ATV riders weigh into regulation debate

Chris May is no yahoo. A gearhead, certainly. The 39-year-old Whitehorse resident hopped on his first dirt bike at age six and hasn't looked back. He's owned nine offroad vehicles and seven street bikes since then.

Chris May is no yahoo.

A gearhead, certainly. The 39-year-old Whitehorse resident hopped on his first dirt bike at age six and hasn’t looked back. He’s owned nine offroad vehicles and seven street bikes since then.

Along the way he smashed his knee during a motorcycle accident at age 15. Lately, the injury has been acting up. As a result, these days it is difficult for him to climb a flight of stairs, let alone a mountain.

But he can climb mountains thanks to his red Suzuki King Quad. One of his favourite rides, when the snow has briefly subsided from the peaks in July, is to ascend Montana Mountain near Carcross.

Up the switchbacks of an old gravel mining road, he climbs to 2,042 metres, parks and explores by foot the far side of the mountain, where he marvels at the intricacy of tiny alpine flowers that eke out a living in such punishing conditions.

You wouldn’t catch any yahoo doing that.

May, as much as anybody, gets riled by the ugly scars left on an alpine meadow by reckless all-terrain vehicle riders. And he only shoots animals with his camera.

But May doesn’t see eye to eye with the Trails Only Yukon Association, which aims to pressure the Yukon government into passing ATV regulations. When he attended the group’s inaugural meeting earlier this month he became alarmed by the number of speakers who sounded as if they wanted ATVs banned altogether from the territory.

So the next day he started his own group, the Yukon Off Road Riders Association. Just a week and a half after forming, the group, which is free to join, has more than 370 members.

Among them are Whitehorse’s ATV dealers, who have paid for the group’s full-page newspaper advertisements, which grimly warn that high-altitude rides “could soon be illegal.”

But perhaps what’s most surprising about May is how much he agrees with the regulation advocates he is pitted against.

He, too, would like to see rules prohibiting ATV riders from breaking trail.

“The consensus is that there are plenty of existing trails,” he said.

He supports a law requiring ATV riders to wear helmets, too. The territory is “way behind” the rest of Canada for not already having one, said May.

But May worries that a blanket ban on ATVs beyond a certain altitude goes too far. It would make it illegal for him to ride up Montana Mountain. This, to him, seems senseless.

The route is all gravel and scree. It was long ago graded by a Caterpillar to make way for miners. And it continues to be well-travelled: Holland America takes tourists up the same path during the summer in Jeeps.

What harm, May wonders, is caused by him scooting up the path on an ATV?

A smarter solution, in his view, would be to have wildlife experts select fragile areas to be called off-limits for ATVs.

All this sounds positively moderate compared to Environment Minister John Edzerza, who opined in the legislature last week that ATV use is “something that is best regulated by the individual.”

That’s a roundabout way of saying Edzerza doesn’t think ATVs should be regulated by the territory at all. The majority of supporters in contact with May think otherwise, although they have all expressed concern about the degree of regulation proposed by Trails Only Yukon.

May agrees that education plays an important role. When he moved to Whitehorse from Guelph, Ontario, in 2006 and bought his ATV, May didn’t receive any instruction about what terrain is suitable to ride on. He took it upon himself to ask Department of Environment officials some pointed questions about the fragility of the alpine.

His group is currently working on a trail etiquette guide, which will explain to riders to slow down while passing others, to prevent kicking up gravel, and to kill their motors when near horses, lest they spook the animals.

May doesn’t appreciate having words put in his mouth by regulation advocates. He takes particular exception to a Yukon News editorial that claimed “ATV riders just wanna have unfettered fun.”

Not so. “Every single rider I’ve talked to is worried about scarring,” he said.

May concedes that a few louts are out there. But he puts them as a small minority of ATV owners.

“The majority of our members are responsible riders,” he said. “I’ve never ripped the landscape.”

He’s well aware of the simmering animosity between ATV users and the hikers and bikers who resent the racket and ruts caused by motorized vehicles. May fears this hostility will grow as the ATV regulation debate gains steam.

He sees the dirty looks that sanctimonious hikers give him on the trail. And he’s received a few threatening e-mails – one proposed having all of the Yukon’s ATVs crushed and shipped south as cubes.

But, like it or not, ATVs have made the hinterland accessible to a diverse crowd of Yukoners who would not otherwise have the stamina or leisure time to get there otherwise. May knows families that have bonded over backcountry camping trips thanks to ATVs. He even knows couples who have married atop nearby mountains.

“We’re trying to look at fair use,” he said.

A legislative committee is to tour the territory this summer to discuss what safety regulations would be appropriate for all-terrain vehicles and snowmobiles. Community Services Minister Archie Lang told the legislature yesterday a chair would be appointed to the committee within the next month.

When the committee does get underway, May and his backers will have many questions to ask about the implications of some proposed regulations.

ATV restrictions could prove to be a hassle for Yukon’s placer miners and mining exploration companies.

Mushers use the vehicles to condition dogs during the off-season, too.

And outfitting companies rent fleets of the vehicles to tourists during the summer season.

Also expect resistance from hunters. A blanket altitude ban would mean sheep hunters would have to pack out their kill the old way, by hefting it on to their backs, at least until they reached their vehicles at the tree line.

That’s bound to be unpopular with hunters who have become accustomed to the ease of tearing up a mountain on a weekday afternoon and returning to town with a ram that evening.

“Lots of people would hate it,” said May. But he expects “the majority” would agree to certain alpine areas being put off limits, provided that territorial biologists, rather than regulation advocates, call the shots.

Age restrictions would effectively put an end to family riding. May has an alternative: require underage riders to be accompanied by an adult.

Mandatory registration of ATVs has also been floated. This would make it easier to identify ne’er-do-wells, which may make it worthwhile, said May.

But it would probably also require vehicles to be insured, which could cost users approximately $600 annually, he said.

Some of May’s supporters have their own proposals to curb the damage caused by ATVs. One is to ban aggressive tires.

For information, visit www.yukonriders.com.

Contact John Thompson at

johnt@yukon-news.com.