The ATV and the Salamander

By Tooker Gomberg, Halifax, Nova Scotia.

All Terrain Vehicles (ATVs) are running rampant. What can be done about it?

Consider this: a new hovercraft has been developed that can take people wherever they want to go. Trouble is: it scorches the earth wherever it travels. Will anyone in government restrict it, or will market forces be given full reign?

It’s an intriguing, hypothetical question that Raymond Plourde of Halifax’s Ecology Action Centre asked the Voluntary Planning Group last month in their deliberations on Off Highway Vehicles (OHVs) and All Terrain Vehicles (ATVs). After his 3/4-hour PowerPoint presentation, one was left wondering: why were these noisy and ecologically-destructive vehicles ever allowed out of the showroom to prowl the hinterlands of Nova Scotia in the first place?

Plourde says it’s simple: while the vehicles had practical uses on the farm, there was a far greater potential market beyond the farm gates. The marketing boys got to work, and before you knew it their ad campaigns were promoting ATVs as a vehicle of mass-destruction, encouraging riders to “Go where no Quad has gone before.”

“Their use as a recreational amusement clearly needs to be reined in,” says Plourde.

“The Argo is the worst of them all, and should be banned outright,” Plourde says. It’s an amphibious vehicle that seats up to 8, and advertises that it can “go anywhere, any time of year.”

“That’s exactly the problem,” he says, showing pictures of the Argo driving right down the middle of a stream, tearing up the stream bed and turning it into a mud bath. “No fish could survive this kind of destruction of its habitat,” he says. “It may take decades for nature to heal what took one careless individual about 20 minutes to destroy. It’s the vehicles themselves that are the problem. Good people can do very bad things with them and not even realize they’re doing anything wrong. They’ve been told, through advertising, that it’s okay.”

Do we want motorized vehicles going everywhere, all the time? Is there no refuge for nature, for the animals and plants that have already been ravaged by decades of deforestation, acid rain, road-building, noise, and other forms of human “development”?

Twenty years ago, New Zealand banned the use of off-road vehicles everywhere but on farms, treating them like small tractors (their original purpose). Most European nations have done likewise. Nova Scotia, and indeed most of North America, by contrast has allowed their widespread use as a recreational vehicle without any meaningful restrictions. For the boys in marketing at Honda and Bombardier, it has been a huge success – a whole new market has been created for their products much larger than the farm market. The urban and rural yahoo became the new customer – and sales have gone through the roof. The result has been a deliberate and profound assault on nature.

Today, there are approximately 50,000 ATVs in use in a province with a population of 940,000. Plourde points out that most Nova Scotians don’t own these vehicles, and Government should respect their right to quiet enjoyment of the outdoors. Use of ATVs is a recreation, not a right.

Why allow vehicles that glorify the conquest and destruction of nature? With brand names like “The Predator” and “Terrain-osaurus Rex”, it’s no secret what they’re meant to do. By driving in wetlands and salt marshes, compacting soil and sand, churning up streambeds that will take decades to recover (if ever), drivers may be having a hoot, but the true costs of such reckless behaviour are immeasurable.

Nova Scotia is criss-crossed by a web of highways, logging roads and utility corridors that fragment the little remaining wild areas into ever-smaller wilderness islands. ATV trails, both legal and illegal, fragment the landscape even further. These scars on the landscape prevent plants and animals, such as salamanders and the endangered ribbon snake, from travelling where they will. This isolates genetic pools of species, and biodiversity withers. Even moose do poorly when there are such man-made disturbances to their environs. Piping Plover chicks on a beach are no match for a speeding Predator.

What can be done? Put the genie back in the bottle, says Plourde: limit the use of ATV’s and other Off Highway Vehicle’s to private land holdings requiring permission from a land owner; establish some specialized ATV trails in areas like gravel pits and hard packed trails where environmental damage can be monitored and kept to a minimum; and, apply stiff fines and seizures for all vehicles outside of these designated ATV-use areas. As well, users should be required to have licences, and insurance which would pay for any damage caused to our common, natural heritage.

“Riders must bear the full cost of their so-called sport and nature must have room to exist unmolested,” says Plourde. “The free-for-all must end.”

The approach to date of the Nova Scotia government in regards to ATV’s has been anything but pro-active or forward thinking. Through the roar and the noise, let’s hope that Raymond Plourde’s voice, and the voice of the salamander, is heard. If it comes down to the ATV or the animals – and it does come down to that – which side are you on?