BERLIN, N.H. -- The silver-haired, blue-eyed mayor climbs on the back of his all-terrain vehicle, gives it some gas, and tears off down a muddy path into the wide, wide woods of the North Country.
It is cold. The temperature hovers just above freezing and, as Bob Danderson's ATV picks up speed, hurtling past poplars and birches , it feels much colder than that. But Danderson, 51, doesn't mind.
This is his dream, his idea. This isn't just any state park, after all. Jericho Mountain, which opened in August, has been designated an ATV park, a playground for four-wheelers, with 18 miles of trails and plans for as many as 200 miles more.
It will become a destination, Danderson believes, and more than just his political future is riding on it. The entire city of Berlin is counting on the ATV park to help revive its sagging economy and attract visitors to a place long neglected.
Berlin was -- and still is -- known as "The City That Trees Built." But it has been abandoned by its paper mills, and that has brought change. Now it is building among the trees instead of cutting them down, and the mayor is dedicated to making the park a success. As he roars through the woods, he keeps his eyes on the trail ahead.
"Look out," he says, "for moose."
Berlin (pronounced BER-lin), population 10,000, was once much bigger. In the 1930s and '40s, Berlin was the state's fourth largest city with a thriving paper manufacturing industry and a population double what it is today.
But since 1960, the population has been in decline as manufacturers have struggled, cut jobs, and closed altogether. Last spring, two nearby paper mills closed within two months , costing almost 800 jobs and leaving many to wonder about the future .
"That industry -- the pulp and paper industry -- has been the focal point of our economy up here for just about 100 years," says Norman Charest, Berlin's economic development director . "So we have four and five generations that have grown and survived over the years, revolving around the industry. And a culture has developed around it. It's very significant."
But before the latest mill closings, Danderson, a part-time mayor who works for a utility company, had an idea, and last year he mentioned it to Sean O'Kane, then the commissioner of the state Department of Resources and Economic Development.
"I said to Sean, we'd like to have ATV trails here, " Danderson recalls. "He looked at me like I had two heads, and I said, it doesn't have to be problematic. It could be like snowmobiling. . . . It could be bigger."
Snowmobiling is big business in New Hampshire with 44,000 registered vehicles, 7,000 miles of trail, and an estimated annual impact of $1.2 billion, according to a study a few years ago. Thirty-five years ago, this now popular winter pastime was much derided, not unlike ATVs today.
Danderson is well aware of the criticism. Residents often complain about the noise the vehicles generate and environmental groups say the four-wheelers destroy ecosystems and cause soil erosion, leading to wetland damage and other problems.
But locals got behind the idea, and so did the state, which is required to use a percentage of registration fees to provide ATV trails. A year ago, state officials approved a plan to buy 7,200 acres from a logging company in Berlin for $2.1 million. The property, known to locals as Jericho Lake, but tentatively set to be named Jericho Mountain State Park by the Legislature, immediately became one of New Hampshire's largest state parks, secluded in the hills outside Berlin.
It is a tangle of new trails and old logging roads, surrounded at times by forest, at times by the scars of logging . Speed limits are posted in places, bridges built in others.
Eighteen miles doesn't leave a lot of room to roam just yet. But many locals are thrilled about the park, which officials plan to keep open year round.
"The park makes this a destination area," says Dick Huot, president of the Androscoggin Valley ATV Club. "That's what's so great about this for Berlin and for the whole Androscoggin Valley."
There is precedent for such optimism. The Hatfield-McCoy Trails in West Virginia, a network of trails now 500 miles long, opened six years ago. Since then, the number of annual permits sold has grown from just under 4,000 a year to more than 24,000 a year . Visitors stay an average of three days, according to a study this year, and in their first five years of operation, the trails are estimated to have injected almost $25 million into the local economy.
"What they do is create a lot of opportunities for entrepreneurs," says Jeffrey Lusk, executive director of the Hatfield-McCoy Regional Recreation Authority. " Folks are opening businesses that otherwise wouldn't exist. They're opening up campgrounds. They're opening up cabins. They're taking the house they inherited when their grandmother died and turning it into a bed- and- breakfast. "
Berlin residents are hoping to see a similar impact , and to a small extent , it has already begun. This fall, Randy Cicchetto moved his family to Berlin from southern New Hampshire and opened Jericho Motorsports, a business near the entrance to Jericho Mountain that rents ATVs . A report conducted by the state last spring forecasts that the park could generate 100 jobs as people open shops, restaurants, inns, and gas stations.
"In time, the investors will come," Huot predicts.
But Lusk cautions against putting too much hope in ATVs alone. He says he's found them to be an economic engine in West Virginia , but a small one. It will diversify an economy, he says, but it will not drive it. And not everyone is convinced that planning an ATV park next to White Mountain National Forest is such a great idea.
"Some are adamantly opposed to it and some say this is an opportunity to put ATVs in a place designated for ATVs," says Andrew Walters, the founder of ATV Watch, a New Hampshire group dedicated to protecting the environment from ATVs.
"I think there's an opportunity in Berlin to have the least possible environmental impact," he adds.
The state's master plan for the park has yet to be finished. And even when it is, Chris Gamache, the supervisor for the state's Bureau of Trails, knows it's not likely to please everyone.
"When you mention ATVs, most people have their opinion set," Gamache says. " . . . There are very few people I've met that are middle of the road."
Danderson is not concerned.
"Remember when snowboarding first came out and everyone hated them? . . . Now I think there are more snowboarders than skiers."
One day, ATVs will be like that , Danderson hopes. There are an estimated 24,000 ATVs registered in New Hampshire, and that number recently grew by one when Danderson bought a four-wheeler of his own.
"I've been having a blast," he says , astride his bright red, mud-splattered machine .
But what makes Danderson happiest today is not the riding, or the trails, or the views of the mountain ranges in the distance. It's what he sees in the parking lot when he's done: a pickup truck from out of state.
"Massachusetts plates," Danderson says, and he smiles.
Contact Keith O'Brien, a freelance writer in Boston, at email@example.com .