ATV friends and foes face off

Imagine a hockey match in which there are no lines on the ice, no team jerseys, and no way for the referee to punish players who break the rules.

Imagine a hockey match in which there are no lines on the ice, no team jerseys, and no way for the referee to punish players who break the rules.

Is the result a chaotic mess, or an example of how people can get along without coercion?

Your answer will probably say something about your political views. It may also be a good indication of where you stand on the debate underway as to whether, and in what way, the territory ought to regulate all-terrain vehicle use.

About 80 Yukoners attended a meeting in the Westmark Inn on Wednesday night to share their views to an all-party committee that’s investigating the thorny subject.

Vern Peters offered the hockey match analogy. He’s one of the founders of the Trails Only Yukon Association, which is calling on the territory to introduce restrictions that would require ATVs to stay on certain trails, and off fragile alpine meadows and wetlands.

In Peters’ mind, the hockey match would get ugly quick without repercussions for breaking the rules. Likewise, ATV users need to know where they’re permitted to go, and where’s off limits.

But another pressure group, the Yukon Offroad Riders Association, frames things differently. As they see it, ATV riders get a bad reputation from a few goons who wouldn’t follow new rules. They support the idea of banning people from cutting new trails, but they generally favour education over legislation.

Bruce Henry brought it back to hockey. He grew up playing pond hockey with no jerseys, no lines and no refs.

“I played lots of it. And there were no fights.”

Likewise, he differs from Peters on his views on ATV use.

In his view, if there’s one camp of Yukoners who behave in an uncivilized fashion, it’s the hikers and skiers who express frustration at passing bikes, quads and snowmobiles.

Once, Henry was snowmobiling down a trail and slowed to pass a skier. The skier swung a pole at him.

Henry is also dismayed with how residents near Mary Lake have hung a “no motorized vehicles” sign along trails on public land. “It’s not their land. It’s not their trail.”

A few others grumbled about their freedoms being trodden on. The most impassioned plea against overzealous regulation was by Darryl Tait, who scooted up to the microphone in his wheelchair.

He was paralyzed in October of 2009, when he failed to complete a backflip on his snowmobile at a competition and the machine crashed down on him, breaking his back.

He still loves to snowmobile. Hiking is obviously not a choice. “I don’t really have that option any more.”

Snowmobiling remains “a huge part of my life now,” said Tait. “It makes a world of a difference for me.

“If that’s taken away, I may as well be down in Vancouver.”

Jim Sias warned against imposing Outside ideas in the Yukon. “This whole thing seems silly to me. We’re not in BC. We’re not in Alberta.”

Restrictions will be tough to enforce, he warned, using rhetoric borrowed from the gun-control debate. “It’s a bunch of unenforceable legislation that’ll make law-abiding hunters into criminals.”

He’s ridden past caribou and other critters. “They don’t run away. They just get used to it.”

And the few yahoos who give riders a bad name won’t follow new regulations, he warned.

But most of those who spoke wanted regulations in some form. “Education’s fine, but it’s not the whole story because there are people who don’t learn,” said Gord Bradshaw.

Freedoms are already curtailed, noted Dave Loeks. “I don’t have the freedom to grab my chainsaw and cut down trees on public land.”

Naturally enough, nobody at the meeting admitted to scarring the landscape with an ATV or snowmobile, noted Paul Dueling. He made a tongue-in-cheek proposal: any new law should “include Martians, to prevent them from coming down and ruining our country.”

Dueling has seen firsthand the damage done by ATVs to sensitive alpine meadows over the past 30 years. Each year he sees new ugly ruts on the land.

“That lasts for decades. It’s a legacy for my kids and grandkids. I think they deserve better.”

Dueling doesn’t see why enforcement is seen as such a big problem. Hunters are asked to report on one another if they see the rules being broken. The same should hold for riders, he said.

Keeping things as they stand isn’t an option, said Bill Klassen, a former wildlife manager. He noted how sheep populations around Whitehorse are tumbling, prompting the introduction of permit hunts.

Those declines have been blamed, in part, on the intrusion of motorized vehicles, which not only make it far easier to shoot sheep, but also frighten the animals, causing stress that lowers their reproductive rates.

Nor is damage to the landscape always obvious, said Tim Mervyn. “Often the tracks you leave behind don’t appear for a year or two.”

In Whitehorse’s city limits, mud ruts and reckless riding could be curbed if bylaw officers stepped up enforcement, said Colin Horsnell.

As a child, he had to push his dirtbike to the trailhead or run the risk of being chased down by bylaw. Today, he sees youth riding all-terrain vehicles with impunity in areas that are supposed to be off-limits.

“We have to enforce what we’ve got,” he said.

The all-party committee will report back to the legislature this spring.

Contact John Thompson at