ATV freedom carries a steep price

Imagine waking up one morning to discover that someone has ripped across your front lawn on an all-terrain vehicle, leaving behind a trail of mud and chewed-up grass.

Imagine waking up one morning to discover that someone has ripped across your front lawn on an all-terrain vehicle, leaving behind a trail of mud and chewed-up grass. You later encounter the meathead in question, and he vigorously defends what he’s done as an expression of his personal freedom.

Nobody would give this argument any serious consideration. So, why is it that we’re still encountering similar bloviating about freedom when it comes to protecting what belongs to all of us, the Yukon’s hinterland, from similar vandalism? And from government backbenchers, no less.

The damage being done is indisputable. Disagree? Try spending a few moments browsing the photos on the website of Trails Only Yukon, a group that’s pushing for ATV regulation. Nobody who so much as pretends to respect the wilderness would defend the gruesome, criss-crossing mud ruts that have been cut across the alpine meadows near Faro, the wetlands of Southern Lakes and elsewhere.

There’s also good reason to believe that the ever-widening range of ATVs is taking its toll on wildlife. Dall sheep numbers have plummeted in the Fish Lake area and at Pilot Mountain, resulting in the introduction of permit hunts. Conservation officers fault the growing use of ATVs: whereas it once took a week-long excursion by pack horse to take a sheep off a mountain, it’s now possible to do the same in one day with an ATV.

That’s why some seasoned hunting outfitters – and not just latte-sipping yuppies, as skeptics of ATV regulation would have us believe – have called for restrictions to ATV access.

Yet the naysayers persist. If they aren’t droning on about freedom, their next line of defence is to say that regulation is a practical impossibility. The Yukon’s just too big, they say. Well, the territory also has a lot of highway. That doesn’t mean that we don’t have speeding limits and other rules, even if there isn’t a police officer lurking around every corner.

More to the point: many Yukoners willingly follow the rules, especially when they exist for defensible reasons. If it’s understood that a fragile area is off-limits, many riders would surely be less inclined to go there.

Skeptics of regulation, such as Watson Lake MLA Patti McLeod, characterize the riders who do damage as a bunch of yahoos who wouldn’t follow new rules. We think this view is too narrow. We suspect that some of the damage done by ATVs was caused by riders who simply didn’t realize the harm they were doing, and who would have acted differently if clear rules were in place.

Education clearly plays a role in all this. That’s why it’s encouraging that promotional materials have been developed to encourage riders to stick to existing trails by a group called the Offroad Recreational Vehicle Alliance, comprised of the Klondike Snowmobile Association, the Yukon Off-Road Riders Association, the Wilderness Tourism Association of the Yukon, the Yukon Conservation Society, the Yukon Fish & Game Association and Trails Only.

But it’s silly to argue that education alone would solve the current problem. If someone is caught shooting wildlife out of season or vandalizing a storefront, they aren’t merely scolded. They’re charged. The fact that poachers and vandals are sometimes difficult to catch has never called into question the importance of having such laws. Nor should it here.

The Yukon Party government, to its credit, has promised to restrict ATV access in sensitive areas. But it remains to be seen whether the government’s presumably minimalist plans will be effective, and recent bleating by backbenchers like McLeod suggest there’s division within the party over taking action.

The nitty-gritty details will only be determined once the government conducts further consultation on which areas should be declared off-limits to ATVs. Such land-use planning exercises are not, shall we say, exactly the strong suit of the Yukon Party government, given how big of a hash it’s made of the planning for the Peel watershed. Here’s hoping this turns out better.

It’s unfortunate that the government has refused to introduce any interim restrictions until its new plans are in place. Equally unfortunate is the government’s unwillingness to commit to a timeline to have its new rules in place.

And it’s too bad that the government doesn’t appear to be interested in measures that would help identify wrongdoers – namely, a requirement for ATVs to carry licence plates. Yes, this would be a nuisance for law-abiding riders. It would also remove one of the big obstacles from conservation officers expected to identify scofflaws.

Riders who think that these new restrictions are an unreasonable infringement should ask themselves this question: Are they OK with some of the territory’s most scenic areas being despoiled by damage that will take decades to heal, and for wildlife to continue to shrink to a point at which hunting restrictions will be widespread? Because that’s the price of the current freedoms they enjoy.