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Invasion of the ATVs. Illustration by Tim YearingtonInvasion
of the ATVs

by Joanne Healy

All-TerrainVehicles (ATVs) are the biggest selling off-road vehicles in Ontario, outselling snowmobiles 2-1. For the last four years ATV purchases have grown by 2,000 each year, with price tags ranging from $6,000 to $12,000. This year sales reached 20,000 in Ontario alone.

But are ATVs just another motorized toy for the boys, or are they the last straw for a wilderness already under siege? To encourage tourism, changes were recently made to the Highway Traffic Act, allowing ATVs access to interlinking highways. With thousands of hectares of Crown land open for taming, this new, in-your-face, outdoor activity is set to explode.

Increased popularity means big problems for Mother Nature, warns Josh Matlow, director of Earthroots, an environmental activist group. Why promote a recreational activity that uses fossil fuel, when we are committed through the Kyoto agreement to reduce greenhouse emissions?

"There have been no studies on their impact. It's imperative the provincial government creates clear policy where ATVs can go and must provide money for enforcement."

"They go off-road because they're attracted to unspoiled wilderness,
but ATV riders are quickly spoiling what they love."

Earthroots and the Ontario Federation of Naturalists recently completed surveys of Ministry of Natural Resources conservation officers. The data confirmed that there is little being done by the government to study the issue. "Not one person is responsible to track and monitor ATV impact," says Melissa Tkachyk, Earthroots wilderness campaign co-ordinator. "We know there is damage happening because we're hearing of examples from people."

The biggest assault on the environment by ATVs are when they go off trails, Matlow points out. "They go off-road because they're attracted to unspoiled wilderness, but ATV riders are quickly spoiling what they love."

When ATVs carve their own trails, it opens up untouched forests to other vehicles by creating more roads. This puts pressure on lakes they tend to overfish, wildlife they disturb through noise, and populations they deplete with hunting.

One afternoon of thrill riding can result in rutted hillside slopes, crushed and uprooted small trees and plants, and unrecognizable streams and creeks torn up by large, knobby ATV tires. The very design of an ATV, with ballooning, low-pressure tires, four-wheel drive, and squat motorcycle-like chassis with brush protection, begs to be taken into soft, muddy soil for maximum four-wheeler fun. Splashing through forest streams, plowing through delicate wetlands, and careening down slopes lead to soil erosion and habitat loss affecting the watershed, aquatic populations and all life intertwined in that ecosystem, explains Bruce Fleck, a Bancroft district forester with the Ministry of Natural Resources.

"We get lots of reports of damage from ATVs, but after the damage is done, there's nothing the MNR can do but try to repair it," says Fleck.

He points out there is no reason for anyone to go off trails with so many forest access roads on Crown land. The MNR now requires logging roads be abandoned by removing culverts, but completely closing a road is difficult, he says, because "ATVs will just go around a blocked entrance."

In a quest for new challenges, ATV riders are forcing their way deeper into virgin territory, slicing and dicing the landscape into a jagged quilt of erosion and degradation. Kawartha Highlands, a 3,500-hectare Lands for Life Signature Site north of Peterborough, was showing the affects of uncontrolled off-road vehicle rallies with several scarred and eroded sections. The advocacy work of environmental activists and local citizens' groups saved it in the nick of time from becoming a motorized recreation reserve. The Highlands was given provincial park status last summer.

MNR policy towards ATV damage is more a bandaid approach than a solution. Big, cobble gravel is placed at water crossings, and ruts in roads are bulldozed to channel water flow into ditches to prevent erosion and contamination of creeks and streams.

Some possible measures the MNR may consider in a new forest management plan is requiring an off-road vehicle permit to help pay for maintaining water crossings and removing culverts.

The management plan for Algonquin Park prohibits ATVs and snowmobiles. An exception is made for snowmobiles on the hydro-line between the town of Whitney and Haliburton. Away from public roads, visitors rely primarily on muscle power for transportation and must travel on trails, portages, and waterways by means of foot, canoe, hand carts, and, where designated, by bicycles, horses and dogsleds.

Generally, recreation in provincial parks is restricted to low-impact activity such as hiking and canoeing, says Algonquin Park naturalist Brad Steinberg. This increases the number of visitors the park can handle while providing people with a "better chance to experience Algonquin's environment and values. At the same time, biotic and physical resources are protected."

Blame the rider not the machine, says Ontario Federation of All-Terrain Vehicle clubs (OFATV) president, John Broderick. He points out most riders are considerate and many, such as rural residents and less mobile people, use ATVs as legitimate transportation. According to Broderick, low-pressure tires actually ensure low compaction of vegetation allowing an experienced operator to travel "lightly" through an area. As for air pollution, early ATV design used a two-stroke engine, but many newer models use a cleaner, fuel-efficient, four-stroke engine.

He does agree some people are giving the activity a bad image, and he's hoping to change the attitudes of reckless riders through education. "I'm not naïve enough to think everyone will get on board, but most people want to be good and stay on the trails," says Broderick.

Promotional photographs of rugged terrain and treacherous waterfalls, conquered by ATVs named Predator, Scrambler, and Trail Blazer, don't reflect the attitude towards nature for most Ontario residents. Polls show 90 percent want provincially owned natural spaces left wild and untouched. A marketing strategy that accentuates a sense of freedom through dominating nature does nothing to reinforce the message to drive responsibly. Fleck says advertisements in Western Canada educate ATV users to stay out of creeks- but the message hasn't reached here.

Broderick agrees riding style plays a role in environmental impact. "Most people don't realize they're doing anything wrong," claims Broderick.

"We are all judged by our worst player. All we can do is to continue to promote safe, environmentally sound riding, and good trail etiquette. We believe people will be conscientious if they're told in a polite, non-confrontational manner, especially in a club context."

OFATV formed in 1999, and has grown to 15 clubs in 17 districts throughout Ontario. The Tread Lightly Canada Program was adopted to promote proper procedures for riding with little or no impact on the environment. To encourage sticking to authorized routes, clubs are developing long distance trail systems to link communities, similar to what snowmobile associations have done. Also similar is third party liability insurance available for members.

Besides environmental concerns, another issue is quality of life for local residents bombarded with noise pollution from ATV riders using rural roads like playgrounds.

Barbara Kirk moved into her dream home in Hastings Highlands last year and discovered she was living in an ATV nightmare.

"I loved to sit on the porch and enjoy the peace and beauty of God's country," she recalls. "But then I became afraid to go outside. ATVs charge up our hill and spin around on the road sounding like helicopters. Our road is badly chewed up."

Mrs. Kirk also worries for the safety of her 13-year-old daughter riding her bike or walking along the road.

The Combermere resident says cottagers coming north for fun on weekends and holidays are the culprits while her neighbors use their ATVs mainly as transportation.

OFATV is well aware of the noise problem, says Broderick; they encourage members not to replace the ATV's original stock exhaust with an aftermarket accessory. Some clubs have set decibel limits on their trail systems and will revoke the $125 membership cards of violators. "Some ATV users mistakenly believe installing a more powerful exhaust is better, but it's not-just noisier," he says.

With underage drivers already illegally operating ATVs on roads, the new legislation allowing ATVs on shoulders of many provincial highways is asking for trouble, claims Bill O'Borne, a landowner in Hastings County. On his narrow, paved road he often sees two to three children piled onto one ATV. "All under 12-years-of-age and none wearing helmets," he points out. "With pickups and logging trucks using this road, it's an accident waiting to happen."

Is the new legislation giving parents
—and their children—
the dangerous illusion of safety and legality?

Manufacturers recommend most ATVs be ridden by one person only, with no passengers because the machine handles differently, has different weight distribution, and a different centre of gravity when a passenger is riding behind the driver. There is also a possibility of the passenger interfering with the driver.

ATVs are called "off-road" vehicles for the very good reason they are not designed to be used on roads. Heavy lugs on ATV tires provide great traction in soft and loose soils, but are unsteady at high speeds on paved roads. Is the new legislation giving parents-and their children-the dangerous illusion of safety and legality?

The amendment allowing ATVs to travel on shoulders of many provincial highways, excluding the 400 series, came into effect August 1, 2003, but only pertains to ATV operators with a valid driver's license. Highway shoulders in Ontario vary from less than 60 centimetres to more than two metres depending on design standards and when the road was built. In sections where there is no shoulder, as on Highway 28 E. near Bancroft, or on roads where a shoulder is impassable, ATVs are allowed to drive on the paved portion.

"Police are very concerned about the new legislation because it's a bit of a confusing mess right now," says OPP Sgt. Dave Fletcher, provincial co-ordinator for Off-Road-Safety. For example, ATVs are allowed on the shoulder of Highway 118 from Bracebridge to Haliburton but not the connecting link of area roads in Dysart Township in Haliburton. ATVs cannot turn onto any intersecting roads because that requires a bylaw too.

According to Sgt. Fletcher there was no announcement from MTO (Ministry of Transportation) advising people of the change to the Highway Traffic Act, and there is no educational material from the MTO for the public. The OPP have been distributing their own material on the amendment.

"If we don't get the education out there, our statistics for collisions, and fatalities and personal injuries are going to go through the roof."

According to an ATV fatality analysis done by the OPP, there were 11 deaths investigated in 2000, and a total of 22 deaths of ATV users from 1997 through 1999-an increase of more than 50 percent. Nine of the victims were male and almost all were operating the vehicles. More than half did not use a helmet and all were ejected. In the majority of cases alcohol was a factor.

"The new legislation wasn't even posted on the e-law website until August 26, and since then we have been educating our police officers. Cottage country already has many ATVs riding illegally, but we may be able to control them with municipal bylaws restricting time of day and where they can travel."

While the MTO claims safety is a top priority, Faraday Township Reeve Carl Tinney warns: "Someone is going to die on these roads. When an ATV meets a pickup truck, we all know who's going to be hurt. We can try to pass a bylaw restricting their use, but we can't regulate brains."

Trespassing is a major thorn in the side of private landowners like O'Borne.

He has witnessed ATVs tearing down the middle of a creek near his home. A photo of the ATVs splashing through the creek ended up in an outdoor magazine promoting the area as a great place to "off-road."

"Off-road vehicles come off snowmobile trails and the Hastings Heritage Trail and drive right past 'no trespassing' signs and onto my land. We can't walk on our trails on weekends because it's too dangerous."

He points out the other danger: ATV operators aren't covered by insurance if the driver has a serious accident on his property. "Even while trespassing, it is the landowner who will be sued," he points out. Reeve Tinney believes police "turn a blind eye" to illegal ATV use, and don't lay charges because "everyone has them."

Sgt. Fletcher admits catching ATV users breaking the law is a challenge because cruisers cannot follow the off-road vehicle into the bush. But the police force does have several ATVs throughout the province in addition to three SAVE (Snowmobile ATV Vessel Enforcement) teams. If there is any resistance from local police to enforce the regulations, he encourages the public to contact him at OPP headquarters in Orillia.

Charges against ATV owners, including trespass and noise disturbance, can be laid after-the-fact, if a member of the public obtains the licence number. If the driver is identified they can be charged as well. He says it's often children creating the trouble and once police make the parents aware, it usually solves the problem.

As machine designs improve, and trail systems emerge, Broderick sees ATVs gaining popularity with women as a "quality time" family activity. Already ATV Ontario has five trails of 50 to 60 kilometres leading outward from Elliott Lake. Mattawa and the Eastern Ontario Trail Alliance have a number of railway beds for permitted ATV use.

With ATV sales expected to rise, the issue is not going to go away. The best thing is to manage their impact for us and future generations, says Earthroots activist Matlow.

"ATVers are not bad people," he stresses. "But other recreational users have the right to have fun, as well as peace and quiet, and a safe place to enjoy nature."

Highlights of ONTARIO REGULATION 316/03
made under the HIGHWAY TRAFFIC ACT

• Speed is restricted to 20 kmh on roads posted 50 kmh, and a maximum of 50 kmh on roads posted at more than 50 kmh.
• Individual municipalities must pass bylaws before ATVs can use township roads. Time of day or year, and other restrictions can be specified.
• Not allowed on highways 400, 401, 402, 403, 404, 405, 407, 409, 410, 416, 417 and 427.
• Drivers require a valid Class A, B, C, D, E, F, G, G2, M or M2 driver's licence issued under the Act, unless he or she is exempt.
• ATV operator must wear a helmet that complies with section 19 of the Off-Road Vehicles Act.
• On roads where the maximum speed is 50 kmph, an ATV cannot be driven faster than 20 kmph. If the posted speed limit is greater than 50 kmph, then ATV speeds up to 50 kmph are allowed.
Environmental Protection
• The off-road vehicle cannot discharge a contaminant or cause or permit the discharge of a contaminant into the natural environment that may have an adverse effect on the environment or impair the quality of any waters; or contravene any conditions, restrictions and prohibitions imposed by any legislation and related regulations enacted to protect the environment.
• The off-road vehicle is not allowed to be a safety risk to anyone or harm or cause material discomfort to any person from dust, emissions or noise;
—or cause harm, injury or damage, either directly or indirectly, to any property, flora or fauna;
—or alteration, disruption or destruction to the natural environment, including erosion damage or degradation of the right of way.
• The off-road vehicle cannot be driven in or through a river, stream or other watercourse on a highway if doing so would or would be likely to alter, disrupt or destroy any fish habitat.
• The off-road vehicle shall be driven on the shoulder of the highway in the same direction as the traffic using the same side of the highway.
• The off-road vehicle shall be allowed on the roadway in the same direction as traffic using the same side of the highway if there is no shoulder; or the shoulder of the highway is obstructed and cannot be used.


This is an original story, first published in The Country Connection Magazine, Issue 44, Winter 2004. Copyright Joanne Healy.



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