It looks like there is a path forward for the Prescott and Russell Recreational Trail.

The United Counties of Prescott and Russell (UCPR) announced on Thursday, December 17 that it has agreed with VIA Rail Canada to a mutual contract amendment to extend the current lease of the Prescott-Russell Recreational Trail for an additional six months, until June 30, 2021.

The purpose of the contract extension is to provide leeway for both parties to come to an agreement early in 2021 for the sale of the Prescott and Russell Recreational Trail (also known as the Montreal and Ottawa Sub-Corridor) by VIA Rail Canada to the UCPR.

“This extension will not only allow time for both parties to have further discussions, but it will also allow the Recreational Trail to be used for the upcoming winter season by the various snowmobile clubs in Eastern Ontario, and those that use the trail for winter recreation activities,” said Stéphane Parisien, Chief Administrative Officer of the UCPR.

He said that UCPR council wants to know for sure if VIA is interested in selling the land.

“I just want the best possible deal for all of our communities,” Parisien said.

“We do want to acquire the corridor, but we want to acquire it for a fair price,” he added.

The UCPR has invested significant amounts of its budget into trail corridor maintenance in past years.

Champlain Township Mayor Normand Riopel was hopeful that the agreement will lead to VIA selling the trail land.  He was also pleased that the extension will make it possible for snowmobilers to use the trail this winter.

“I think it’s very good because the extension was needed,” Riopel said.

Clarence-Rockland Mayor Guy Desjardins was also optimistic about the lease extension.

“They seem to want to negotiate more,” he said.

Desjardins said there is interest in Clarence-Rockland in keeping the trail open.

“VIA Rail Canada is pleased with the agreement reached with the UCPR, which is a positive step forward for both parties and the Eastern Ontario region, and good news for all during these pandemic times, when outdoor winter activities are more important than ever,” said VIA Rail Chief Operating Officer Dominique Lemay.

Discussions will continue over the course of the six-month extension period, and both parties will keep stakeholders apprised of decisions as those details become available.

Eastern Ontario Snowmobile Club President Kim Melbourne said that without the 72-kilometre Prescott and Russell Recreational Trail, the club would not have had a main artery to connect with the rest of its 400 kilometre trail network.

“If we were to lose that, we’d have to offer reroutes,” she said.

The club was faced with having to develop alternate routes and seeking permission from landowners to allow trails to cross private property.

Municipal governments in Prescott and Russell do not usually provide any financial support to local snowmobile clubs.  The Ontario Ministry of Tourism does provide grants to clubs for trail improvements, but the clubs must apply for them.

Regional governments and the provincial government in Québec do provide financial and organizational support to snowmobile clubs.  Stéphane Parisien of the UCPR said that is because regional governments in Ontario have more major responsibilities for more costly services such as ambulances and roads, which their Québec counterparts do not have.

Melbourne said that part of the difference in government support for snowmobile organizations between the two provinces is that in Ontario, the Ontario Federation of Snowmobile Clubs administers the trail permit system on behalf of the Ministry of Transportation.  In Québec, the Ministère des transports manages that system directly.