By Marcy Stamper

All-terrain vehicles (ATVs) will be permitted to use roads in the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, as long as they have been outfitted with safety equipment and licensed for highway use in accordance with a state law that went into effect last July.

The decision by Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest supervisor Mike Balboni to permit licensed ATVs to use the roads is a change from previous U.S. Forest Service policy issued in July, shortly after the state law went into effect.

The former directive had continued to ban ATVs from Forest Service roads, based on a determination that the agency’s definition of “street-legal” should follow federal, as opposed to state, law.

Now that Washington has a licensing procedure for ATVs, the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest will not consider them any different from other vehicles, said Jennifer Zbyszewski, the recreation, wilderness and facilities program manager for the Methow Valley Ranger District.

The decision applies only to the Okanogan-Wenatchee forest, and only to roads that allow motorized vehicles, according to Robin DeMario, public affairs specialist for the agency. Other forests in the state may have different policies.

When the forest’s Travel Management Plan is completed next year, it will include a list of roads and allowable uses, which may alter the policy regarding off-road-vehicle use, said DeMario.

In reviewing the road policy, Balboni consulted with Jen Fitzpatrick, assistant director for recreation, lands, and minerals for the Forest Service’s Northwest Region, and with the Office of General Counsel, which provides legal advice to federal agencies, according to Methow Valley District Ranger Mike Liu.

“The general counsel said this is a management issue, and not a matter of law,” explained Liu. Without a code of federal regulations that clearly prohibits ATVs, Balboni determined there is no legal means to enforce a policy prohibiting ATVs, said Liu. Decisions about road usage are made at agency levels above the ranger district, he said.

The new Washington law created a class of vehicles (wheeled ATVs) that, while not highway-legal, are licensed vehicles, said Liu. “It’s a little confusing and open to interpretation, but that’s what we believe the facts of law are,” he said.

Spencer King, the president of the Conconully-based North Central ATV Club, said he met with Balboni and the deputy forest supervisor about two weeks ago, since both supervisors are new on the job and King wanted “to put names to faces.” Balboni had already looked at the state law and was considering allowing ATVs with the new license plates in the forest, said King.

State law sows confusion

The Forest Service decision caught some supporters of the new ATV law off guard. Mitch Friedman, the executive director of Conservation Northwest, said he learned about a week ago that the Forest Service had changed its policy, when he saw an announcement from the North Central ATV Club.

“The thing that most upsets me about what the forest supervisor did is, he made a decision after one meeting with ATV folks and didn’t check with his supervisors or stakeholders,” said Friedman.

Friedman said the Forest Service’s decision runs counter to the intent of the ATV law, which he said explicitly does not include public lands. Friedman helped draft the law in a cooperative effort with other groups seeking to expand opportunities for ATV recreation while protecting sensitive environmental areas and increasing enforcement.

Conservation Northwest is a co-plaintiff with the Methow Valley Citizens’ Council in a lawsuit that pressed Okanogan County to withdraw the two ATV ordinances earlier in March. The Okanogan County commissioners rescinded the ordinances after county attorneys determined that some aspects of the ordinances conflicted with state law. Okanogan County officials have said they would fix the procedural problems in the ATV ordinances and introduce new ones that will be subject to environmental review.

Conservation Northwest will not shy away from further legal actions to preserve the intent of the law, said Friedman. “Conservation Northwest would absolutely consider legal action if Forest Service policy changes [to allow ATVs],” said Friedman.

Evolving USFS policy

A Forest Service briefing paper issued last July, just after the law went into effect, stated that “Forest Service line officers do have authority to change vehicle type designations on Forest routes, but must first have a route specific motorized mixed-use analysis completed and engage the public in an MVUM [Motor Vehicle Use Map] update process.”

The Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, like all forests around the country, is currently undertaking this process and developing its Travel Management Plan, a multi-step process that entails a comprehensive review of all roads. The Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest started work on its plan about 10 years ago, according to Zbyszewski.

The regional office is currently reviewing public comments and the draft environmental impact statement on the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest travel plan. When complete, it will be sent out for further public comment, said Zbyszewski.

After forest managers identify all roads (both official roads and those created by users), they create a map showing all official roads and the types of vehicles that can use them. The final step in travel planning is an analysis of which roads the Forest Service can sustain, both economically and ecologically, over the long term, according to Tom Knappenberger, spokesperson for the Forest Service’s Northwest Region. The deadline for completed plans is October 2015.

The Travel Management planning process has been controversial because national policy has changed so that all roads are considered closed to motor vehicles unless designated open. That is a reversal for some forests, including the Okanogan-Wenatchee, where all roads are currently open unless specifically closed, according to Zbyszewski.

The Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest also allows cross-country travel except in certain areas, such as on highly sensitive meadows, but motorists are not permitted to cause resource damage. “It’s a fine line that causes debate,” said Zbyszewski.

King said the ATV club will help educate people about the rules and regulations for ATV use on county roads and in the national forest. “To do it right, we need to push for responsible motorized recreation,” he said.

Current travel maps for the Methow Valley and Tonasket ranger districts and guidelines about motor-vehicle use in the national forest are available online at www.fs.usda.gov/main/okawen/maps-pubs under “Travel Maps” at the bottom of the page. The free maps are also available at the Methow Valley Ranger District office.