Original Published on Jul 15, 2022 at 07:15

By Pauline Kerr, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

FORMOSA – “Asking isn’t working,” said Donna Lacey, Saugeen Valley Conservation Authority’s (SVCA) manager of forestry and lands.

She said some people, when asked by a conservation area superintendent to put their dog on a leash, just laugh. And despite the fact that ATVs aren’t allowed on any SVCA property, people have been operating them there, causing damage to trees and trails, harming wildlife and endangering other trail users.

Ticketing those in violation of regulations isn’t something the SVCA wanted to do, Lacey explained, but the situation is getting worse.

She’s at a loss to explain exactly why. COVID did have an impact, she said. People weren’t travelling, and instead were buying more “toys” including ATVs and dirt bikes – local dealers have pretty much sold out of such items. And some of it’s demographics.

Lacey said that people may have been taking their ATVs onto conservation properties and walking their dogs off-leash for a decade, “but not anymore.”

Conservation officers have the authority from the province to enforce Conservation Authorities Act Regulation 133, which governs the use of conservation lands. With help when required from local law enforcement, SVCA will begin ticketing those in violation of permitted uses.

A press release issued July 7 stated all 21,000 acres of SVCA property, including but not limited to conservation areas – Allan Park, Bell’s Lake, Brucedale, Denny’s Dam, Durham, Hardwood Hill, Kinghurst, McBeath, Mildmay-Carrick, Saugeen Bluffs, Schmidt Lake, Stoney Island, Sulphur Spring, and Varney – as well as managed forests and wetland complexes, are affected.

Lacey said initially the focus will be on education – letting people know what’s permitted and what’s not. However, the regulation has teeth, and tickets will be issued through the provincial courts system. The SVCA will not benefit financially.

The press release indicated the focus will be on use of unauthorized vehicles, off-leash animals, illegal camping and after-hours presence.

Unauthorized vehicles include both motor vehicles and off-road vehicles such as ATVs. No authority property permits the use of ATVs, side-by-sides, dirt bikes, or motor vehicles outside of designated parking areas – for good reason. The negative impact of these vehicles is significant, creating “unsafe trails for other users, restricting emergency access and destroying habitats,” stated the press release. “Significant damage has been caused. Costs associated with extensive trail repair are not within SVCA’s standard operating budget. Tickets will be given to deter this property destruction.”

The regulations state that all animals visiting Saugeen Conservation properties are to be secured by a leash no more than two metres in length. As stated in the press release, “Loose pets upset local wildlife and damage the ecosystem maintained to support conservation, and wildlife can in turn endanger the safety of loose pets. Saugeen Conservation lands are shared spaces; keep all visitors and pets safe by keeping pets leashed at all times.”

While camping is permitted in Brucedale, Durham, McBeath and Saugeen Bluffs conservation areas, illegal camping, also known as wild camping or boondocking, is not. All campers must either have a valid permit to camp on their specific site, or camp on permitted property. Illegal camping creates additional workload and potentially unsafe conditions for local park and emergency staff, as well as encouraging other illegal activity, and is forbidden on conservation authority properties.

Unless it’s otherwise specified, conservation authority lands are considered closed from dusk until dawn. No after-hours presence is permitted. 

SVCA is also taking aim at a number of other prohibited activities including the following, as stated in the press release:

– defacing, removing or damaging property;

– injuring or destroying a plant, tree, shrub, flower, or growing thing;

– removal of any soil or rock;

– abusive language or excessive noise;

– possessing or igniting fireworks; and

– fires started outside of fireplace or designated area.

Lacey said in the press release, “There is a fundamental misunderstanding over ownership, access and purpose of conservation authority land that has contributed to the widespread and significant property destruction we are experiencing. Conservation land is not Crown land. All Saugeen Conservation properties are owned and managed by the SVCA for the explicit purpose of conserving, managing and restoring significant wetlands, forests, and river systems, recognizing these are highly valuable natural resources providing essential habitat to wildlife.

“There are specific permitted recreational uses of our properties for the public to enjoy at a nominal fee. It is with great pleasure that we share these spaces, for people to experience and appreciate the outdoors.

“I believe it is important to highlight the degree to which off-road vehicles have changed over the last number of years. Puttering around on off-road vehicles with the equivalent of a turf tire has been replaced by snorkel and winch equipped machines with significant power, boasting ‘dirt digging’ mudder tires. The impact is exponential. Unauthorized vehicles of any kind are not allowed on any authority lands as they create unsafe trails for other users, restrict emergency access and destroy habitats and wetlands.

“We implore the public to respect our conservation lands.”

It should be noted that the decision to ticket those operating ATVs where they aren’t supposed to be, or in a manner that causes damage to property, isn’t isolated to Saugeen Valley. Bruce County recently implemented a pilot project on county trails and the Bruce County Rail Trail whereby enforcement will be done by James Special Services Inc.

This item reprinted with permission from The Herald Times, Walkerton, Ontario