Snowmobile trails on land owned by the United Counties of Prescott and Russell (UCPR) remain closed, and the counties want the Eastern Ontario Snowmobile Club (EOSC) and the Ontario Federation of Snowmobile Clubs (OFSC) to meet certain conditions regarding liability insurance.

After a closed session of council on Wednesday morning, the UCPR released a statement indicating it is willing to accept an insurance agreement with the EOSC, as long as the counties receive the indemnification to protect taxpayers against liabilities incurred by snowmobiling activities on UCPR land, including the Prescott-Russell Recreation Trail and the Larose Forest.

According to the UCPR, the EOSC’s new insurance policy for snowmobile trails on private and public land, and the wording of the agreement landowners sign with the organization excludes coverage for the “willful misconduct and/or negligence on the part of the landowner,” which exposes them to liabilities.  According to UCPR Chief Administrative Officer (CAO) Stéphane Parisien, the counties have received legal advice on the matter and council decided it is in its best interests to maintain insurance and landowner agreements as they have been worded in the past.

The OFSC, the provincial umbrella organization for clubs like the EOSC, provides the insurance and landowner agreement to local clubs and maintains that no changes have been made to its policy for 20 years.

Several snowmobilers and owners of snowmobile sales businesses were present at Wednesday’s UCPR council meeting.

Mario Meloche, owner of Rockland Marine addressed council and explained the importance of snowmobiling to the local economy and regional tourism.

He said that the combination of snowmobile owners, sales outlets, and their employees represents a considerable number of people.

Meloche is concerned that there will be consequences for next year’s snowmobiling season as well, if the current situation is not resolved.

He added that restaurant, gas station, and motel businesses in the region are being negatively affected by the trail closures.

“We understand your demands, we understand your concerns,” Warden Pierre Leroux told Meloche.

However, in the statement issued following the closed session, Leroux affirmed the reasons council chose to keep the trails closed until the EOSC meets the UCPR’s request.

“Council understands the importance of the snowmobile trails for our economy, and the mayors share the same concerns as the trail users – but ultimately, we have the responsibility to protect our taxpayers from unnecessary and considerable financial risks, which are being imposed by third-party insurance companies,” said Leroux.

The business owners and snowmobilers had an informal discussion with Parisien outside the council chambers.  East Hawkesbury Mayor Robert Kirby, Alfred and Plantagenet Mayor Stéphane Sarrazin, and Hawkesbury Mayor Paula Assaly were also present.

Kirby noted that many private landowners are also unaware of how the changes to liability agreement could affect them.

Meloche said the situation is seriously impacting his business and that he and others will be demanding action from the OFSC.

“We`ll push the federation,” he said.

Meloche and many of his counterparts were previously unaware that the OFSC had any responsibility for the situation, including when they held a meeting on the issue on January 22 in Plantagenet.

Mark Schroeder, co-owner of snowmobile dealership Quad Expert in Hammond said the trail closures have begun to affect his business.

“We have inventory that`s sitting there,” he said.

The situation has led him to suspend expansion plans and consider laying off some of his 14 employees.

“The finger has been pointed at the OFSC to get something done,” said Schroeder.

He added that there are only four to six weeks left of the snowmobiling season.

Weather conditions have also contributed to a poor season locally due to a lack of snow until mid-January and warmer temperatures.