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Off Road Vehicle Guidelines


NOTE: The Nova Scotia Government Amended the Off Highway Vehicle Act in 2002 and it can be read from the NS Legislature Statutes – Off Highway Vehicle Act

Federation of Nova Scotia Naturalists



  • Purpose
  • Objectives
  • Definitions
  • Policy Elements
  • Public Rights of Way
  • Provincial Parks
  • Protected Areas
  • Other Crown Lands
  • FNSN Actions


To elaborate policy, acceptable to members of the Federation of Nova Scotia Naturalists, that will form the basis for discussion with federal, provincial, and municipal governments and people who use or benefit from the use of various off-road vehicles on public lands and rights-of-way in Nova Scotia for recreational purposes.



To define a policy that covers two issues:

1. Surface and other environmental damage caused by use of off-road-vehicles or works constructed to meet needs of users of off-road-vehicles

2. Interference with the “quiet enjoyment” of all protected areas, including natural parks, whether federal, provincial or municipal, by the flora and fauna that live there

Both issues fall within the mandate of the Federation of Nova Scotia Naturalists and are of great concern to our constituency. The policy will be elaborated by land class, road or trail type, vehicle type, and habitat, as required.

The policy will not deal with the inevitable conflicts among different classes of users on approved shared multi-use trails. Nor does it assume, as a matter of principle, that pedestrian trails have no negative impact on the environments through which they pass: construction and use of hiking trails should be regulated as well.



1. “Off-road vehicle (ORV)” For the purpose of this policy, OVRs include a) SUVs and light trucks, large amphibious all-terrain vehicles, and modified ATVs; b) standard 3- & 4-wheel ATVs; c) “dirt” or moto-cross/enduro-type motorcycles; d) snowmobiles; and e) mountain and similar bicycles. It is assumed that ordinary passenger and commercial motor vehicles, motorcycles other than dirt bikes, and touring bicycles will not be operated other than on provincial and municipal roads, or, in the case of touring bicycles, gravel-surfaced trails.

2.   “Road ” – For the purpose of this policy, a road is a constructed way, whether maintained or not, of sufficient width (say greater than 6 m average) and in satisfactory condition during dry weather for an SUV or light truck to drive comfortably and pass other vehicles. The term “woods road” will be used for a road with average width less than 4 m. (Roads between 4 m and 6 m wide generally fall into the former category, but with obviously limited room for passing.) Roads are assumed to be regularly used by any or all of the vehicles to which this policy applies and may also be used by other types of vehicles. Powerline rights-of-way are included in this definition if they meet either of the above criteria.

3. “Constructed trail” For the purpose of this policy, a constructed trail is one which has a defined route and some form of surface stabilization. Permanent streams are bridged or culverted. The term may include old (disused) woods roads, whether maintained or not, and railway grades.

4.     “Cut trail” For the purpose of this policy, a cut trail is one without surface stabilization, but where a path has been cut through vegetation and stepping-stones, log bridges and other crude structures may be present. It may include old woods roads, powerlines, and survey lines.

5.     “Traditional trail” For the purpose of this policy, a traditional trail is one whose route has evolved through human or animal use, but is currently used by humans on foot and is generally a continuously defined path through vegetation (if present) with a defined surface compacted or eroded by use.

6.     “Off-trail use” For the purpose of this policy, off-trail use means passage on foot or by off-road vehicle overland.

7.     “Trick” (synonym: “stunt”) For the purpose of this policy, a trick is a constructed obstacle on a trail, designed for use by mountain bicycle riders to increase the challenge of riding the trail. In some cases, a trick can also perform other functions (such as a teeter-totter doubling as a bridge over a stream or other natural obstacle). The definition excludes natural obstacles, such as boulders, that are also made use of.

8.     “Rally” For the purpose of this policy, a rally is an organized event in which drivers of OVRs meet at an agreed time and place and drive an agreed route.

9.     “Public lands” For the purpose of this policy, public lands include all municipal, provincial, and federal lands regardless of status (which will be referred to in various elements following), but which currently exhibit natural values. Public lands include otherwise undeveloped lands on which resource extraction activities have occurred in the past, are occurring, or might occur in the future.

10.   “Public rights-of-way” A route that may be followed, but not deviated from, across private or Crown land. Many “rail-trails” fall into this category, as do K4 (abandoned) public roads.

11.   “DEL” means the Dept. of Environment and Labour, which is responsible for Wilderness Protected Areas; “DNR” means the Dept. of Natural Resources, which is responsible for Provincial Parks and most other Crown lands.



The purpose of this section is to briefly survey the territory and define a path to a policy position acceptable to FNSN member organizations. Part of the process involved informal discussions with staff of DNR, DEL, and the Nova Scotia Trails Federation, as we felt having a sense of the territory from their perspective was relevant to establishing a reasonable position for FNSN. The views outlined here should not be taken as representing official policy of the two government organizations, but rather as informed comment from individuals. We think the views of the Trails Federation are fairly reflected. We did not consult directly with stakeholders in the ORV user community because we felt that would put the cart before the horse in forcing us to take policy positions before we could reach internal consensus. However, now that we have achieved that goal, we hope the elements of this policy will be a good starting point for future dialogue with all stakeholders in the issue.

The increasing use of off-road vehicles, all of which in some measure impair the natural values of the places in which they are designed to be used, requires a response from the naturalist community. This use – especially of mountain bikes – is in some cases being actively promoted by governments, and specialized trail systems are being constructed in natural areas (notably areas with some measure of protection such as parks and park reserves) to accommodate their use. On many sections of the Trans-Canada Trail, ATVs are permitted. This policy is supported by the Nova Scotia Trails Federation. However, there is also a great deal of informal (unapproved) trail building in progress on both protected and unprotected Crown lands; such activity should be better regulated on unprotected lands and terminated in Wilderness Protected Areas and Provincial Parks and Park Reserves. In some cases it may be appropriate to “legitimize” existing trail systems, in others to modify them to better protect the environment from degradation, and in yet others to close them entirely. We believe that the last should be the case in Wilderness Protected Areas. Overland use of all ORVs must be strictly regulated, and no recreational overland use should be permitted at all.

Some jurisdictions (the State of Maine, for example) have recognized the importance of banning off-road vehicles from certain sensitive environments (beaches, dunes, coastal wetlands) and have enacted appropriate legislation. The Nova Scotia Off-highway Vehicles Act (which does not cover bicycles) specifically interdicts operation of these vehicles on dunes and beaches and in watercourses, but otherwise permits their use on unprotected Crown lands, though it does not deal with the issue of trail building. ATVs are not permitted in Provincial Parks, or, with specific exceptions, in Wilderness Protected Areas.

There is current pressure from groups of ATV drivers to allow trails in both the Tobeatic and Economy Wilderness Areas. Illegal use is certainly now going on in both these areas and probably in many others. Indeed, the All Terrain Vehicle Association of Nova Scotia (ATVANS), is now pressing for legitimization of ATV access to Wilderness Protected Areas by seeking (in effect) retroactive approval of illegal incursions and trail building. (ATVANS is an umbrella group that speaks for the organized sector of Nova Scotia ATV users. It reportedly represents only 20% of registered users.)

In general, we believe DEL policy opposes extension of ATV access to Wilderness Protected Areas and, as inholdings and site leases are acquired and retired, current exceptions permitting ATV access should be terminated. This is indeed inherent in the intent of the existing legislation. A New Brunswick provincial task force has recently made recommendations on ATV use in that province; the provincial government has announced that legislative measures to address concerns of both vehicle safety and protection of the environment will be introduced in the Fall 2002 session. The Nova Scotia government should study this report.

The situation with respect to other Crown lands is ill-defined. It appears that unrestricted use is permitted on existing roads, woods roads, and old woods roads as well as – explicitly – along cleared highway margins. New trail building or installation of structures such as bridges nominally requires DNR approval, but enforcement appears to be poor. DNR field staff in several areas of the province were informally consulted; all feel that the ATV constituency is so large that its needs must be accommodated, and that if increased access is denied to parks and protected areas, access to other Crown lands must be “good.” Some feel that use of certain routes – such as Collingwood (Simpson Lake) to Economy, which now passes through a wilderness area – should be permitted, even if new trail building is not permitted. A similar situation exists in Cape Chignecto Provincial Park, where access to the shore via the Eatonville road is now denied to motorized traffic. By contrast, however, there appears to be no DNR or Trails Federation support for the seriously destructive incursions now going on in the upper Portapique Wilderness Area, the Tobeatic, Dollar Lake Park, and even within HRM in Terence Bay Wilderness Protected Area and Pennant Point Provincial Park.>

A concession on use of certain existing routes through Wilderness Protected Areas might make otherwise tight regulations more palatable to the ATV community. However, if ATVs are permitted on these routes, other than as now provided in the Wilderness Areas Protection Act, it would be difficult to deny similar access to snowmobiles, mountain bikes, and perhaps even motorcycles.

On balance, FNSN believes it best, given the primary reasons for the existence of Wilderness Protected Areas,
that no wheeled traffic (motorized or not) or (though not addressed by this policy) motorboats should be permitted in Wilderness Protected Areas

The goal of the government should be to eliminate currently permitted use of ORVs in Wilderness Protected Areas by acquiring inholdings and concessions. While we believe that the traditional outdoor activities of non-commercial hunting and fishing should be allowed – with appropriate restrictions – within Wilderness Protected Areas, we believe that the benefits of better fishing and hunting should go to those who are willing to walk, rather than drive, to their destinations.

There are now some 20,000 ATVs registered in Nova Scotia, and, despite their high cost, ownership is growing fast, particularly among rural Nova Scotians. Participation in outdoor recreational activities is highest among rural residents, though the majority of hikers and mountain bikers live in urban areas (and their activities are growing at an accelerating, though slower, rate). Although many participants, like those who form the majority of the ATV-user community, prefer to use marked, constructed (if, too often, soft-surfaced) trails and roads, there is a growing constituency of cyclists who prefer overland riding. In open unforested areas such as bogs, barrens, beaches, and lakeshores, ATV use is often not restricted to specific routes, and random damage occurs. Orienteers, though on foot, can be quite destructive in sensitive environments. Mountain bike organizations often mouth policies espousing environmental protection values, but one need only read any of the many available trail guides to find off-trail routings and descriptions of great wet areas to churn through and places to install “stunts” – an evident conflict. Groups of mountain cyclists can be quite noisy as they shout to each other. For these reasons, we believe that mountain bikes should be excluded from Wilderness Protected Areas, that their use in Provincial Parks should be controlled, and that trail building in parks, undeveloped park reserves, and on other Crown lands should be subject to DNR review and approval.

Both organized ATV groups and mountain bike groups form a strong constituency within the Nova Scotia Trails Federation. We understand that the Trails Federation strongly supports the development of accessible, suitably constructed multi-use trails, and in particular supports access for ATVs to the Trans-Canada Trail and to abandoned rail lines and woods roads generally. It asserts that the majority of current trail-building effort is being undertaken by ATV drivers and mountain cyclists, and that hikers (and snowmobilers and skiers) benefit from this activity, which the Trails Federation supports in principle. It advocates an open policy toward recreational access to unprotected Crown lands (assuming there are no conflicts with resource extraction activities), but does not at present advocate any changes with regard to parks or protected areas. In other areas, however, the Trails Federation also strongly supports the development of both multi-purpose and, where appropriate, special-purpose trails. It appears to take a very soft view of unregulated trail building anywhere except within gazetted Provincial Parks and Wilderness Protected Areas. By contrast, the New Brunswick Trails Federation does not support wide use of ATVs on trails, and use on the Trans-Canada Trail through New Brunswick is not permitted.

We address snowmobiles only tangentially. Recent winters have not encouraged snowmobiling. Trails constructed for snowmobiling normally serve in other seasons for hiking, sometimes cycling, and ATVs. In spring, particularly, ATVs can be very destructive on these trails. The snowmobile clubs have a good record of cooperation with government in trail building. Snowmobiles can, however, be a serious problem if operated in unsuitable conditions. They are often driven very fast, compounding their destructive potential.

It should be clearly noted that no one in almost every organized constituency – government, Trails Federation, community groups, hunters and anglers, ATV and snowmobile clubs – proposes uncontrolled overland use of ORVs. Exceptions are mountain bike groups and organizers of motorized vehicle endurance rallies.

It is timely, therefore, to set forth policy for Nova Scotia that will address the issues noted here. The elements of this policy recommend what the Federation of Nova Scotia Naturalists believes to be appropriate measures based on land status, environmental sensitivity, and the characteristics of the various off-road vehicles.


Policy Elements

Public Rights-of-Way

Access to a “public” right-of-way is in fact often at the pleasure of a government agency, private organization, or person retaining the right to place certain conditions on its use. For example, most “rail-trails” in Nova Scotia are open to ATV traffic, but not larger ORVs. Again, ATV traffic is not restricted along most powerlines, except where powerline access has been developed into walking and cycling paths in urban areas.

This policy specifically recommends restrictions of the use of public rights-of-way where they cross lands within the boundaries of Provincial Parks and Park Reserves and Wilderness Protected Areas, but otherwise rely on the provisions of the Off-highway Vehicles Act and the discretion of the agency or individual controlling access to ensure that the local environment is adequately protected.


Provincial Parks and Park Reserves and Municipal Public Lands

FNSN does not believe that any distinction should be made between Provincial Parks and undeveloped Park Reserves. Only Municipal Parks and public lands that meet Definition 9 above are covered by this policy.

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1.     No vehicles should be operated in Municipal Parks, Provincial Parks, or Park Reserves except on designated roads.

2.     In accord with current legislation, no ATVs or dirt bikes should be permitted to operate in Provincial Parks or Park Reserves, or even on public rights-of-way (on which they are permitted outside parks) where they cross park lands. This is currently the law, but often flouted. Municipal Parks should also be closed to ATVs, but other municipal public lands should meet the criteria detailed below for Other Crown Lands (with the relevant municipal planning authority taking the role defined for DNR or DEL).

3.     Mountain bicycles should be permitted on, but restricted to, designated multi-use or purpose-built trails within Municipal Parks, Provincial Parks, and Park Reserves.

4.     Designated trails within Municipal Parks, Provincial Parks, and Park Reserves should be laid out in accordance with an approved master plan that takes into account the protection of wildlife and habitat and construction to standards appropriate to the type and volume of traffic they are expected to bear.

5.     No tricks should be constructed on multi-use trails in Provincial Parks or Park Reserves. Subject to an environmental impact assessment and the application of appropriate surface standards, trails of the type that consists of tight loops and switchbacks (in effect a riding or running course rather than a hiking route) may be constructed to meet the recreational needs of mountain cyclists. Municipalities should define their own policies in this regard.

[NOTE: Trails of this type exist in Long Lake Provincial Park Reserve, Halifax. Although constructed without permission, they meet the criteria proposed by this policy. Those currently being constructed in Bedford, in the Sandy Lake/Jack Lake area (municipal) do not meet this standard; they are trick-equipped and are having a severe impact on the environment, and they are effectively destroying a pre-existing system of hiking trails, some informal, some marked, though not much maintained.]


Wilderness Protected Areas

Although the Act recognizes that recreation opportunities are a value inherent in Wilderness Protected Areas, this does not, in FNSN’s view, mean that these opportunities should be the same as those available on unprotected Crown lands or in Provincial Parks and Park Reserves. The major value of a wilderness area is wilderness, which to be such must have few footprints and no tire tracks

6.     No motor vehicles, including ORVs, should be operated in Wilderness Protected Areas for recreational purposes except in accord with current legislation, which allows for access to pre-existing inholdings and leases. These current exceptions should be extinguished by acquisition of inholdings and campsite leases. No leases should be renewed.

7.     Mountain bicycles should not be permitted on trails within Wilderness Protected Areas, as this use is not consistent with maintenance of wilderness values.

8.     Hiking trails within Wilderness Protected Areas should be laid out in accordance with an approved master plan that takes into account the protection of wildlife and habitat and construction to standards appropriate to the type and volume of traffic they are expected to bear. In all cases, these trails should be constructed to standards appropriate to wilderness hiking only (that is, as cut trails or marked and maintained traditional trails), except to stabilize passage through wet areas and place log bridges across streams.


Other Crown Lands

It was clear in the Integrated Resource Management (IRM) regime discussions that unprotected Crown lands, where not dedicated to special uses (generally resource-extraction), should be available to accommodate a wide variety of outdoor activities. The IRM process recognized that sometimes these activities might be in conflict or even mutually exclusive; detailed management planning would look at natural values, assess potential uses, address any conflict issues, and achieve the best balance. While FNSN, through the Public Lands Coalition and several individual member clubs, felt that more consideration should have been given in the IRM process to recognizing the need to extend protected status to a greater proportion of the Crown land base, we nevertheless fully support the intent to develop master plans for all Crown land blocks. With this caveat, we recommend that broad access to unprotected Crown lands be provided to recreational users of ATVs and mountain bicycles. Vehicles falling under Definition 1a (SUVs, large amphibious vehicles, and modified ATVs) should be restricted to using roads. FNSN recognizes that this severely restricts the use of large amphibious vehicles and modified ATVs, effectively preventing them from being used as they are designed to be used, but we feel that these vehicles are so capable of creating damage that we cannot support their use on public lands.

Trail building must be subject to DNR and/or DEL approval. Though this requirement is in fact now the law, enforcement has been poor. Groups that submit plans to DNR find they must agree to be subject to many restrictive conditions and legal liabilities, while those that just go in and build (as have several ATV and mountain bike groups) effectively evade the application of standards and any responsibility, while DNR turns a blind eye (DEL has no enforcement staff.). This must change.

9.     Access for ATVs and mountain bikes on roads, public rights-of-way, and designated constructed trails according to defined standards of environmental protection should be permitted on Crown lands other than those administered under the Provincial Parks Act and the Wilderness Areas Protection Act.

10.   Because of the level of impact, ORV (whether motorized or not) rallies should not be permitted on Crown lands.

11.   No off-trail use of ORVs should be permitted.

12.   All trail building should be approved by DNR and/or DOE, with a defined group held responsible for trail building and maintenance through formal, time-bound agreements. However, due consideration must be given to the nature of the group(s) undertaking trail construction in establishing reasonable requirements, so that groups are encouraged to construct and maintain a system of recreational trails on unprotected public lands.

Finally, a prescription for ourselves (the Federation):


13a. FNSN should work with DNR, DEL, and the Nova Scotia Trails Federation to define appropriate construction standards for multi-use trails.

13b. FNSN should establish formal liaison with both organized ATV user groups and mountain bike groups in order to provide for discussion of issues of common interest as they arise.

13c. FNSN should participate, through the Nova Scotia Trails Federation and with DNR or DEL, in advising on trail design proposals.

13d. FNSN should work on educating the ATV/mountain bike communities through the Nova Scotia Trails Federation, the All Terrain Vehicle Association of Nova Scotia, the Nova Scotia Federation of Anglers and Hunters, and other identified stakeholders.

June 2002


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