ATV enthusiasts tick off Sylvan Lake-area farmer

Tire tracks in his canola cost Sylvan Lake farmer Dennis Duncan $5,000 off the top of his 2009 crop.

Dennis Duncan found his no ATV trespassing sign gone upon arriving at one of his fields north of Sylvan Lake Wednesday.

Tire tracks in his canola cost Sylvan Lake farmer Dennis Duncan $5,000 off the top of his 2009 crop.

Some time this week, one of the offenders had the audacity to remove the sign — posts and all — that he had placed advising people that his land is private and that trespassing ATV riders face charges and fines.

Duncan said he has about 1,300 acres of cropland between Rainy Creek Road and the north side of Sylvan Lake.

Fencing is not an option because of the high costs and because the worst of the offending riders just cut the wire and drive in anyway, heedless of the damage their machines cause to crops.

Growth in nearby acreage subdivisions has brought more and more people to the countryside, and they have brought with them their ATVs and snowmobiles.

Duncan has taken steps to keep people off his crops, from posting signs to lobbying the county for help. But the riders keep coming and county patrols and RCMP seem powerless to stop them, he said.

Confirming Duncan’s concerns, county Councillor Keith Stephenson, who farms in the same area, said that the increasing population of recreational riders, especially around the shorelines of Gull Lake and Sylvan Lake, is damaging crops and destroying sensitive environmental areas.

As part of a three-year strategic plan worked out this summer, the county is looking for new ways to prevent recreational riders on ATVs and snowmobiles from creating a nuisance where they’re not wanted, said Stephenson.

But the solutions are as elusive as the machines.

Provincial statutes allow farmers to ride quads on county roads to get from field to field, and the county has its own bylaw allowing people to ride in ditches and to ride on the extreme right side of the road when a ditch is blocked or doesn’t exist, such as crossing a bridge, said county CAO Terry Hager.

An updated bylaw will focus on road access but will likely have little impact on private land, said Hager. There will be a balancing act, since people are allowed to ride the machines on their own land and ATVs are a common tool in the farming community.

For now, the landowners’ only recourse is to contact the RCMP, said Hager. County patrol officers have no jurisdiction on private land, he said. They can speak to the perpetrators, but they can’t lay charges or write a ticket.

Sgt. Duncan Babchuk of the Sylvan Lake RCMP said his detachment has a couple of ATVs at its disposal and will “absolutely” investigate whenever members receive complaints of people trespassing on private property.

Often enough, by the time police arrive, the perpetrators have already ridden off, said Babchuk.

At the same time, he is not being deluged with complaints.

As of Wednesday afternoon, there was only one active file, dated Oct. 5, from a landowner reporting trespassing ATVs.

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