Mar 5, 2019

Off Road Sportsmen

Growth of ATV and UTV ridership across Wisconsin has made the state a top destination for the sport

By Sean Fitzgerald, Badger Sportsman editor 

Believe it or not, Wisconsin is one of the top places for recreational off-road vehicle enthusiasts anywhere in the world, with thousands of miles of connected and improved trails.

Unlike fishing and hunting, this recreational activity hasn’t been around since the dawn of man. In only three decades, it’s gone from an unorganized diversion of time to become one of the state’s fastest-growing recreational pursuits. And it’s become big business – not just for motorsports dealerships – but for lodging destinations, restaurants, gas stations and taverns across Wisconsin as well.

So much business, in fact, that the Wisconsin Department of Tourism along with local destination marketing organizations across the state have made concerted efforts to drive all-terrain vehicle tourism through various grant programs and dedicated marketing initiatives.

Now, through a network of thousands of miles of well-developed and regularly maintained trails zig-zagging across much of Wisconsin – much to the credit of local not-for-profit, volunteer-based clubs – riders can enjoy the state’s outdoor beauty taking in sights one just can’t get simply driving down a freeway. Riders can get from Superior to Marinette, or from Florence to River Falls – all without having to drive a mile on a paved highway.

A short history

Badger Sportsman readers older than 40 will remember the relatively short life of “3-wheelers” which was attributed to kicking off the all-terrain vehicle craze in Wisconsin during the late 1970s and early 1980s. These vehicles lacked suspension and weren’t exactly stable – and as a result, were not terribly safe, either. Once 4-wheelers became more prominent in the market in the late 1980s and early 1990s, 3-wheelers were phased out of production, and the federal government ultimately banned the sale of 3-wheelers altogether in 1988.

4-wheelers were much safer. The four points of contact on the ground provided greater stability, and upscale models – for the time, at least – even came with suspension. Eventually they’d provide automatic transmissions so that riders didn’t have shift gears up and then back down again. But there was still the conundrum of where to ride.

At the advent of ATV riding in Wisconsin during the 1980s and even into much of the 1990s, if you didn’t live on a farm or live out in the country, you often simply didn’t have any place to ride. Even if you were in a more rural area, riders didn’t have the nicely refined highway system of trails that exists across Wisconsin today.

“At the time, there really wasn’t anywhere to ride, so people made their own places to ride,” explained Randy Harden, president of Wisconsin ATV /UTV Association. “In the early days, we were primarily using logging trails.”

To make the sport work in Wisconsin, Harden explained most of the off-road riding needed to be on county, state and federal land – often through trails on public forests or abandoned railroad beds that were ceded back to the state. Wisconsin became a pioneer in requiring registration of ATVs in the mid-1980s, using those funds for trail development and enforcement initiatives.

As 4-wheel ATVs grew in popularity during the 1990s, the machines became more comfortable and easier to ride, and so too, did the number of locally organized clubs dedicated to developing and maintaining trail networks within their respective corners of Wisconsin. Today, Harden said more than 100 local ATV clubs volunteer time and coordinate financial resources to make sure the trails in their neck of the woods are free of fallen trees, safe and accessible for riders hailing from nearby or several states away.

Growth spurt

Last year there were a combined 388,000 registered all-terrain (ATV) and utility terrain vehicles (UTV) in Wisconsin. By comparison, there were xxx snowmobiles registered in Wisconsin in 2018 and xxx boats registered across the state.

A substantial segment of growth has been the increased popularity of UTVs during the past decade. What looks to many like a golf cart on steroids can carry as many as four passengers and drives much more like a standard automobile than a 4-wheeler. The state Department of Natural Resources began registering UTVs in 2012.

“The growth in the side-by-side (an increasingly common reference for UTVs) has been incremental,” said Tom Van Zeeland, owner of Team Winnebagoland, an Oshkosh-based motorsports retailer. Van Zeeland said sales of UTVs through July 2018 were up 28 percent compared to the same period a year ago, a trend he and his team were expecting.

“We’re seeing this side-by-side growth coming from people who want to ride with their families,” Van Zeeland said.

Given the relative ease off operating many UTVs, Van Zeeland said his store sells to a lot of what he referred to as “entry-level buyers,” meaning they often have little experience operating off-road vehicles and navigating Wisconsin’s growing trail system. New customers are welcome, but Van Zeeland and his staff understand that selling these powerful machines to inexperienced riders comes with some responsibility which his team has embraced.

“We tell customers you’re not buying a toaster – you don’t simply just put two pieces of bread in and push down,” Van Zeeland joked. On a more serious note, though, he and his employees stage a handful of free events for customers during the year to present basic on-trail etiquette and elements of safety such as tightening seat belts, turning on lights and using directional hand signals. Team Winnebagoland even donated $1,000 each to eight local trail clubs across the state – for a total of $8,000 – to assist those clubs with their own safety training efforts.

Most new riders are strongly encouraged to take a safety training program, and those riders born after 1988 are required by law to complete such training. Harden’s group through the Wisconsin ATV / UTV Association has helped certify more than 1,200 people across the state to teach trail riding safety programs within their local communities. Completing the program requires just six hours of training, which includes three hours of classroom instruction and three hours of field demonstrations. 

Big growth = Big business

An economic impact study conducted in Jackson County in 2015 found nearly 22,000 non-local ATV and UTV riders that year spent an estimated $7.6 million – or an average of $355 per person – on total expenses for their trip such as lodging, fuel, food and beverage. That’s just one example from a small portion of southcentral Wisconsin, but it illustrates the sport attracts a demographic with disposable income they’re willing to spend to enhance their overall trail experience.

The hospitality industry in heavier ATV and UTV traffic communities recognize the spending power hailed by trail riders. Many “trail friendly” restaurants and lodging destinations have designated special parking for ATVs and UTVs, and offer indoor amenities such as places to store or hang helmets. In downtown Danbury in far northwest Wisconsin, there’s even a designated “ATV Wash” located right next the Gandy Dancer State Trail a few hundred yards from where it crosses the St. Croix River into Minnesota.

Many businesses looking to attract riders help provide financial support for local trail clubs, which helps land them on trail signs as a destination for hungry, thirsty or weary riders. It’s been an important and growing aspect of tourism for regions of the state where hunting, fishing and camping were previous drivers of visitor spending, such as the Mercer area in southern Iron County.

“We’re a tourism area, and that (type of visitor spending is) what all the small businesses need up here,” said Jeff “Six” Schoenbeck, owner of Lazy Ace Saloon in Manitowish and president of Mercer Dusty Loons trail club. “Without these tourists, we’d be a ghost town.”

Six, as he’s known to locals and to patrons of his tavern, helped organize the Dusty Loons a little more than five years ago and has been actively involved ever since. Perhaps more so than other local clubs further south in Wisconsin, the Dusty Loons work closely with local snowmobile clubs to ensure they’re complementing one another’s efforts when possible, and otherwise not stepping on each other’s metaphorical treads.

“The only way we can promote this is to make sure everyone works together with you,” said Six.

In just a short period of time, the concerted effort has worked. Iron County currently offers more than 220 miles of developed ATV trails, and was recently named a top destination for ATV riding in the country during 2018 by RiderPlanet USA.

That success has also benefitted Six’s Lazy Ace Saloon. He said he regularly serves groups of riders from southern Wisconsin, and has a standing group from Iowa that tours the region each year.

“Every year for the past 10 years, the number of ATV riders coming through the area has gone up,” Six reported. “I’m a destination now if they’re in town. I often have several riders in here a day.”