Snowmobile club, OFSC set record straight concerning voluntary trail use without easements

MINDEMOYA—The Manitoulin Snowdusters Snowmobile Club hosted a successful meeting at the Mindemoya Community Centre last week, hoping to allay fears for its Manitoulin landowners that Bill 100, Supporting Ontario’s Trails Act, 2016, is not the big, scary beast it was made out to be by some provincial organizations.

Murray Baker, president of District 12 of the Ontario Federations of Snowmobile Clubs (OFSC), of which Manitoulin Island is a part, began the evening’s presentations. He told the over 70 people in attendance that the Snowdusters have been operating Island trails for 25 years and that the Island club is just one of 200 across the province that brings together over 250 communities.

“We (the OFSC) have a network of 32,000 kilometres of trails—that’s double the amount of roads that the Ministry of Transportation looks after,” Mr. Baker shared.

He explained that 45 percent of all land-based trails in Ontario are snowmobile trails and spoke of the economic importance of snowmobiling, especially for small, rural communities like those on Manitoulin, listing the many things a rider needs before they even hit the trail, not to mention the many stops while riding.

A 2014/15 economic impact study shows that snowmobiling brings 1.7 billion dollars to the economy each year and $144 million in provincial taxes.

“Organized snowmobiling is a substantial asset for Ontario, and for Manitoulin,” Mr. Baker said.

The District 12 president said the OFSC has faced many challenges over the years, but they always face them head on. Since the 2000s, the OFSC has been faced with increased insurance but, he explained, by improving trail standards and managing claims, they have seen insurance premiums lowered by 50 percent.

He told the audience that Bill 100 came out last summer and that the OFSC saw positives, but also saw that more had to be done and so told the committee what its members’ concerns were, and the committee listened.

Trespass to property fines have been increased from $2,000 to $10,000 under the new bill and court-ordered awards for damages have gone from a maximum of $1,000 to no limit.

“Duty of care changes are a major step for landowners,” he continued.

“We saw it as unfortunate that we became the target of the bill,” Mr. Baker said.

He called the relationship between the Snowdusters and the landowner as the most important one. Sixty percent of 32,000 kilometres of trails is on private land, thanks to 200,000 cooperative landowners, he added.

“Over 50 years we have developed land use permission agreements in which you dictate the provisions,” he continued. “The agreements are just that—it’s your property, you decide what the conditions are when you’re talking to members. There are clearly concerns from landowners on the bill. We’ve lost nearly 300 segments of trails thanks to this and 500 kilometres of trails are affected, predominantly in central and southern Ontario, but 20 percent of the affected trails are in District 12.”

The backlash over Bill 100 has caused countless hours of time for OFSC volunteers, not to mention a lot of stress, Mr. Baker said.

“We thought the bill was fixable with changes,” he continued. “The majority of landowners said it was a ‘wait and see’ approach. We’re realistic yet optimistic that if concerns are addressed and uncertainties are relieved that we can rebuild the relationship and trust between now and the fall,” noting that land use agreement forms were available that evening and thanking the landowners for working with the Snowdusters.

Algoma-Manitoulin MPP Michael Mantha, a member of the all-party Bill 100 reviewing committee, also spoke at the information night.

He began by speaking of Manitoulin’s economic sensitivity, specifically during the winter months.

“Sledding is something we do, it’s part of our DNA,” Mr. Mantha said. “There’s no Disneyworld here; that’s our forests and trails. I firmly believe that the relationship is still there, we just need to clear the air on the bad information out there.”

The MPP explained that the committee clarified two items: what voluntary is and the term ‘easement.’ Voluntary means that the historic relationship between the Snowdusters and landowners will not change, he explained. “Nothing should hurt it or change it.”

“The red flag is if you choose to have an easement,” Mr. Mantha continued. He gave the example of areas with significant water crossings or major infrastructure to be undertaken by the OFSC costing in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. “You want to make sure you still get to use that property in the years to come.”

“I wouldn’t encourage you to get into an easement but if you do, get a lawyer and make it ironclad,” he encouraged.

“Nothing has changed,” the MPP reiterated. “The relationship that was historically there is still here…We need to get on the same page now.”

“You don’t want to be responsible for shutting down the trail,” he said to the landowners present. “We have to trust each other on that one. If we don’t work on that, our communities are going to hurt. It’s fun on the Island in the summer, but tough as hell in winter.”

Randy Walker, executive member for District 9, president of his local snowmobile club and a Manitoulin landowner, also addressed the crowd. He noted that when he first heard of Bill 100 he was irate, but when he calmed down and read the whole thing, he found that the bill didn’t actually pose a problem besides the word ‘may’ when discussing easements.

In conversations with representatives of the Ontario Landowners’ Association, Mr. Walker said he was told that the OFSC needed to take a side on the issue, which he disagreed with.

He gave kudos to the Snowdusters for meeting the problem head on and encouraged landowners to take the time and read the legislation through.

“This club has done a pile of relationship-building,” Mr. Walker said. In his own community, “I lost a lot of sleep and did what I could to make people happy. I’m not just going to do something to risk my friendship with my landowners and know this club is the same way.”

Mr. Walker also noted, with confirmation from Mr. Mantha, that the bill passed with support from all three parties and only three dissenting votes out of 107.

Brad Middleton, a member of the Snowdusters’ executive, then walked the group through the OFSC’s insurance policy as it pertains to personal injury and property damage.

If a rider breaks a leg or hits a tree, the policy kicks in, he explained, but noted that it was limited to snowmobilers and the “normal activities pertaining to the operation of the snowmobile trail.”

“If a hiker or horseback rider hurt themselves in the summer on the trail, it’s their problem,” he stated. “If some guy takes his snowmobile out in July and hurts himself, there’s no coverage.”

The coverage is all year if the landowner doesn’t withdraw their slip during the off-season, Mr. Middleton further explained.

If a person hurts themselves with a chainsaw while bettering the trail, they are covered.

What if a snowmobiler gets hurt off the trail? They are covered. “You are insured anywhere on your land, even if it’s a delinquent rider.”

What if the rider doesn’t have a trial permit? The landowner is still covered.

Is there a deductible? Not for the landowner, the club pays it.

Mr. Middleton explained that until 1979, the law was a “hodge podge” of when the landowner was liable. “The biggest was in southern Ontario between riders and farmers,” he said, noting the cases involving snowmobilers hurting themselves, sometimes fatally, when running across farm properties that used wire fencing after dark.

In 1979, the Occupiers Liability Act was passed. “This divided people who came onto your property into two categories: invited and uninvited guests.” If they’re uninvited, they weren’t the landowner’s problem, but once a property owner signed a land use agreement with the club, the snowmobiler became an invited guest.

“If you’ve got an insurance policy to back you up, that’s just as good as being an uninvited guest,” Mr. Middleton explained. “The good thing about Bill 100 is that it amended three acts and took less liability off the landowner. Now the burden of proof means you have to prove the landowner really screwed up and that’s hard to nail.”

He further added that if a landowner thinks they should have more insurance, then they should get it.

Jack Wood asked if he would be covered if he was hit by a snowmobiler on his own property. Mr. Middleton explained that yes, he would be covered.

Kelly Timmermans of Little Current asked how much the coverage was for. The answer is $15 million.

She also asked about her own Country Fest property, which is used by snowmobilers accessing ice trails. Ms. Timmermans had concerns about hazards off of the trail that could cause serious injury. Was it her responsibility to make signs to that affect, she asked. Mr. Middleton said no, it wasn’t and wouldn’t affect her coverage in case of incident, but it was suggested she contact her club to have them make signs.

One landowner asked about the verbal agreement they have had since the Snowdusters’ inception 25 years ago. Doran McVey, Snowdusters president, said it would not stand but they would be happy to bring them a land use agreement to sign.

Mr. McVey pointed out that easements need surveys, and there is no way the Snowdusters could afford to have surveys done.

Bruce Wood of Green Bay was the last to speak, telling the Snowdusters how “extremely disappointed” he was in the Snowdusters and saying he felt the club was against him and taking him on. “The trail is closed; it’ll never be open again.” Mr. Wood’s property contains a major portion of the trail between Honora Bay and Sheguiandah.

Mr. McVey said he appreciated that Mr. Wood decided to re-open his trail near the end of the season and that it was his right to close it.

Mr. Wood said he had concerns with the portion of Bill 100 that talked of the minister decreeing a ‘trail of distinction.’ Mr. Mantha explained that it would be the landowner that would approach the minister to have him declare a special trail as one of distinction and not the other way around.

Mr. Mantha suggested having a cup of coffee with Mr. Wood and members of the Snowdusters to bring the relationship back to where it was.

“In my mind, they went against me,” Mr. Wood said. “You never called me,” he added, to which Mr. McVey said that he did.

“Goodwill and a handshake ain’t going to cut it,” Mr. Wood replied.

Mr. McVey explained that each year the Snowdusters conducts a draw for numerous gas cards which they gift to their landowners. This tradition was carried on following the meeting. Also this year, he said, the Snowdusters took out ads in both Island newspapers thanking the landowners for the use of their land.

Bud Wilkin of Little Current publicly thanked Mr. Wood for bringing Bill 100 to light through the local media. “I hope he rethinks his position,” Mr. Wilkin added. “I’d like to go through his trail, I just bought a new skidoo,” he said to much laughter from the audience.

Jack Wood noted that “everyone gets something but the farmers.”

Ms. Timmermans countered that no, all of Manitoulin benefits from the snowmobile trails.

Mr. McVey told The Expositor following the meeting that he thought the meeting went well and that the club was going to try and reach out to Bruce Wood to see if he will re-think the closure of his trail, but said he respects his right to do so.

“There are three places on Manitoulin that are in the same situation,” he added, but said he was happy that many landowners signed forms following the meeting.