How Are Off Road Vehicles Regulated in Alberta?

You are thinking about spending a lot of money on a brand-new quad, dirt-bike, snowmobile or something similar. What are the rules? Who makes them? Where will you be able to use it?

Almost every human activity has the potential to affect the environment in some way. Regulating activities always creates perceived winners and losers. Nowhere is this more true than with the regulations which deal with off-highway vehicle (“OHV”) use in Alberta. There is a lot of passionate debate in Alberta currently about where OHV use should be allowed. That may be the subject of a future column. In this column, I just want to look just at what the rules are right now and where they come from.

It is your responsibility to determine whether access is allowed and seek permission when necessary. There is no single piece of legislation or government department that is responsible for regulating off-highway vehicle use in Alberta. Responsibility is divided between departments that regulate land use, forestry, the environment, agriculture and vehicles.

Rules about the vehicle and how it is operated:

Part 6 the Alberta Traffic Safety Act (the “Act”) and the Off-Highway Vehicle Regulation (the “Regulations”) passed under that Act set out the rules about machines themselves, registration requirements and general operation. Not many of these rules have anything to do with directly protecting the environment. Some of the important provisions are:

  • if you operate an OHV on a highway (very broadly defined as anywhere people ordinarily operate vehicles), then all the rules that apply to vehicle operation apply to you;
  • OHV operators must not drive carelessly, whether on public or private land;
  • almost all OHV’s must be registered and insured (there are exceptions for OHV’s owned by farmers and used only on private land and for military vehicles);
  • OHV operators are allowed to cross roads but must be careful and yield to other traffic;
  • operators must stop when asked by a Peace Officer;
  • municipalities can make some of their own rules about OHVs; and
  • helmets must be worn, with exceptions for OHV’s operated on Indian reserves, Metis settlements, farms and ranches.

The Regulations deal with details of how old you must be to drive on a highway (18, or between 14 and 18 if accompanied by someone 18 or older), and set out requirements for headlights, taillights, mufflers, serial numbers, license plates, helmets, registration and insurance.

Many species of fish in Alberta spawn in shallow, gravel bottomed streams.  OHV use in those streams can easily destroy fish or their spawning habitat.  It is illegal.

Do any of these rules protect the environment? The answer is yes, although not always directly. The rules requiring mufflers of a certain standard help prevent fires since a machine without such a muffler can expel sparks which could cause a fire in the backcountry. The rules around registration, identification and stopping for Peace Officers may have indirect positive environmental effects. People who can be identified may be more likely to follow rules set out elsewhere.

Where can I ride?

This is where it gets interesting. The rules are not in one place and may change from time to time depending on local conditions.

Private land – There is a lot of private land in Alberta, most of it being farms and ranches. OHV use is almost always allowed on private land, so long as you have permission from the owner. As mentioned above, there are some special rules for farmers and ranchers operating their own OHVs on their own property or on other private property with permission. The same rules apply to public land that is leased to farmers or ranchers and under their control – permission must be sought.

Several non-profit conservation organizations, primarily Ducks Unlimited Canada, the Nature Conservancy of Canada, the Alberta Fish and Game Association and the Alberta Conservation Association privately own large tracts of land in Alberta. Recreational OHV use is not allowed by any of these organizations on their own property.

Public land – “Public” simply means the land is owned by a government. It does not mean that any member of the public can access it and use it however they please.

The rules requiring mufflers of a certain standard help prevent fires since a machine without such a muffler can expel sparks which could cause a fire in the backcountry. Most public land owned by the Canadian federal government in Alberta falls into one of three categories. First, there are five National Parks totalling 15.6 million acres. Use of OHV’s in National Parks requires the permission of the park superintendent which is not likely to be given. Second, 140 Indian reserves total over two million acres. Public access to land on reserves to non-band members is under the control of local bands and is generally not permitted. Third, there are military lands located at Suffield, Wainwright and Cold Lake Alberta. OHV use is not permitted for obvious reasons.

Trying to understand how public lands owned by the Alberta provincial government are regulated is challenging. There are many different designations of land created under several pieces of legislation. OHV use is prohibited in Provincial Parks (76), Wilmore Wilderness Park, Wilderness Areas (3), Provincial Recreation Areas (208) and Ecological Reserves (15).

Limited OHV use on designated trails is permitted in some of the 31 Wildland Provincial Parks, subject to local management. On the two Heritage Rangelands which have been designated, OHV use depends on the management plan for the area. (Some OHV use has been allowed on one property on designated trails to allow users to pass through the property to another area.) Finally, OHV use in the 139 Natural Areas which have been designated is not strictly prohibited by legislation but is managed by Alberta Parks based on local conditions. Many of these Natural Areas are small and not suitable for OHV use. Where limited OHV use is permitted in any of these areas, signage will be put up by local authorities along trails.

Two other designations of land are important for OHV use.  The Alberta Public Lands Act provides for the creation of “public land use zones” (“PLUZ”). There are currently 19 PLUZs in Alberta covering 2.77 million acres.  Most PLUZs are in sensitive landscapes along the eastern slopes of the Canadian Rockies. OHV use in PLUZs is subject to some control. The default rule is that OHV use is not permitted. Permission may be granted, though, and has been granted in some form in 12 of the 19 PLUZ’s. Only one PLUZ, the Maclean Creek Off Highway Vehicle Area, allows OHV use away from designated trails.

The final type of land is referred to as “vacant public land with no disposition”. Under the public lands legislation in Alberta, vacant public land is available for recreational purposes, including OHV use, with riders facing significantly lower restrictions than elsewhere. There is, for example, generally no requirement to stay on trails. As with PLUZ’s, much vacant public land is located along the eastern slopes of the Rockies and is sensitive environmentally.

Public land – “Public” simply means the land is owned by a government. It does not mean that any member of the public can access it and use it however they please.

There are other laws that apply to OHV riders. Regardless of the designation of the land, restrictions can be placed on OHV use under the Alberta Forest and Prairie Protection Act in times of high forest fire danger. Large areas were completely closed to OHV use during the summer of 2017 under this legislation. Also, under the Public Lands Administration Regulation it is an offence to operate an OHV in or near most waterbodies.  Many species of fish in Alberta spawn in shallow, gravel bottomed streams.  OHV use in those streams can easily destroy fish or their spawning habitat.  It is illegal.

There. Is that all completely clear?  The take-away points from this article are that if you are going to operate an OHV, you must always know where you are riding. It is your responsibility to determine whether access is allowed and seek permission when necessary. In many areas you must stay on designated trails. You always need to keep your “wheels out of the water” and obey signage which may be put up by local authorities due to changing conditions. The safest course of action is to assume that access is not allowed until you can positively determine otherwise. Government websites provide maps, geo-coordinates and contact numbers for the local authorities.

Authors:

Jeff Surtees
Jeff Surtees

Jeff Surtees B.Comm., JD is the Executive Director of the Centre for Public Legal Education Alberta and is a Graduate Student in the University of Calgary’s Natural Resources, Environmental and Energy Law program.

 


A Publication of CPLEA