Snowmobiling

The Northumberland County Forest is a celebrated space for recreation in our community. The Forest has an extensive network of recreational trails, including 47 kilometers of trail designated for snowmobiling.

County Forest trails are accessible to snowmobilers through annual agreements between the County and the Great Pine Ridge Snowmobile Association (GPRSA) . These agreements outline the conditions for safe and acceptable use of County land for this motorized sport. ­­­­

To date, the County and snowmobile club have been unable to reach a mutually-acceptable agreement for the 2020/2021 season. Snowmobiling is therefore not currently permitted in the County Forest.

Why is snowmobiling not currently permitted in the County Forest?

In recent years, snowmobilers have been permitted access to snowmobile trails in the Northumberland County Forest based on a Memorandum of Understanding between the County and the GPRSA.

Northumberland County regularly reviews agreements with community partners to ensure these agreements continue to fulfill their intended purpose. Since late 2019, the County has been in discussion with the club to put in place an updated agreement that ensures club members are granted access to the Forest’s trail network at an acceptable level of risk to the County and Northumberland taxpayers.

As a motorized sport, snowmobiling includes a higher degree of risk for accidents and injuries than many other recreation activities permitted in the Forest. Northumberland County is seeking an updated agreement with the club to improve protections for the County from liability and risk exposure related to snowmobiling on County lands. Without the proper legal agreements in place, the County could be liable for millions of dollars in legal and insurance fees were an accident to occur – fees which would require substantial increases to local property taxes to address.

To date, the County and the snowmobile club have been able to finalize a mutually acceptable license agreement. Without an agreement in place, snowmobiling is currently not permitted in the County Forest.

Why is the County proposing updates to a longstanding agreement?

Municipalities are facing growing liability and insurance costs due the principle of Joint and Several Liability. Under this legal framework, if the plaintiff in a lawsuit is awarded damages, and other defendants to the lawsuit are unable to pay, damages can be recovered from any defendant, even if that defendant is found to be just one per cent responsible.

In other words, in case of a claim where the Court finds the County even one (1) per cent responsible, the County could be liable for 100 per cent of a plaintiff’s damages. Municipalities are often regarded as ‘deep pocket’ insurers since capacity to pay can be spread across the entire taxpayer base. A serious claim could result in the County having to pay millions of dollars in damage awards, even if deemed responsible for only a fraction of the fault, with these costs then having to be met through property tax increases.

In response to this exposure risk, as part of the County’s process of regularly reviewing agreements with community partners, we approached the club in late 2019 about an updated agreement to strengthen protections for the County from liability related to snowmobiling activities on County-owned land.

Northumberland County wants to work with the club to make sure snowmobilers can continue to enjoy trails in the County Forest. However, local taxpayers cannot disproportionately subsidize the risks related to this recreational activity. Any agreement must be in balance with the County’s responsibilities as a steward of taxpayer dollars, with key consideration given to ensuring an acceptable level of risk for all Northumberland taxpayers. 

The County's proposed updates would make this agreement more rigorous than that of other municipalities in Ontario. Why is this?  
County Council's mandate is to make informed decisions in the best interests of Northumberland residents and businesses. Council has considered legal advice on this issue and has determined that the measures proposed in the updated agreement are required to adequately protect the County and Northumberland taxpayers from the risk exposure and liability related to snowmobiling activities in the County Forest.
Why have the County and the GPRSA been unable to confirm a mutually acceptable license agreement?

Efforts to reach an agreement with liability protections that are mutually acceptable to both parties have, to date, been unsuccessful.

In order for the County to accept the revisions proposed by the club, we would need to develop an enhanced risk management program – including additional inspections, signage, equipment and staffing – to effectively address the liability risks of continuing to permit snowmobiling on County land.

A significant increase to the Forest Services annual budget would be required to build the necessary capacity and put in place the required resources to implement such a program. With no fee structure in place for use of County Forest trails, 100 per cent of this increase would need to be generated through property tax increases. Mindful of the pressures facing local taxpayers, County Council is not supportive of pursuing this approach, at this time. 

What does the County’s proposed agreement cover?

The updated agreement proposed by the County is intended to cover any liability related specifically to snowmobiling activities in the County Forest. Examples of this would include, though not be limited to, the club’s volunteer work in the forest to groom snowmobile trails, any accidents between a snowmobiler and another forest user on or off-trail, or any injuries sustained by a snowmobiler while on County-owned land.  This agreement would not pertain to all forest users anywhere in the forest, where there is no connection to snowmobiling. 

Does the County receive any portion of the fee charged by the GPRSA for a seasonal snowmobile pass?

Seasonal pass fees charged by the club are largely retained by the club to fund trail grooming activities, signage, and other membership benefits. In the past, the GPRSA has voluntarily donated $1000 annually to the County towards the cost of trail maintenance.

Does the County have the authority to close access to trails in the County Forest?

The Northumberland County Forest is private land owned by Northumberland County. The County manages this community asset as a place where residents and visitors can come to enjoy outdoor recreation and connection with nature, both vital to physical and mental well-being, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic. Northumberland County strives to ensure that everyone visiting the Forest has a safe, enjoyable experience. 

 Is there opportunity for a resolution on this matter in the future?

The County appreciates its long-standing collaboration with the snowmobile club to ensure snowmobile enthusiasts in and around our community are able to enjoy the County Forest trail network. We are hopeful that an updated agreement can be finalized that enables snowmobilers to access the trails while ensuring an acceptable level of risk for the County and Northumberland taxpayers.