by Douglas Hunter

The ability of hikers to coexist peacefully with dirt bikers and ATV drivers is being put to the test in the largest municipal forest in Ontario, as Simcoe County introduces a new policy aimed at ending unapproved and environmentally harmful use of off-road vehicles by giving their drivers approved places to play.

“Part of our concern is that, as county forest managers, we’ve never been in the business of trail management,” says chief forester Graeme Davis. “We’re trying to establish ways for other [user groups] to take on that role.”

Established in 1922, Simcoe County Forest is the oldest – and, at nearly 12,140 hectares, the largest – holding of its kind in the province. Its many tracts are riven with trails, including the Bruce Trail and the Ganaraska Hiking Trail. With Simcoe County being home to fast-growing communities such as Barrie and Wasaga Beach, along with extensive cottage communities, the county forest is a powerful draw for outdoor enthusiasts. Consequently, tensions have flared between competing user groups.

“There are always conflicts between trail users, and they happen everywhere,” says Terry Kirk, the director in charge of landowner relations at the Ganaraska Hiking Trail Association, who is also a director of Hike Ontario. “What I hear people say is, ‘What I do is okay, and what everybody else does isn’t.’”

Complaints from neighbouring property owners had compelled the county to gate some tracts in the south and post signs forbidding motorized vehicles, but their use was otherwise unregulated. In 2006, the county moved to impose some order with a formal recreational policy. It initially proposed banning larger off-road vehicles (those over 400 kilograms), as well as dirt bikes throughout the forest, but permitting ATVs. In January 2007, the final recreational policy was put in place. Larger off-road vehicles were banned. ATVs and dirt bikes were also forbidden, but would be welcomed back when agreements were in place between the county and user groups addressing liability insurance, permit systems, trail maintenance and self-policing mechanisms.

Intrusions continued, however, and in late May, a collision between two motorcycles claimed a life in the county forest’s Schumacher tract. Ongoing use of the tract was obvious, despite clearly posted signs. Nevertheless, the county remained confident that user agreements with ATV and dirt bike groups would be in place before the fall.

But whether drivers of ATVs and dirt bikes can be made to play by the rules remains to be seen. An April trail workshop hosted by the nonprofit group Huronia Trails and Greenways, which endorses giving off-roaders access to trails, nevertheless noted that off-roaders tend not to stick to trails, lack environmental awareness, indulge in destructive activities like “mudding” (driving through wetlands and bogs) and have been employing wider, knobbier tires that do more damage than other types of tires used in the past.