by Jackie Kelly-Pemberton, Director, OFA
As we balance lockdowns and restrictions, social distancing measures and stay-at-home orders, outdoor activities have become our only solace throughout. However, this newfound craze for recreational snowmobiling has also brought with it an increased level of frustration and challenges for our farming members.
According to the Ontario Federation of Snowmobile Clubs (OFSC), the trail network spans more than 30,000 kilometres across the province and includes agreements with 18,000 landowners. Ontario’s snowmobiling industry generates $3.3 billion annually in economic activity and supports rural communities through tourism, hospitality, food service and fuel. Last year, 88,000 permits were sold across the province and one OFSC representative notes they’ve seen a 13% increase in permit sales in their district this year. The positive impact on local economies across Ontario is undeniable.
However, it’s important to remember there would be no continuous trail network without farmers and rural landowners. Farmers rely on their land to produce food, fibre, and fuel for the province, country, and the world. It drives the profitability and sustainability of our farm businesses. While trail systems benefit the economy, the farmer receives no financial compensation.
This is why the Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA) reminds all riders to be respectful while navigating the trails, and that access to farmland is a privilege, not a right. The Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) has repeatedly communicated that farmers’ fields are not for snowmobiling. They’ve stressed that farmland is private property, and snowmobilers do not have the authority to access fields unless they’ve obtained permission from the landowner. It’s not only a trespassing offence, but it also jeopardizes the health and nutrients of the soil and crops beneath the snow. Additionally, fences, irrigation systems, and other obstacles utilized in farming operations can cause serious harm to riders. The fear of being liable for injuries is a constant source of fear and anxiety for farmers and landowners.
To help combat off-trail trespassing, OFSC launched the “Friends don’t ride with friends” campaign, focused on not riding with people who trespass, disrespect landowner property, risk the safety of themselves and other riders, or jeopardize the trail system. Anyone riding outside of the marked trails is trespassing on private property and endangering their own safety as well as the livelihood of the landowner. Any person riding without an OFSC trail permit is trespassing, as is anyone caught riding on a closed trail.
Snowmobilers need to understand that when trails remain ungroomed, often it’s for a legitimate reason. This year, there have been recorded complaints of winter wheat being destroyed, significant damage to irrigation systems, and farm gates being opened without permission. Maintenance and grooming of trails is left to the discretion of the local club and completely dependent on volunteer capacity and weather conditions. There is a distinct correlation between poor trail conditions and increased trespassing on farm property. When trails are closed, riders become increasingly impatient and ride them anyway, which not only worsens the condition of the trail, but further delays the reopening as well. These individuals abusing the local trail system run the risk of losing the privilege for the whole community.
Many farmers are unaware of the process for filing damage complaints for trespass-related issues. While we appreciate the local clubs that actively post signage where winter crops are planted, and actively deter their members from going off the trail, additional communication with farmers and landowners regarding reimbursements for snowmobile related damages is imperative.
Anecdotal evidence shows that in parts of southern Ontario, local clubs have worked with farmers and landowners to repay them for necessary damages. From crop damage to irrigation sprinklers, farmers have been reimbursed following issues caused by riders veering off the trail. But, it’s clear a knowledge gap exists. Volunteers at the local level are encouraged to develop relationships with landowners and keep communication lines open to ensure landowners know who their point of contact is when issues occur. We appreciate the efforts of snowmobile club volunteers, and recognize them as the lifeblood of the local riding community.
On behalf of all Ontario farmers, we encourage riders to enjoy this beautiful province while treating our land and the trail system with respect. Be safe, be smart, and be considerate.