Call it the pay-as-you-go plan to protect Yukon’s fragile wetlands and alpine meadows.
Responding to the push to ban all-terrain vehicles from breaking new trails, the Yukon Off-Road Riders Association has a counterproposal: it wants the territory to make it an offence to damage sensitive environments.
This would have the desired effect of prohibiting the scarring of the landscape, without impinging on the enjoyment of responsible riders, said Chris May, the association’s president.
“It’ll have the same end result,” he said.
Those caught damaging the environment could face a hefty fine and jail time.
A similar law in British Columbia, introduced through amendments to the Forest and Range Practices Act three years ago, carries with it a fine of up to $100,000 and one year in prison. Culprits are fined the cost of restoring the landscape to its original state.
Ken Taylor, one of the founders of the Trails Only Yukon Association, agrees that the proposed law is a fine idea. But curbing the damage done by ATVs will require more than one tool.
“I think it’s more complicated than that,” he said.
Vern Peters, another founder of Trails Only Yukon, notes that BC also bans ATVs from entering certain sensitive areas. His group would like to see the same happen in the Yukon.
But if Trails Only Yukon has its way, riders will find themselves prohibited from climbing above a certain altitude, May has warned in the past.
That’s rubbish, says Taylor. It’s true he believes that ATVs don’t belong on sensitive alpine meadows. But he has no problem with the vehicles roaring up Montana Mountain, on the existing mining road.
As these two groups duke it out, territorial politicians are standing clear and waiting for the dust to settle.
Environment Minister John Edzerza opined in the legislature this spring that public education, rather than restrictive laws, is the solution to curbing ATV damage.
But he now maintains he will keep an open mind as he chairs a select committee that’s charged with looking into the safety and use of offroad vehicles.
That committee is conducting an online survey that asks respondents where they stand on various restrictions on offroad vehicles. And it plans to tour select communities, if requested by residents, later this autumn.
Peters is disappointed the online survey focuses on safety measures, like whether a helmet law should be introduced. It only asks one glancing question about restricting use: “Do you think there is a need for new or additional rules in areas that are not currently regulated?”
“This isn’t an ATV issue. It’s what do we want our land to look like in 15 to 20 years? What are we leaving for our future generations?” asked Peters.
“I’m afraid it’s not being considered as seriously as it should be.”
Taylor also worries about the rigour with which the online survey has been designed. There appears to be little to stop residents from filling it out multiple times under different names, he notes.
“This kind of survey shouldn’t be confused with a scientific examination of a population, because it’s not,” he said.
Taylor’s group polled more than 700 Yukoners and found the majority of residents support his organization’s proposals.
Similarly, a survey conducted by the Yukon Fish and Game Association last year found that 88 per cent of the 163 people who responded agreed ATVs should be restricted from the alpine to protect habitat.
May, meanwhile, frets over what he sees as growing public misconceptions.
Several recent letters to the editor have bemoaned ATV ruts and mud bogs near Porter Creek and other Whitehorse neighbourhoods. But it’s up to the city, not the legislature, to develop and enforce ATV rules within city limits.
Whitehorse already requires riders to wear a helmet and have their vehicles registered and insured. But with only one bylaw officer charged with patrolling the city’s labyrinth of trails, enforcing these rules is a quixotic quest.
The lack of designated trails and clear signs doesn’t help. ATVs are officially banned from Riverdale, but that doesn’t stop the vehicles from buzzing around Grey Mountain on weekends. Each Whitehorse neighbourhood needs a designated trail that allows ATV riders in and out of town, said May. And these trails need to be clearly marked.
The question of how territorial ATV restrictions would be enforced remains unanswered. In Nova Scotia, the province spends “hundreds of thousands of dollars” on helicopter patrols to protect a dozen sensitive areas, according to May. The Yukon has a far smaller population scattered across a much larger area, making enforcement more difficult.
But Trails Only Yukon believes that if rules are introduced, most residents will follow them. And if the territory requires that ATVs be registered and carry licence plates, then residents can report on reckless drivers with the help of digital cameras and GPS units.
May’s group, meanwhile, is working to encourage responsible riding. A day-long ATV training course is in the works and ought to be available by next spring. It will teach riders how to be safe, ride gently on the land and avoid upsetting horseback riders, cyclists and hikers.
The class should cost between $25 to $40, and May hopes it will be offered free to youth. It would be free for anyone who purchases a new ATV from a local dealer.
The riders’ lobby group has also obtained pamphlets and videos on safe ATV use, which it hopes will be distributed by Whitehorse’s bylaw officers to local schools.
Trails Only Yukon continues to collect photographs of mud ruts discovered in otherwise pristine areas around the territory to help build their case for restrictions. The group is also developing a documentary film to shore-up support for its cause. It should be released in the autumn.
Contact John Thompson at