Dixon may put brakes on ATV laws

The Yukon Party may break a promise it made to regulate the use of all-terrain vehicles in the territory.

The Yukon Party may break a promise it made to regulate the use of all-terrain vehicles in the territory.

During last fall’s election, Trails Only Yukon asked all the political parties whether they would create new laws or regulations if elected to manage ATV use. All agreed they would.

Now Environment Minister Currie Dixon isn’t so sure.

On Wednesday, Dixon announced that an internal government committee would consider how to best prevent ATVs from damaging fragile wetlands and alpine meadows.

Recommendations are expected within the next few months, Dixon later told the News in an interview.

But when asked when new laws or regulations would be tabled in the legislature, Dixon said that wouldn’t necessarily happen.

“I don’t even know if we need to do that yet,” he said. “So I wouldn’t comment on when we do something, if we don’t know if we’ll do it yet.”

That’s disappointing, said Vern Peters, a founder of Trails Only. “If people are still assessing the situation, I think we’re in a lot of trouble. It’s time to take action now.”

Last spring, an all-party legislative committee called for laws to penalize ATV riders caught damaging the environment, and for “the ability to restrict the growth of trail networks in sensitive areas, to close trails or overused areas as necessary, to exclude off-road vehicles from specific types of land or habitats, and to have certain areas designated as access routes only,” and for ATV bans to be introduced “in areas where problems exist or are developing.”

Moving swiftly now will create less work later, said Peters.

“We believe it’s important to try to prevent damage in the first place, instead of trying to pick up the pieces after the damage is done,” he said.

“Because we don’t know how to fix alpine, and we don’t know why animals would want to come back to a place where they’ve been harassed and displaced, wouldn’t it be wiser to prevent these things from happening in the first place?”

Trails Only also wants the territory to adopt a temporary ban on the cutting of new ATV trails until new laws are in place. “Thousands and thousands” of kilometres of existing trails should be ample for riders in the meantime, said Peters.

Dixon disagrees.

“I don’t think it’s necessary. What I’m interested in is targeting specific trails that are sensitive, for habitat reasons … rather than painting the whole Yukon with the same brush,” he said. “Because the issues in Haines Junction aren’t the same as in Old Crow, and (are) much different from the greater Whitehorse area.”

Nor did Dixon take up Trails Only’s suggestion that the new committee include seats for itself and other groups.

“They wanted basically what we want, except they wanted to be in charge of it,” said Dixon. “They wanted to be in the driver’s’ seat, and that’s not the direction we took.”

Not true, said Peters. Trails Only didn’t want control, only representation.

“As far as the vehicle analogy goes, we would be encouraging the driver to pay more attention to the accelerator and put the vehicle in a higher gear,” he said.

That doesn’t look likely. Premier Darrell Pasloski told residents at a recent constituency meeting that he didn’t expect to see ATV legislation tabled this autumn.

Under Trails Only’s scheme, recreational riders would need to stick to bulldozed trails while crossing alpine and wetland areas, where the vehicles are most likely to scar the landscape.

The group also wants to see licence plates required for ATVs so that offenders can be identified.

Naysayers say such a law wouldn’t help because reckless riders are unlikely to obey any new laws. But the same could be said about speed limits on highways, said Trails Only co-founder Ken Taylor.

And no one today is seriously debating ridding ourselves of those rules, he said.

“This is a lawless land when it comes to ATVs,” he said. “You can do anything you want, as long as you aren’t doing it on a public highway. That’s wrong, and people want rules in place.”

Anti-poaching laws provide another example of a deterrent that may not stop every hunter from breaking the rules, but certainly provides a big disincentive, with the fines, equipment seizures and public shaming that comes with a conviction.

“If you catch some, it makes a huge difference,” said Taylor.

Opponents of ATV regulation usually say the matter is best addressed through education. But Taylor calls this “a failed project.”

“And we’re educators. If anyone were to support the concept of education, it’s us. Education doesn’t work unless you have something else to back it up.”

Try telling a classroom of students at the start of the school year there are no rules, said Taylor. The result would be chaos. “That’s what we have right now.”

Cost of enforcement is another concern. “There may be a few dollars involved in getting this done right,” said Taylor. “But that’s nothing compared to the expense of seeing our territory being turned into a mud bog.”

As evidence of the damage done by ATVs, Taylor and Peters referred to the website of Dalton Trail Adventures. The photo gallery of the Haines Junction-area operator shows visitors riding rented quads through deep mud pits.

“I think if Yukoners saw this … they’d be ticked off,” said Taylor.

As veteran teachers, Taylor and Peters encounter their fair share of former pupils in Whitehorse. One happens to be Dixon, who, at age 26, may be Canada’s youngest cabinet minister.

“I was fortunate enough to have him in my Grade 5 class, just a few years ago,” said Peters with a chuckle. “Back then he was courteous, motivated, a very positive young man. And he still is now. He’s a fine gentleman.”

Likewise, Taylor taught Dixon in Grade 7. “He’s a wonderful kid,” said Taylor.

Dixon recalls both Taylor and Peters as “excellent teachers” although he disputes how much time has passed since Grade 5.

“I think it was more like 20 years ago,” Dixon said.

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