Photo by Sue Misao

Photo by Sue Misao

Citizens’ Council, Conservation Northwest file suit to nullify actions

By Don Nelson

The Methow Valley Citizens Council and Conservation Northwest have joined forces to file a lawsuit challenging recent actions by the Okanogan County commissioners to allow all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) on most county roads.

The suit was to be filed Wednesday (Aug. 14) in Okanogan County Superior Court.

In July, after two hearings in five days, the commissioners opened hundreds of miles of roads around the county to ATVs (also know as off-road vehicles, or ORVs). The actions were in response to a new state law regulating ATVs that took effect July 28.

The commissioners’ first vote was in response to a petition from the North Central ATV Club to open specific roads around the county with speed limits above 35 miles per hour (mph) to ATVs, including 70 miles of roads in the Methow Valley.

The commissioners’ second hearing was based on the new state law, which allows local governments to open roads with a speed limit of 35 mph or less to ATVs. The status of U.S. Forest Service roads – most of which are not open to ATVs – does not change with the new law, the Forest Service said.

 

Asking for injunction

“The commissioners hastily adopted the first ordinance just before a new state law was to take effect, in an apparent effort to circumvent the legislature’s action,” the Citizens’ Council and Conservation Northwest alleged in a press release. “The second ordinance gave a blank check for ATV access on every road that might possibly qualify under the new law, without thoughtful deliberation and despite the majority of local public comment. The new law was advanced in Olympia by a partnership of ATV interests and the conservation groups Conservation Northwest and Trout Unlimited. It received bipartisan majority votes in both the House and Senate.”

“We had high hopes that the collaborative spirit from Olympia would continue into county implementation,” Mitch Friedman, executive director of Conservation Northwest, said in the release. “The commissioners instead snapped our olive branch with these extreme actions, far exceeding any thoughtful balance and their legal authority.”

“We are extremely disappointed that the commissioners chose to disregard the law and public comment and that a legal challenge is necessary,” said Maggie Coon, who chairs the board of the Methow Valley Citizens’ Council.

“We believe the county’s actions will increase confusion and encourage illegal ATV riding on sensitive lands, degrading important habitat for fish and wildlife,” said Coon, who lives in Twisp.

In the lawsuit, filed by the Seattle law firm Gendler & Mann LLP, the plaintiffs are asking the court to find that the two county ordinances are in violation of state law and the state’s Environmental Policy Act, and to issue a permanent injunction against the ordinances’ taking effect. The plaintiffs “seek to prevent the increased damage that is likely to result from the illegal ORV and all-terrain vehicle access to sensitive fish and wildlife habitat, as well as other environmental harm,” according to the suit.

The lawsuit claims that the county ordinances “create the precise conditions that [the state legislation] aimed to constrain” by broadening the ways for ORVs to access sensitive wildlife habitat. The suit also maintains that expanded ATV use in the Methow Valley and elsewhere “will cause air and water pollution, increase noise levels” and make county roads more dangerous to all users.

 

Matter of equity

The commissioners heard from several hundred supporters and opponents of increased access for ATVs, either at the hearings or in written comments. Supporters suggested that increased ATV traffic would be an economic boost for the county, and argued that road use is a matter of equity.

“The roads we’re talking about are public roads – that’s been my contention from the beginning,” County Commissioner Jim DeTro said at one of the hearings. “It’s an equal opportunity to operate on a public road. It’s discrimination to single out one type of vehicle.”

“We have a right to the roads – we pay for them,” Larry Malcomb of Winthrop said at a commissioners’ hearing.

ATV enthusiasts have said that they, too, worry about illegal or reckless riders, and offered to help enforce whatever regulations are in place.

Conservation Northwest is a nonprofit organization that works to protect wildlife habitat in the region. The Methow Valley Citizens’ Council was formed in 1977 and has been involved in a variety of environmental and agricultural issues in the valley.

 

Marcy Stamper contributed to this article.