Off-road vehicle users who rip through delicate ecosystems could find themselves $100,000 poorer and sitting in a jail cell.
The Forest and Range Practices Act was recently amended to deter people who use off-road vehicles — ATVs, snowmobiles, off-road motorbikes or four-wheel trucks — from harming Crown land.
Bill Bennett, MLA for East Kootenay and Chair of the B.C. Outdoor Caucus, has been working with a group of off-road vehicle users to change the legislation since he was elected in 2001.
“Essentially what the legislation and the new regulation does is it provides authority for government to penalize people who are damaging the environment through recreation,” said Bennett.
Before, legislation applied only to industrial activity, not individual riders.
Grasslands and alpine and riparian areas are fragile ecosystems, and damage can often be irreparable.
“Areas like the alpine, when you get up above the treeline and you damage an alpine terrain, it essentially never comes back,” said Bennett.
Bennett is quick to point out that he enjoys many of these activities himself, and is aware that not all off-road vehicle users cause damage to the environment.
“I’m not somebody that dislikes snowmobiles or ATVS or anything — I actually use them myself — but there’s a minority of people who use them irresponsibly.”
And it’s not only a big issue in the Kootenays. Bennett said he has “no doubt” that damage has been done in the Sea to Sky area.
“…Where you’ve got motorized access up into the alpine in the Sea to Sky corridor, you’re going to have some people — not many hopefully… who take their ATVs up into the alpine and they do damage.”
In fact, Bennett said the Sea to Sky corridor is the only other region in the province that has tried to deal with access issues for motorized recreation through a land-use planning process.
Christine Nijman, general manager of Barely Legal Motorsports, thinks the new legislation is great, and was quick to point out it won’t affect their company, because their tours are on trails and away from sensitive areas.
“We don’t go off the road, and as a matter of fact, we built our vehicles to be very light so they leave a very low footprint out there,” said Nijman
She thinks that people who do cause damage off-roading should have to pay.
“We are all about protecting the environment and showing people what it is we’re trying to protect,” said Nijman.
Bennett believes education is the key to preventing damage to these sensitive areas.
Brochures will be distributed throughout riding communities in the province, and Bennett said they also plan to visit service clubs to spread the word about the new rules.
People who are caught breaking the new rules will pay a hefty price. They could face criminal charges through the RCMP and serve up to a year in jail, pay a civil fine of up to $100,000, or both.
But enforcing the new rules could be tricky, because people often ride in isolated areas without supervision or patrols.
However, Bennett said officers from the Ministries of Forest, Environment and Tourism will be involved in ensuring riders respect the new rules, and in the fall, additional legislation will be changed, giving RCMP the authority to write tickets, as well.
Bennett also hopes that members of ATV clubs will use peer pressure to encourage their fellow riders to abide by new rules.
“All we’re asking is that people recreate, have fun, but stay on the trails and the roads and stay out of these sensitive areas.”