By Marcy Stamper

A recent policy interpretation by the forest supervisor allowing ATVs to use roads in the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest “is unlawful and should be reversed immediately,” argue two environmental organizations in a letter to the supervisor, Mike Balboni.

In a letter sent last week to Balboni, the Methow Valley Citizens’ Council (MVCC) and Conservation Northwest contend that Balboni’s interpretation that a new state law makes all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) “highway-legal vehicles” for the purpose of forest roads is in error.

The two groups, which successfully sued Okanogan County last year over two ordinances allowing ATVs on hundreds of miles of county roads, advance some of the same arguments in this instance—that an analysis of conditions on individual roads and the opportunity for public input are necessary before ATVs can be permitted to use the roads.

“The direction Supervisor Balboni gave earlier remains,” said Robin DeMario, public affairs specialist for the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest. “We are waiting for input and more discussion from the regional office.”

A copy of the letter was sent to the regional forester and the Pacific Northwest Regional Office has been following the situation.

“We are not at a point where a decision [about ATV use] has been made —we are still evaluating the impacts in the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest,” said Shoni Pilip-Florea, director of public and legislative affairs for the Pacific Northwest Region.

The regional office provides policy and guidance to the 17 national forests in the Northwest, working collaboratively with line officers and taking into account local needs from a land-management perspective, said Pilip-Florea.

When Balboni’s interpretation was issued three weeks ago, agency spokespersons explained that, because the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest has no regulation clearly prohibiting ATVs, there is no legal means to enforce a policy prohibiting the vehicles. Moreover, the Okanogan-Wenatchee does not have a motor vehicle use map showing every road and the types of vehicles that can use it. These maps govern road and vehicle use in each national forest, they explained.

Noting that the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest is in the process of analyzing its road system as part of the nationwide Travel Management process, MVCC and Conservation Northwest contend that to reverse management direction “without any written directive or explanation, mixed use analysis, or public process … is an arbitrary and capricious exercise of authority.”

MVCC and Conservation Northwest argue that restrictions in state law prohibiting ATVs from using any road with a speed limit above 35 miles per hour differentiates ATVs from regular motor vehicles. The law includes provisions for licenses for ATVs that have had specified safety upgrades.

In their letter, the groups quote statements issued by the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest shortly after the law went into effect last July that said the state law “does not allow general operation of wheeled ATVs on all public roads in the state … Therefore, ATVs are not highway-legal vehicles under agency policy.”

MVCC and Conservation Northwest ask Balboni to reaffirm that state law does not change policy barring ATVs from roads in the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest. They say they do not oppose the operation of ATVs on appropriate Forest Service roads after the proper analysis and public input.

The regional office is still evaluating the overall impact of Washington’s ATV law statewide to see if further discussion about its interpretation is necessary, said Pilip-Florea. “We continue to have meetings and are hopeful we will have a solid interpretation and guidelines in the next couple of weeks,” she said.

“At this point in time, the vehicles that are street-legal can ride on those roads that are open to motor vehicles,” said DeMario. She added that if roads are snowy or muddy, the Forest Service encourages people not to drive on them to prevent resource damage.

Balboni will respond directly to MVCC and Conservation Northwest, said DeMario.