Lawsuits could ‘kill’ trail system: director

A local high-ranking snowmobiling official believes the future of the sport in the province is in doubt—not because of a lack of snow, but rather an overabundance of legal entanglements.
District 17 operations director Vic Alberts said a rash of lawsuits levelled at snowmobile associations across Ontario in recent years—by what he considers are careless drivers—could drive insurance premiums for snowmachine riders so high that it could prove fatal to the pastime.
“The biggest problem is people not being liable for their own stupidity,” said Alberts. “They sit in the bar half the afternoon, and then go out and smash up their snowmachines, and then turn around and sue the [local snowmobile] club . . . and the courts seem to be going along with it.
“If it keeps going the way it is, the whole trail system in Ontario will be shut down in two to three years,” warned Alberts. “They’re going to kill it.
“It’s time people take responsibility for what they are doing,” he stressed.
Alberts said the total amount of liability insurance premiums for snowmobile associations across Ontario has skyrocketed from $300,000 seven years ago to its present total of roughly $3 million—a jump of 18 percent over last year alone.
“Most insurance companies won’t even come near us,” said Alberts. “And if the one company we’re with now doesn’t choose to insure us next year, we’re done.
“There are five paid people in the whole OFSC [Ontario Federation of Snowmobile Clubs],” he added. “The rest are volunteers. [The lawsuits] are why we can’t get volunteers.
“Who wants to go out and spend their own time working on these trails, only to turn around and get sued?” he asked. “All it is is lawyers getting rich.”
Alberts also noted the increase has led to snowmobile clubs having to hike their annual permit fees so much that it’s turning people away from the sport.
“Where else are we going to get the money [to maintain the trails]?” wondered Alberts. “But people are not going to buy permits [at that rate], especially if there’s no snow.
“For us to use a trail groomer costs between $45 and $50 per hour,” he noted. “After the insurance is paid out of each permit fee, we’re lucky to get an hour-and-a-half of use out of the groomer.
“There’s no money to spare.”
The local permit rate has been set at $160, up $10 from last year.
Alberts stressed not only snowmobilers will lose out if the trail system disappears. So will local businesses and, by extension, the provincial government.
“When the snowmachine season is going full steam, you’ll see 35-40 machines in front of places like the Emo Inn or La Place Rendez-Vous,” said Alberts. “They’re all inside, eating a meal and helping the business, and that’s seven days a week.
“Tourism Ontario is putting millions into getting uniform signs posted on trails throughout the province, which helps,” he added. “They do not want to see the trail system go down.”
On the bright side, an early snowfall has Alberts hopeful that Mother Nature will deal snowmobile riders a more favourable hand this winter.
“This snowfall was way earlier than when we got it last year, which wasn’t until about the end of November,” he recalled. “And last year after the first big snowfall, I went and packed the Emo trails and two days later, it all melted.”
But unlike the trail system around Kenora, which was closed all of last winter and may suffer the same fate again this year, Alberts said it will be a matter of playing things by ear in this neck of the woods.
“If we get snow only by January, then we’ll open things up then. There’s no drop dead date here,” he remarked.