Critics slag snowmobiles

Snowmobilers have so far managed to avoid Yukon's divisive debate over the regulation of off-road vehicles. But they may not for much longer. Whitehorse is reviewing its antique snowmobile bylaw.

Snowmobilers have so far managed to avoid Yukon’s divisive debate over the regulation of off-road vehicles. But they may not for much longer.

Whitehorse is reviewing its antique snowmobile bylaw. It was passed in the early 1970s, when the machines were better known as “motor toboggans,” and last updated in 1994.

A task force was struck last month to revamp these rules. So far, it’s kept a low profile.

That hasn’t stopped critics from offering it unsolicited advice on how to get tough on snowmobilers. One is Keith Lay, who submitted a 14-page letter.

What’s striking is that most of the measures that Lay calls for are already on the books. They’re just not being effectively enforced.

Under the territory’s Motor Vehicles Act, snowmobilers must be at least 16 years old, wear helmets and have their vehicles registered, licensed and insured – if the vehicle operates on a highway.

And, thanks to an absurdly broad definition of highway, that includes any trail in the territory.

“It would appear that the city’s problems would be virtually over if it and the government of Yukon simply enforced its own bylaws and legislation,” Lay writes. “No one under the age of 16 would be driving a snowmobile anywhere but in wilderness areas. And, all snowmobiles would be registered, licensed and insured unless they were only used in wilderness areas.”

As things stand, it’s fairly clear that most snowmobile owners flout at least some of these rules.

Only 418 snowmobiles had been registered with the Yukon’s motor vehicles branch by the end of December. One decade ago, David Loeks estimated in a report the territory had 12,000 snowmobiles.

Yukon’s population has since increased. Its number of snowmobiles likely has, too.

Motor vehicles staff advise snowmobilers to register their machines. But as supervisor Mark Bowers puts it, “We’re not in the enforcement business.”

Nor is anyone else in the territorial government, it seems.

Conservation officers don’t enforce motor vehicle laws, said spokesperson Dennis Senger. He suggested trying the lands branch.

But it doesn’t have staff to enforce recreational snowmobile laws either, said spokesman Jesse Devost.

So the job falls to Const. Dan Stack, a Whitehorse bylaw officer who has the tough task of trying to enforce offroad vehicle laws within city limits.

He spends several evenings each week patrolling neighbourhood trails. But if riders buzz past him, there’s little he can do – particularly when so few snowmobiles carry licence plates.

“If you don’t know who it is, you can’t investigate,” said Stack.

That’s why the city wants the territory to do as British Columbia is doing, and require that all off-road vehicles be registered at the time of sale and resale. Lay and others are calling for the same.

More confusion is created by the city’s trail signs. Many residents would be surprised to learn that protected areas, which are marked by signs that prohibit motor vehicles, are fair game for snowmobilers. Lay wants this loophole in the protected-areas bylaw closed.

Others, such as Dorothy LeBel, want snowmobile use banned within one kilometre of Whitehorse’s neighbourhoods, to cut down on the racket caused during the winter by young riders roaring around town.

But that’s a nonstarter for Mark Daniels, president of the Klondike Snowmobile Association.

“That’s not reasonable,” he said.

Currently, many riders use designated trails, such as the Copper Haul Road and Trans-Canada Trail, to get out of town. Banning snowmobiles near neighbourhoods would require these riders to use trucks and trailers to haul their machines out of town.

“It would have a greater impact on the environment,” said Daniels.

Maybe not.

The US’s Environmental Protection Agency reckons a typical snowmobile creates as much pollution in one hour that would be produced by a car in 100 hours.

Daniels also objects to singling out snowmobiles, when streetbikes, lawnmowers and snowblowers are all noisy.

“There’s a lot of things that make a racket in the city of Whitehorse,” he said. He’d prefer to see the city stick with enforcing its existing noise bylaw.

Residents of Quebec’s Laurentians successfully sued their province and municipality in 2004 over the construction of a snowmobile trail that caused a great racket near many homes, noted LeBel.

But the volume of snowmobile traffic in Outside jurisdictions is far higher than what Whitehorse deals with, replied Daniels. “They have bumper-to-bumper traffic,” he said.

“Yukon’s a big place with few people.”

Compared to all-terrain vehicles, snowmobiles are less likely to tear up terrain. But careless snowmobilers riding off-trail can cause damage too, said LeBel, although it’s less likely to be noticed until the snow melts.

She’s seen snowmobiles trample small trees, and she worries about the impact the noisy machines may cause on small critters buried beneath the snow.

She’s also put off by how snowmobilers tend to mow over her cross-country ski tracks.

Daniels responds that the Yukon ought to be a big enough place for everyone, skiers and snowmobilers alike, if everyone showed a bit more tolerance. “We want people to just get along,” he said.

That misses the point, said LeBel. “We’re seeking clean air. We’re seeking peace and quiet. The very thing you’re doing, you’re destroying all of that.”

She used to ski and camp along the Chilkoot Trail during the winter. But, even on the few days when motorized vehicles are banned, the whine of snowmobiles can be heard from nearby Fraser Lake. “I won’t go again. I’m done.”

LeBel also knows neighbours who won’t let their children play along neighbourhood trails, for fear of being hit by a passing snowmobile.

Daniels touts his group’s achievements. They’ve helped build Whitehorse’s trail network, which he calls “the largest recreational facility in the city.”

They remind riders to wear helmets, partner with Mothers Against Drunk Driving and, this weekend, are holding a fundraiser for Whitehorse’s women’s shelter.

But both Lay and LeBel note that an advertisement for this weekend’s race mentions a prize for “youngest rider.” They call this irresponsible, given that a disproportionate number of snowmobilers who receive serious injuries are teenagers.

Nonsense, replied Daniels. He insists snowmobiling is safe for kids, provided they’re accompanied by adults – far safer than other mischief.

“They’re not downtown, buying and selling drugs. They’re not breaking into their neighbour’s house. They’re not sitting on the couch.

“As far as we’re concerned, this is a healthy, outdoor, physical activity.”

Daniels points to a recent study by York University, which found snowmobiling is, in fact, a workout. Lay responds by noting that you’d probably burn as many calories doing housework – and far more by going for a run or ski.

Neither LeBel nor Lay are happy to see that the snowmobile association sits on the city’s task force.

LeBel likens this to having the tobacco industry involved with anti-smoking laws. Daniels sees it more akin to consulting cabbies when the city overhauled its taxi bylaw.

The task force is expected to make recommendations to council by May. New snowmobiling rules are expected to be on the books by August.

Contact John Thompson at

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