Stephen Harper’s Yukon ATV ride sparks controversy

Maybe we can call the latest political 'controversy' involving Stephen Harper ATV-gate.

During their week-long visit to the north, Harper and his wife Laureen inadvertently rode into the middle of an ongoing debate about the use of all-terrain vehicles in the Yukon's delicate ecosystems.

According to iPolitics, the Harpers' off-road adventure through sand dunes near Whitehorse on Monday has touched a nerve with local environmental activists, who have spent years trying to keep all-terrain vehicles from tearing up the territory's "pristine wilderness."

"It's hard to blame Mr. Harper," Ken Taylor, head of the lobby group Trails Only Yukon, told iPolitics. "He comes up here and he doesn't know Carcross from Carmacks," he added, referring to the Yukon town Harper visited.

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Taylor continued, telling iPolitics that his handlers should have been aware of the territory's debate over ATVs.

According to the National Post, "the issue of ATV use in the territory has been a talking-point since the Yukon election in October 2011, when all candidates promised to implement legislation that would keep off-road vehicles from disturbing ecosystems."

While no legislation has been passed to date, it's an issue Yukon's environment minister takes seriously.

On the Territory's website, he urges ATV users to stick to existing trails.

Respect Mother Earth and discipline yourself by using existing ATV trails. ~ John Edzerza, Minister of the Environment

All terrain vehicles (ATVs) are a popular way to access backcountry Yukon. Whether you're hunting, viewing wildlife, or simply enjoying the great outdoors, be sure to respect our environment by using existing trails.

Fragile alpine and sub-alpine landscapes damage easily and take years to heal. Damaged habitat can threaten the wellbeing of plant, animal and insect species. ATV noise can also adversely affect animals, especially during sensitive times of year such as lambing/calving or the rut.

Responsible ATV use is appreciated by everyone who enjoys the outdoors.

Not missing an opportunity to rail against the Harper government, some federal opposition MPs have also chimed into the debate.

NDP MP Megan Leslie said the photo-op scenes matched his government's record on the environment.

"The message I get from this is they'll do anything for a photo-op. The message I get is this is a government that completely stripped our environmental laws of any meaning or any usefulness, so why would they start caring about the environment now?" she told the Hill Times.

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"Of course our Prime Minister is on an ATV, bombing around, having a good time in a sensitive environmental area. It just makes me shake my head that they would think that was a good message to send to Canadians, especially when I saw the most laughable press release a couple of days ago talking about how they care for the environment, come on."

Green Party leader Elizabeth May said that this was Harper doing his "macho thing."

"There is this kind of macho thing, he likes to be seen on an ATV or a snowmobile, taking off, driving off in places he's not supposed to go," May told the Hill Times.

"They could have easily chosen to do something that was in keeping with what people in the area want to see, which would be taking a walk down some of the trails, hiking. I've vacationed in the Yukon quite a lot, and there are a lot of things to do that allow you to experience the wilderness of the Yukon in ways that don't damage it."

The prime minister wraps up his trip to the North on Saturday.