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Laura Keil

I attended the ATV roundtable discussion last week about whether the Valemount and Area Recreation Development Association (VARDA) should begin managing and promoting greater ATV use in the area, hosted by VARDA and the Valemount Chamber of Commerce. I want to commend these organizations for beginning this discussion.

Most who spoke at the meeting agreed that management is necessary, since ATVers are already coming to the area. As Arnold Wied pointed out, “Whether we like it or not, we’re going to have them here. If we’re not going to be organized, we’ll lose control of it.”

When we look at the issue of ATVs it’s important we don’t come at it solely with dollar-eyes. Yes, some of these tourists have money, but our natural environment needs to be protected for future use as well.
I’m glad that Curtis Pawliuk and Christine Latimer, who helped moderate the discussion, and others, acknowledged there is a difference between management and promotion. After all, if the reason we’re having this meeting is because we don’t have a place to send ATVers, management is key – not promotion for the sake of more people coming here.

It’s good there was broad agreement that management is the discussion we need to have. After all, we don’t want to become the next Rocky Mountain House. Attendee May Burstrom noted that her former town of Rocky Mountain House has been saddled with huge policing costs because of the explosion of ATVing in the area, not to mention the environmental fallout.

According to Pawliuk, many of the ATVers in Valemount are snowmobilers who want to return in the summertime. But snowmobiling routes are not the same as ATV routes. ATVs are not permitted in the alpine and must stay on hard-packed existing roads or trails. Because of the snow, snowmobilers can access far more areas.

Distinguishing between the two activities is part of the educational component that needs to happen.

More than that, we need a long-term plan as to how the management will work. This is where VARDA comes in as the liaising organization to make sure this plan is sound.

None of us are ecologists or economists. I’d like see a report or reports commissioned that take into account the experiences of other towns and potential and probable outcomes in Valemount, including how we plan to do enforcement (even if we don’t promote ATVing, enforcement is still an issue). It should be based on a long-term view of our recreation potential recognizing that we are a growing market in most tourism sectors. It should require in-depth research and include interviews with a wide swath of the community.

We need to come at this from a tempered and researched perspective. Why? I feel we are in the midst of an identity crisis. We are being considered for a year-round ski resort that would offer sightseeing of “pristine” wilderness. We are halfway to having a mountain bike park, which would harness a growing sport in Canada. We have traditional activities such as ranching, grazing, hiking and outfitting. We have newer activities such as geocaching and outdoor yoga.

All these activities are premised on a beautiful, clean and not crowded environment. All recreation management decisions should be made with thought to how they fit into the bigger picture of recreation. This will help avoid recreation user conflicts down the road.

I’m glad VARDA is promising to manage ATVing with the environment in mind. It shows maturity and cooperation that VARDA and the Chamber are proceeding with caution around ATVs’ potentially serious environmental impact. What I don’t want to see is people coming to Valemount expecting to “tame nature.” This will take careful planning and an intense educational campaign. When people buy ATVs, most of them are sold with pictures of these machines tearing through bogs with mud flying. Because our alpine and sub-alpine contain delicate ecosystems, managing where ATVers go, and how many there are, is extremely important.

The environmental impacts are many. ATVs release about 30 times as much emissions as a road vehicle, emissions which are trapped in the valley during weather inversions. The noise pollution is also a problem, both for wildlife and for people doing non-motorized outdoor sports. It only takes one rogue ATV to destroy a creek or ruin spawning habitat.
Given that we host an annual mud racing bog pit event, it’s important that visitors understand such activities are not acceptable outside the rodeo grounds.

One example given at the meeting of family-friendly environmentally-low-impact riding area is Canoe Mountain. Pawliuk says right now VARDA doesn’t have the permission to erect signs at the top warning ATVs not to go beyond the hard-packed trail into those sensitive alpine areas.
With tourists on machines that are designed to go “basically anywhere,” it will be important to both sign trails and conduct enforcement.

It’s also important to know who will enforce rogue ATVers. Even with all the signage in Valemount’s managed snowmobile areas, sledders are still caught riding in restricted areas and even chasing threatened mountain caribou, according to recent information from the Ministry of Environment.

Management is a big job for one organization. To help spread the work and gain consensus, it should be a partnership with various outdoor groups and residents. Sponsorship by ATV companies or clubs should be carefully considered.

The consequences of how ATVers use our surrounding mountainsides relates to our human health and our ability to make money from the land, as well as gain trust from First Nations and the government down the road.

I don’t have a big issue with a handful of responsible locals or regular tourists riding ATVs. I do have a problem with tens of thousands of tourists some of whom don’t care what destruction they leave behind.

After all we don’t want locals who are law-abiding and responsible to be lumped in with misinformed tourists who are not clear on the rules.