Local snowmobile clubs are reminding their members to stay on the trails after complaints from landowners about off-track sledders riding and doing donuts through their fields.

“The population has skyrocketed and one of the things we have noticed is there’s a lot more off-trail riding,” observes Eastern Ontario Snowmobile Club President Kim Melbourne, who believes people new to the sport and unfamiliar with the rules have exacerbated the problem this season. “We assume there’s a correlation between not knowing the rules, or people not thinking about the rules, along with those who just don’t follow the rules.”

The boom in trail passes and resulting issues with off-trail riding are not unique to Eastern Ontario. The Ontario Federation of Snowmobile Clubs has seen record sales of trail passes for the 2020-2021. A preseason promotion alone saw 41,589 Seasonal and Classic Trail Permits purchased before November 1 – the largest and earliest sales total in OFSC history.

On March 4 the OFSC posted a public appeal on its website, asking snowmobilers across the province to step up and play a key role in anti-trespass initiatives. The group also created a new Trail Rider Code of Conduct to help ensure that every snowmobiler clearly understands what is acceptable behavior while riding on private land.

The OFSC is comprised of 16 districts and 184 member snowmobile clubs, who work with more than 18,000 landowners across the province. The new code of conduct explains how important that relationship is to the future of the sport in Ontario, as well as the dangers and damage done by leaving the trail to ride in undisturbed powder snow: “It’s not only illegal to leave the marked OFSC trail, but deep snow can hide dangerous obstacles. Your track can cause serious compaction damage that freezes dormant, but fragile winter crops.”

Avid snowmobiler and landowner Scott Allen has witnessed firsthand the damage to fields that the high-powered machines can cause when ridden off trail. The owner of Elmvale Farm in Vankleek Hill returned from a recent outing with his family to discover someone had left the clearly-marked trail and ridden all over parts of his property. He posted a video online, but did not allow comments, as he wanted to raise awareness of the issue rather than provide a forum to bash snowmobilers.

“There’s a lot of new people who don’t realize they do not have the right to ride on someone’s land,” Allen says. “It’s a privilege to be on the trail and a privilege to go through someone’s land.”

“Just because you buy a pass, it doesn’t give you the right to ride on someone’s land – it just gives you permission to ride on the trail on the guy’s land.”

Many of the off-trail riders are not members of the snowmobile clubs in the region, says Allen, who is a also a trail-maintenance volunteer with the Glengarry Snowmobile Club. “There’s a lot of off-trail riders who don’t have a pass – these are playgrounds for them.”

Unlicensed riders can pose a liability threat for landowners, whereas snowmobile club members must agree to sign a waiver acknowledging they are aware of risks before obtaining their trail permits. Club members also receive a copy of the rules and must agree to abide by the regulations.

Melbourne, who has received messages of support from volunteers and riders throughout the region, points out that the vast majority of members of the various clubs in Eastern Ontario follow the rules.

“I’ve had members email me, message me, text me, call me, asking what they can do, because they are mad too about the off-trail riding,” says the EOSC president, who notes safety is the number one priority of every snowmobile club in the province. “We take pride in grooming and we have protocols that we follow to keep the trails safe.”

“We have our directors from each sector do trail audits to pick up debris, make sure there are no obstructions. But we have no jurisdiction off trail.”

Raising awareness of the issue will also ensure sledders in Eastern Ontario and throughout the province still have trails on which to ride. Landowners in the region have been extremely patient Melbourne assures, working with area clubs to educate snowmobilers of the importance of staying on trails, rather than cutting off access. But patience will only go so far.

“Permission will eventually be revoked if people keep going off trail,” Melbourne says, noting it is riders who follow the rules who would be most affected. “When people do that, they’re not thinking about our snowmobiling community – they’re thinking about themselves.”

“Their entitlement overshadows all the hard work the volunteers do.”