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Mars Hill dirt bikers told to hit the road

Province restricts use of ecological hot spot

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The Manitoba government caved to "horseback riders, flower pickers, and the rest" with its decision to close 65 kilometres of trails to motor vehicles in the Mars Hill Wildlife Management Area, say Manitoba dirt-bike riders.

"The province has succumbed to pressure from single-interest groups, i.e. environmental groups, which, in my opinion, is not doing what's right for the province," said Pat Wickett, a Manitoba Dirt Riders Association representative.

Mars Hill, 70 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg, has been the site of controversy between recreational users such as environmentalists, horse lovers, hunters, ATV users and dirt-bike riders. The area is also used as an unregistered rifle range. The province consulted with interested parties for two years before issuing its decision.

The big losers are dirt-bike riders. All motor vehicles, including dirt bikes, ATVs and trucks, are now restricted to just 40 kilometres of designated trails within Mars Hill. The problem had been that the soft sandy terrain and shallow-rooted vegetation allows dirt bikes and ATVs to drive virtually anywhere in Mars Hill. In one area, dirt-bike riders created an oval track, dubbed Wolverine Hill, with single-track trails criss-crossing everywhere. The oval track and similar trails can no longer to be used. The province also promised to step up enforcement.

"When a single interest group (environmentalists) is trying to restrict other bodies accessing the land, I believe that's discriminatory and our government bowed to them," said Wickett. He argued off-road vehicles "do less damage to the ground than a 1,000-pound horse, with four-inch-diameter hooves, and a 200-pound rider."

Manitoba Conservation's Dennis Brannen, a wildlife biologist who headed the review, said there is nothing in the Off-Road Vehicles Act that permits government to segregate trails for motor bikes only.

The definition is just motorized or non-motorized vehicles. So dirt-bike riders must use the same trails as everyone else.

Peggy Kasuba, a local landowner and environmentalist, called Manitoba Conservation's decision "reasonable" and "a first step." She's happy 65 kilometres of trail will now be designated for non-motorized use. Motor-vehicle trails can also be accessed by non-motorized users.

"There was an awful lot of dirt-bike damage in the forest because they like to drive between the trees where there's no track and they tear up the terrain," she said. "People say once dirt bikes make a single track, ATVs follow and make it into a full-blown trail."

Ken MacMaster, Manitoba Wildlife Federation director, applauded Brannen's balancing act. The wildlife federation is pleased hunters will still be allowed to take vehicles off-trail to retrieve game. Trappers have similar rights. There will be no change to the existing Snoman snowmobile trail.

"It started out as mission impossible," MacMaster said. However, the province should have acted "10 years sooner, before there was so much terrain damage and before people took hardline positions."

All trails designated for motorized vehicles will have signs. Enforcement will be phased in over the coming year, starting with public education. The unofficial firing range at a Mars Hill sandpit was not part of the review's mandate.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 13, 2013 A9

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