This week’s guest commentary comes from Keith Currie, Executive Member, Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA)
Ontarians enjoy an extensive network of outdoor trails around the province. These public trails provide an easy way for people to get outside for exercise and enjoyment of Ontario’s vast natural beauty. Many of the trails in rural areas also intersect with agriculture, running beside or through private farmland.
As farmers, we are happy to share the rural experience when public trails cross our private property. But when we hear about trespassing, and crop and property damage, it signals a need to speak up for the Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA) members affected when access to trails adjacent to agricultural land is abused.
When the Ontario Trails Strategy was developed in 2005, it provided a long-term view of planning, managing and promoting trail use in Ontario. The strategy is currently under review, and the OFA will be submitting comments on trail-use issues that impact Ontario farmers.
This formal review for how Ontario’s trail system is managed is being conducted by the Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Sport, and will look at issues and concerns related to the original 2005 strategy. The issues include liability, trespassing, and protection of public and private property that is part of the trail system.
The OFA submission to this review process will address four key areas that have or potentially can impact OFA members who have land adjacent to a public trail.
On the issue of trespassing – when trail users wander off the designated route – the OFA is asking for fines and compensation to be increased. There is currently no minimum fine set under the Trespass to Property Act, and we believe a $500 minimum would encourage better compliance and enforcement of the act. If you are seeking compensation for trespassing, the current maximum amount is $1,000. The OFA is requesting that the ceiling on damages awarded under the act be increased to $25,000 – an amount comparable to Small Claims Court.
A number of Ontario’s trails run on converted railways. These routes often pass through farms, and well-maintained fences are required to clearly mark the boundary between the trail and the adjacent land. To protect private and public property, fences along former railways are governed by the Line Fences Act, and maintenance is the responsibility of whoever acquires the former railway, where it abuts agricultural land. The OFA wholeheartedly supports this provision that would see trail owners, and not individual farmers, carry the responsibility to construct, maintain and repair fences along railway right-of-ways that intersect with agricultural land.
When former railways are converted to public trails, the OFA has identified a policy gap for continued farm access. The OFA is requesting that a farmer’s right to use a rail crossing to access otherwise landlocked areas of their farm must be maintained, even after the rail line is abandoned and sold. Existing crossings must be recognized and protected, with no limitations for continued use by the farmer affected.
And finally, to ensure the long-term stability of the provincial trails system, the OFA is recommending a funding strategy be developed for ongoing trail infrastructure – building fences, bridges and culverts – as well as ongoing trail maintenance.
As farmers, we love the outdoors. It’s why we live on the land. We are fully supportive of the Ontario Trails Strategy that builds opportunities for all Ontarians to enjoy the outdoors. The current review of the strategy is a step in the right direction to ensure all trail users respect the land as much as we do.