About 25 per cent of the most popular local snowmobile trails are closed, due to issues with land use permission related to insurance coverage and in particular – insurance coverage required by municipalities, regional governments and other large corporations. An explanation of the problem and what is being done was the main subject of a meeting of the Eastern Ontario Snowmobile Club in Plantagenet on January 22, 2020.

But the crux of the problem is not exactly clear.

It seems that there is little that members of the Eastern Ontario club and other clubs across Ontario can do. The insurance policy for Land Use Permission is connected to the Ontario Federation of Snowmobile Clubs (OFSC). At Wednesday evening’s meeting, there was talk of changes in the insurance offering to larger corporations — that something was different from what had been offered in previous years. According to information contained in the Eastern Ontario Snowmobile Club (EOSC) meeting agenda, it was related that the OFSC felt that an indemnification clause created too much exposure for the club.

EOSC president Kim Melbourne told approximately 75 people present at the meeting that she was not an insurance expert and was relaying limited information about the details of the insurance.

The day after the meeting, Melbourne said, “I just hope that the experts can figure this out.”

“It is a risky sport, but we have to protect our own interests too,” Melbourne said.

United Counties of Prescott and Russell Planning and Forestry director Louis Prévost said that the counties is asking only for the same insurance requirements as in previous years.

“We only want the same insurance that we have always had,” said Prévost. Prévost mentioned that the indemnification clause is at the core of the problem.

“We have been discussing this for weeks,” Prévost said, adding that the counties has had its insurance experts working on the issue.

Insurance has not changed for 20 years: OFSC

But a statement dated January 23, 2020 published on the Ontario Federation of Snowmobile Club website stated that the club has not changed its insurance in the past 20 years.

That statement reads, “The last few weeks have presented confusing misinformation regarding trail access for some areas of the provincial system.

Land Use Permission agreements are secured by Clubs and Districts; this was again reconfirmed at the latest Board of Governors meeting in January. In some of the affected areas, access to the trails is dependent on the District and Club securing the necessary Land Use Permission (LUP) from the owners of the subject properties. Wherever an LUP has not yet been renewed or granted by the landowner, the trails remain closed. The OFSC has always and continues to consult with and assist Districts and Clubs to ensure key land use agreements do not result in personal liability exposure for our valuable volunteers.

Contrary to claims on various social media platforms, THERE HAS BEEN NO CHANGE to the OFSC insurance coverage in 20 years. Any information stating our coverage has been altered is false. The truth is, some clubs have recently, through a review process, discovered they have entered into agreements which expose them to liability activities completely unrelated to snowmobile trail operations.

The OFSC does not wish to see any volunteer exposed to such risk.” The statement is signed by the OFSC Executive Committee.

Insurance and Land Use Permission

According to the district organization’s (the Upper Canada Snowmobile Region’s) website, “Landowners who provide consent for the snowmobile club to access their property, will be invited to sign an OFSC Land Use Permission Form. This form outlines the obligations of the snowmobile club to the landowner. When it is signed, the insurer for the OFSC agrees to recognize the landowner as an insured by the OFSC’s Third Party General Liability Policy for any legal liability claims with respect to the Ontario Federation of Snowmobile Clubs. The signed form becomes the landowner’s assurance that the trail system on his/her property will be monitored, maintained and groomed by club volunteers. By allowing permission, the snowmobile trail network becomes part of the OFSC’s provincial trail system.”

Prévost says that the counties has insurance in place with all the clubs whose members, for example, use the Larose Forest. “We have agreements with the mushing clubs, the ATV clubs — we get this (insurance confirmation) from them every year,” Prévost said. But it is complicated, admits Prévost.

“I am not an insurance expert and we totally sympathize with snowmobile club members who have paid their money and purchased their permits and now, they can’t ride on some of the trails,” Prévost said. In many cases, the off-limits sections of trail effectively thwart snowmobilers from getting from one point to another, often blocking sections of a north-south or an east-west trail.

The mayors who form the United Counties of Prescott and Russell council will be discussing the insurance issue during an in-camera session on January 29.

It will be decided next Wednesday — whether they will allow access or will stand by the advice they are getting,” according to Prévost.

Melbourne opened the January 22 meeting by listening to the questions from the crowd. One member wanted to know how long the association executive members had known about the problem. Melbourne said she first learned of the insurance issues about three weeks ago.

“It was about a week after we met to organize activities in the Larose Forest — to plan the annual activity day,” said Melbourne.

But the Larose Forest is one of the areas that is currently not open to snowmobile club members; the Prescott-Russell Trail is likewise not open to club members because of insurance issues.

The Upper Canada Snowmobile Region (UCSR) is looking into district options to fill the gap in insurance coverage, according to information contained in the meeting agenda.

Kim Melbourne advised the meeting that members should be wary of closed sections of the trail and that they should not trespass.

“Check the Interactive Trail Guide (ITG),” Melbourne told the crowd. She also warned members against posting on social media information stating that trails were open.

“Don’t take pictures of open trails or signage and share them on social media. Someone could see that a day later and the situation could be totally different. Use the ITG for trail information,” Melbourne emphasized.

Snowmobile associations are run by volunteers across the province and Melbourne stressed that snowmobilers are a big boost to the winter economy. The industry represents $3.8 billion per year for Ontario tourism and in Prescott-Russell, represents about $12 million annually and 104 jobs.

When snowmobilers take to the trails, they stop for meals and book accommodations and purchase fuel along the way.

One snowmobiler pointed out that snowmobile clubs are grooming their trails, making it easier for those who walk on the multi-use trails during the winter. And, he pointed out, traveling snowmobilers are more likely to be spending locally than local residents who use it as a walking trail.

About 30,000 kilometres of trails are part of the Ontario snowmobile network. It takes about 100,000 volunteers year after year, working together seamlessly to keep the trails open.

The Eastern Ontario Snowmobile Club manages 400 kilometres of trails.