By Jackie Kelly-Pemberton, Director, Ontario Federation of Agriculture
As we balance lockdowns and restrictions, social distancing measures and stay-at-home orders, outdoor activities have become our only solace throughout COVID-19 and Mother Nature has provided Ontarians with a true Canadian winter resulting in sub-zero chills and large quantities of snow.
This year’s abundance of snow in many parts of the province has resulted in an unprecedented demand for snowmobiles and trail permits. 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 referenced 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 rides or jeopardize the trail system. Anyone riding outside of the marked trails are 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 and anyone caught riding on a closed trail is also trespassing. OFSC remains committed to educating, informing and communicating about safe and responsible riding.
The biggest issue for our farming community occurs when riders’ resort to trespassing on private property. Snowmobilers need to understand that when trails remain ungroomed, often times it’s for a legitimate reason. Choosing to bypass an ungroomed trail or cut corners is not a reasonable excuse for riding on farmland and causing potential damage. 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.
An OFSC representative spoke about the organization’s efforts to improve landowner relations and recognizes that without access there would be no trail network. If the landowner has a signed land use agreement and continues to deal with trespassing, it is the best practice of the organization to install a snow fence, post additional signage or close the trail entirely.
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. However, additional communication with farmers and landowners regarding reimbursements for snowmobile related damages is imperative.
There is a lack of understanding as to what the process is for reporting property damage and reimbursement, which has created significant concerns amongst our membership. 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. Increased communication needs to occur to address these issues to help keep everyone accountable.
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.
For more information, contact:
Director of Communications and Stakeholder Relations
Ontario Federation of Agriculture
519-821-8883 ext. 218