File photo by Sue Misao

File photo by Sue Misao

By Marcy Stamper

Months before two environmental organizations – one from the Methow – filed suit against the Okanogan County commissioners for opening hundreds more miles of roads to ATVs around the county, there were at least two efforts to exempt the Methow Valley from a new state law that has expanded access for the vehicles across Washington.

Some legislators and members of a coalition supporting the state law tried to exclude the Methow, either by name or through population limits, but the exemptions were not included when the law passed by a wide margin in the state House and Senate during the June special session. The state law, signed July 3, expands ATV access and requires safety equipment and special licenses before people can ride on roadways.

The Okanogan County commissioners were following a procedure they’d established previously to consider requests to open roads individually or in groups when, at the end of July, they held a public hearing on a petition from the North Central ATV Club, based in Conconully, to open 300 miles of roads around the county and in the Methow to ATVs.

But the Methow Valley Citizens’ Council (MVCC) and Conservation Northwest charge that the county commissioners acted illegally by opening the roads – some with speed limits as high as 50 miles per hour (mph) – because the old state law, still in effect, required a connection to an ATV recreation facility.

Conservation Northwest, a key player in crafting the law expanding ATV access, and MVCC teamed up last week to challenge that ordinance and another approved by Okanogan County commissioners at the end of July.

The groups charge that the commissioners also did not have the authority to open these roads because the new state law caps the speed limit for roads eligible for ATVs at 35 mph.

The groups also question the timing of the ordinance, charging that opening the roads to ATVs was illegal because the law sets a cut-off date of Jan. 1 for whether a road is open or closed to ATVs (also called off-road vehicles, or ORVs). “Attempts to ‘grandfather’ in roads … approved for ORV use after January 1 … and prior to July 28 … that have speed limits that exceed 35 mph” is a violation of the law, according to the legal complaint.

Exactly what constitutes an ATV recreational facility is one issue that may be raised in the lawsuit, said Dave Mann, attorney for MVCC and Conservation Northwest.

The Okanogan County Prosecutor’s office will defend the county, said Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Steve Bozarth, who declined to provide further details.

County commissioners did not return calls seeking comment on the case but, at public hearings on the proposed ordinances, they said equal access to county roads is a matter of fairness and that roads can be closed to ATVs if there are problems or violations.

Board members of the ATV club also did not return calls for comment.


Environmental impacts

The plaintiffs are also challenging a second ordinance, adopted the day after the new state ATV law took effect, that opened all county roads with speed limits of 35 mph or lower to ATVs. The plaintiffs say the commissioners were required to evaluate conditions on individual roads and notify people of the potential environmental impact of allowing ATVs to use them, said Melanie Rowland, an MVCC board member.

“The commissioners are allowed to open segments that are 35 mph or less, with safe, meaningful access,” she said. She questioned the rationale for opening roads that alternate between short segments at 35 mph and faster stretches. “It’s a recipe for a violation of the law,” she said.

If the commissioners carefully opened roads below 35 mph that do not have public-safety issues and that lead to recreational areas or trails open to ATVs, “that makes sense – it’s what we think the law intended,” said Rowland.

ATV riders and others argue that opening additional roads to ATVs provides environmental benefits because people would no longer have to tow their ATVs long distances before they can start to ride. In a blog post on the Conservation Northwest website hailing passage of the state law, Mitch Friedman, the executive director of Conservation Northwest, wrote, “Did you know that an ATV gets about the same mileage as my Prius?”

Friedman said last week that he worked with a diverse group of moderate stakeholders to create a law that would expand areas for ATV riding and increase enforcement through licensing requirements. He said the commissioners’ action diverged from the stakeholders’ intent. “There was a sense of temperance, to try accountability and access, and learn as we go,” said Friedman.

Nevertheless, Friedman said he is “still very happy” the law passed. “The problem is that the Okanogan County commissioners overstepped what anybody envisioned – it’s both illegal and not respectful of the process,” he said.

“I’m invested in the law. I want to see it implemented right,” said Friedman. “While some people don’t believe requiring ATVs to have license plates will be enough to stop illegal activity, I hope it will bring people together and change the culture.”


Intent of law

The law states that “off-road vehicle users have been overwhelmed with varied confusing rules … and standardization statewide is needed to maintain public safety.” It describes the intent of the Legislature as “to increase opportunities for safe, legal, and environmentally acceptable motorized recreation and decrease the amount of unlawful or environmentally harmful motorized recreation.”

The commissioners’ action violates that intent, said Rowland. “All purposes are violated by a willy-nilly approval to open all roads with any segment under 35 mph. How does that decrease confusion and increase legal access?” said Rowland.

The complaint claims that MVCC will be harmed by the Okanogan County ordinances because they “will channel extensive ORV use to sensitive wildlife habitat. … Increased motorized vehicle access to sensitive habitat areas will facilitate illegal off-road vehicle use in those areas.”

Attorney Mann said the county was required to analyze the environmental impact of allowing ATVs on these roads. With changing speed limits, “it’s an enforcement nightmare and a nightmare for the user,” he said.


ATV access still uncertain

The county ordinances go into effect at the end of August, 30 days after their adoption. However, the expanded ATV access envisioned by the state law is on hold because the Department of Licensing has said it needs more time to develop a system to track the new licenses, train staff, and design the metal license tags. The department expects to have a final procedure ready in March, but they are working on an interim solution that could be in place by December, according to spokesperson Brad Benfield.

The county has 20 days from Aug. 14, when the lawsuit was filed, to submit a reply. The case will most likely be scheduled for a hearing before a judge in Okanogan County Superior Court, said Bozarth.