, and Recreation.”

That was about to change.

In 1977, the department put out a request for proposal for a group to take over the operation of the Statewide Snowmobile Trails program. VAST jumped on it and was subsequently awarded the contract.

“Out of the 25 snowbelt states, VAST is one of kind,” Watson says proudly. “We are responsible for 100 percent of the trails system. Most are run wholly by the state or in conjunction with a nonprofit organization.”

The organization has grown tremendously since then, Watson says. “We have essentially gone from three full-time employees and a couple of part-timers to seven full-time and two part-time workers that we hire during the snowmobile season.”

Watson also notes that the annual budget for the organization, which was less than $1 million in the early 1990s, has grown to $4.5 million to $5 million. Much of the funding for VAST — about $1 million — is derived from snowmobile registrations, grants, and fines and penalties that accumulate during the season, which, by law, runs from Dec. 15 to April 15.

Watson notes that snowmobile trail law enforcement alone adds $15,000 to $35,000 a year to the coffers. The balance is made up of grant moneys and fees associated with Trail Maintenance Assessment (TMA) passes.

Snowmobiling also brings tourism dollars to the state. In 2002 VAST worked with Johnson State College to prepare an economic-impact study and found that snowmobiling brought in $525 million annually.

“When that study was done, we had as many as 7,000 TMA passes sold to owners of second homes. The reason they listed for buying the property was because of access to snowmobiling trails,” Watson says.

“For the last four years, where we’ve averaged $33,000 on an annual basis of sales of trail passes, more than 50 percent are sold to nonresidents.” Nonresidents are either individuals who are visiting the state or people who own property and pay property taxes here.”

About $800,000 of the annual budget goes toward administration costs. The rest is dedicated to new and existing trail construction, maintenance, and relocation; de-brushing during the summer; a program to put up and remove signs in summer and winter; and what Watson calls “grooming.”

“We now have about 6,000 miles of trails and about 4,800 are classified as corridor trails that are under contract to be groomed,” Watson says. “We have contracts with the clubs, who are responsible for grooming or smoothing the trails’ surfaces a certain number of times during the winter months.”

Born and raised in Lyndon, Watson is an avid snowmobiler. In 2004, he was named Snowmobiler of the Year by the American Council of Snowmobile Associations.

When he’s not spearheading projects for VAST, Watson likes to fish, hunt, and garden. “I grow raspberries, strawberries, and blueberries and about 150 different fruit trees — cherries, pears, plums, and a variety of different apples.”

Watson met his future wife, Maelene Newland, when they were classmates at Lyndon Institute. They graduated in 1966 and went their separate ways, married and divorced other people, and reconnected years later at their 30th class reunion. They’ve been married for 15 years and have three children and six grandchildren between them.

In June, Maelene retired from the IRS office in Newport, where she was a program manager. Watson also cares for his 91-year-old mother, who lives with them in West Danville.

One of VAST’S projects is the proposed 93-mile Lamoille Valley Rail Trail between St. Johnsbury and Swanton.

VAST got wind of the project when the state issued a request for proposal for best future use of the abandoned Lamoille Valley Railroad bed in 1997. VAST’s proposal for a four-season recreation trail was selected and the organization has been working on getting the funding in place to develop the rail bed ever since.

The project is undergoing Act 250 review. When completed it will be overseen by VAST’s Lamoille Valley Rail Trail Committee, with over 50 percent of its members “nonmotorized,” says Watson, referring to the likes of hikers, bikers, and equestrian users.

“We’ve broken it down into three phases,” says Watson. “We think we can complete the first two phases using the funding we have now. This will allow us to complete the part of the trail where 90 percent of the population lives.”

“We hope to start construction next spring,” says Watson. “The total cost of the project is $10 million, and completion depends on raising $3.5 million in additional funds. We’re hoping we will be successful and that by 2015 the project will be completed.”

By vocation, Watson is a licensed master electrician. After a 15-year stint as chief estimator and general manager at Delta Electric, he spent 10 years as manager of member services at Vermont Electric Cooperative.

During that period he was also executive director of the Vermont Electrical Contractors Association and served as training director for Associated General Contractors of Vermont, which oversaw VECA.

Although he’s been actively involved with VAST since 1970, it wasn’t until 1990 that he joined the board. From 1991 through 1992 he served as president, and in ’92 took over as executive director.

“Running a statewide organization like VAST is like running any other business — it’s about the bottom line,” Watson says. “There’s not a huge difference. The way we receive funds can be different, but the majority of revenue is raised outside public participation.”

As for governance, Watson says that although there’s a definite difference between for-profit businesses and nonprofits, managing an electric cooperative is very much like dealing with a board of directors at a nonprofit.

“Bryant and I have been working together for many years on issues that are of interest to VAST,” says former Sen. Susan Bartlett, special assistant to the governor.

“The Lamoille Valley Rail Trail has been an excellent example of Bryant working to get folks with many diverse interests to say, ‘Yes.’ It hasn’t always been easy, and we don’t always get all of us to “yes,” but it’s not for the lack of Bryant’s efforts. VAST is lucky to have a person like Bryant.”

Watson’s take on the job is simple: “It’s a hobby I turned into a career. It’s always great when you can do something you want to do and make it your job.” •