Police, Forest Service and riders have different takes

Some county roads, like Old Highway 97 outside of Okanogan, have been marked with signs banning ATVs. Photo by Marcy Stamper

Some county roads, like Old Highway 97 outside of Okanogan, have been marked with signs banning ATVs. Photo by Marcy Stamper

By Marcy Stamper

Although more than 240 people — 29 in Okanogan County — have obtained the state’s new license for riding specially equipped all-terrain vehicles on roads, confusion persists about where people can legally operate their ATVs.

Recent decisions by the Winthrop Marshal’s Office, the U.S. Forest Service and the county commissioners have highlighted the uncertainty about a state law that took effect last July that expands areas where people can ride ATVs and specifies the safety equipment necessary for a special on-road license.

At last week’s Winthrop Town Council meeting, area resident Kitty Smith asked the council to re-address a 2012 decision not to allow ATVs within the town limits. Smith said she would like to be able to ride her ATV as a primary means of transportation within the town.

Acting Marshal Ken Bajema told the council that, under his interpretation of applicable state law, Smith would be “street-legal” and could ride her ATV in town if it is fully equipped and has a license plate. Other types of off-road vehicles still might not be allowed in the town, he said at the April 2 meeting.

Smith, who has trouble walking, recently purchased a 2014-model ATV with the safety upgrades the state requires for what the law calls a “wheeled ATV” license. She uses it to exercise her dog, but also wanted to drive into Winthrop, she said in an interview after the meeting. Her ATV has a horn, turn signals, seat belts and a roof, among other add-ons. Smith said she has no intention of using the ATV on trails.

Smith educated herself about the law and understood that she could not take her ATV on roads with speed limits above 35 miles per hour, so she determined that she would have to use back roads — Bear Creek Road and the East Chewuch Road — to get into Winthrop. “Anything under 35 mph, I can drive on it,” she said.

The state law does open low-speed roads in counties with a population under 3,000 to licensed ATVs, but in more populous counties, including Okanogan, the county must authorize roads for ATVs through an ordinance, according to George Price, senior policy analyst with the Washington Department of Licensing.

The Okanogan County commissioners did just that in July, allowing ATVs on all county roads with a speed limit of 35 mph or lower, but they rescinded the ordinance last month after the Methow Valley Citizens’ Council and Conservation Northwest filed suit, saying the county had to assess the suitability of individual roads and determine the potential environmental impact. The county’s planning director is working on the environmental analysis, according to County Commissioner Ray Campbell.

“Just because a wheeled ATV is licensed doesn’t mean it’s allowed,” said Price. “It depends on the ordinances of the city or county.”

Bajema said in an interview after the meeting that he had consulted a summary of state laws police agencies use for traffic enforcement and determined that Smith’s ATV, as a licensed vehicle, could legally operate on town streets. “If you can get it licensed, you can drive it through Winthrop,” he said.

Bajema said the town council had voted to prohibit ATVs stamped “for off-road use only,” but not licensed vehicles. “It’s common sense — if you have a licensed vehicle, how can you not drive it through town?” he said. Bajema agreed that the situation could be confusing, since a vehicle may look as if it is intended for off-road use but still have the after-market safety features that qualify it for a license.

Twisp Police Chief Paul Budrow said he and other chiefs around the county had been waiting for a directive from the county prosecutor but, with the new state law on the books, police officers now know how to proceed, said Budrow. The law gives towns the right to regulate streets as well as state highways in town, he said. “They have to say ‘yea’ or ‘nay’,” said Budrow.

“That’s given us the teeth. If someone drives through town with a licensed ATV, we now have an RCW [law] to write down, and they can get a ticket for it,” he said.

The Washington State Patrol has also been fielding questions about the law. “We’ve had quite a few calls from people saying ‘Can I or can’t I?’ and about conflicts and confusion. It will take work in the Legislature to get that done,” said Captain Rob Huss, who handles government and media relations for the state patrol. “Some violations will be apparent, but trying to figure out what truly qualifies creates challenges for vehicle owners and for law enforcement,” he said.

Some people say the law is already clear. “The only confusing thing about it is why anybody thinks the law changed anything on Forest Service roads or automatically on town roads. You cannot ride on the town roads unless the town says you can,” said Melanie Rowland, a Methow Valley Citizens’ Council board member.


Riding on Forest Service roads

Late last month Mike Balboni, supervisor of the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, determined that ATVs can use forest roads, since there is no existing map or rule that excludes them.

However, before the supervisor issued his decision, some in the Northwest Regional Office interpreted the statute differently. Jen Fitzpatrick, assistant director for recreation, lands and minerals with the Northwest Regional Office, said the supervisor’s interpretation was incorrect because the law does not apply to non-highway roads, which she said include Forest Service roads. Changing road status would also first require an analysis of all roads in the national forest, she said.

Fitzpatrick’s analysis was outlined in an internal email that was provided to the Methow Valley News by the executive director of Conservation Northwest. Conservation Northwest helped draft the state’s ATV law but has also taken legal action to prevent the law from being improperly applied.

The Office of General Counsel, which provides legal advice to federal agencies and was also consulted about the matter, said the decision about road use is a management issue, according to Methow Valley District Ranger Mike Liu.

The Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest is the only forest in the state that does not yet have a motor vehicle use map. These maps show every single road and designate which of four vehicle categories (all vehicles, highway-legal vehicles only, motorcycles and ATVs) can travel on them.


Future of town roads?

The Winthrop and Twisp town councils last took up the issue of whether to allow ATVs on town streets before state law changed. The law passed last July expanded the areas where people can ride and eliminated a requirement for connection to an ATV recreation facility. The Twisp Town Council tabled the issue in February 2013.

It’s premature for the Winthrop council to revisit the broader issue of ATV use within the town until Okanogan County comes up with a new plan for allowing off-road vehicles on county roads, said council member Rick Northcott. He also noted that the Forest Service decision might face legal challenges.

“This is not our issue at this time,” council member Mike Strulic agreed. “It needs clarity that it doesn’t have yet,” council member Mort Banasky said. “We need to let the dust settle a little.”

Nevertheless, audience member Ed Surette told the council that ATV enthusiasts like him want to see the in-town-usage issue revisited.