Opponents raise many questions about wildlife, enforcement

By Marcy Stamper

Okanogan County received 40 comments on its proposal to open 597 additional miles of county roads to all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) and on the county planning director’s analysis of the potential environmental impacts, with all but six commenters in favor of expanded access. The county’s new proposal replaces two ordinances that were rescinded in March so that the county could do an environmental review. The deadline for comments was Friday (May 2).

Commenters in favor of allowing ATVs to use virtually all county roads with speed limits of 35 miles per hour (mph) or lower cited benefits to the economy, opportunities for recreation, and environmental advantages because of the fuel-efficiency of ATVs. Individual letters of support were, overall, quite brief.

By contrast, the input from those opposed to opening more county roads to ATVs were much longer, with the most detailed comment—26 pages—submitted jointly by the Methow Valley Citizens’ Council (MVCC) and Conservation Northwest. A lawsuit filed by the two groups last year prompted the county to rescind the earlier ordinances and conduct an environmental review.


Share the roads, boost the economy

Most of the individuals who submitted comments in support of allowing ATVs to use these roads live in parts of the county outside the Methow Valley, but a dozen of those in favor live in the Methow. Most comments opposed to the proposal came from organizations or agencies.

Several recreational organizations praised the county for the proposal to extend ATV routes. The North Central ATV Club, with 170 members, said ATVs are just another form of transportation and pointed to their “leave no tracks” motto. The club sent an excerpt of an article from the Wall Street Journal that highlighted the economic benefits of tourism connected with ATVs.

The Methow Valley Snowmobile Association, with 88 members, said that all county recreationists have an equal opportunity to enjoy the outdoors and must learn to share the roads.

While the state law allowing counties and cities to permit ATVs with specified safety upgrades restricts them to roads 35 mph or below, some commenters said they supported allowing the vehicles on all roads, regardless of speed limit, or letting them use those roads but capping their speed at 35 mph.

In his comment, Okanogan County Sheriff Frank Rogers said he had not observed increased problems with ATVs during the few months roads were open to them last year, but noted that he did not support allowing ATVs to use higher-speed roads even if the ATVs are restricted to 35 mph.

The field supervisor of the county’s Noxious Weed Control Board urged the county to educate ATV riders about the propensity for ATVs to spread weeds and to advise washing their vehicles to avoid spreading seeds to new areas.


Detailed questions from opponents

MVCC and Conservation Northwest said the environmental review was inadequate, since the county had not analyzed the impact on fish and wildlife. The groups raised concerns about damage to sensitive habitats and provided a summary of scientific research about resource damage caused by ATVs and illegal riding. Since the county made no effort to estimate the number of trips that would be generated by the increased access, the two groups say there is no way to assess the impact on the environment.

Because the county’s proposal involves only existing roads already used by cars and trucks, the planning director essentially concluded that there would be no additional environmental impact from allowing one more type of vehicle to use the roads. Overall, the proposal would allow ATVs to use about three-quarters of county roads (including 336 miles already open to ATVs, mostly in the northern part of the county). One-quarter of the roads in the new proposal are paved.

Some of the most pointed comments came from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW). Matt Monda, the agency’s regional wildlife program manager, cited the agency’s experiences in the Sinlahekin Wildlife Area in northern Okanogan County, which is near county roads opened to ATVs over the past several years. Monda described the impacts to state lands, waterways and wildlife habitat, and the spread of noxious weeds as a result of people riding ATVs on state lands, even though they are prohibited there.

Monda cited conflicts between ATVs and horseback riders, hikers and cyclists. He also noted problems experienced by neighboring private-property owners, who have had to repair fences and deal with scattered livestock.

Monda urged the county to delay opening more roads so that WDFW and the county sheriff can work together to prevent trespass on state lands.

Tom McCoy, who recently retired as the manager of the Methow Wildlife Area, submitted his own comments. Within weeks of passage of the two ordinances last July opening the majority of county roads to ATVs, McCoy said he had received more calls about reckless driving and ATVs operating off-road and on closed roads than in the previous three years. Since there is substantial noncompliance with other traffic laws, it is “nothing but folly to assume that ORV [off-road vehicles] riders will fully comply with similar rules,” wrote McCoy.


Concerns from Winthrop, Twisp, tribe

The planning commissions from both Twisp and Winthrop said they were not in favor of expanding ATV access. The Twisp planning commission opposes the proposal because of concerns about adverse effects on law enforcement and emergency services, insufficient oversight of drivers’ ability, the potential for more accidents, and the fact that ATVs have been shown to be unsafe on pavement.

The Winthrop planning commission said that the county’s environmental review provided an inadequate analysis. It urged a more complete analysis of the proximity of the proposed routes to environmentally sensitive areas and an estimate of traffic volume so that noise and other impacts can be assessed. The Winthrop commissioners also questioned whether the proposal takes into account “logical trip beginning and endpoints” and asks how ATV riders will get to the opened roads and whether there is adequate parking.

In their comments, the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation cited tribal laws that protect lands, water, archaeological sites and wildlife habitat on the reservation. The Colvilles’ land use and shorelines administrator, Stephanie “Pete” Palmer, noted that tribal laws restrict ATV use to tribal members and their relatives. The Colvilles were disappointed that they had not been consulted by county officials before the public comment period began, she said. “The Tribe vehemently opposes the opening of any roads for ATV use within the boundaries of the Reservation without tribal consent,” Palmer wrote.


Prone to violations?

MVCC and Conservation Northwest submitted a version of the county’s road list that shows three dozen roads in the Methow Valley with short segments—less than one or two miles—authorized for ATVs. The two environmental organizations contend that the county must take into account the likelihood that some people will ride on closed roads, on state lands, or off-road, whether out of confusion or disregard for the law.

The groups say the county should issue a new analysis that finds there would be an environmental impact from increased ATV use or prepare an environmental impact statement, which requires an even more in-depth review.

Okanogan County will issue a final environmental determination and schedule a public hearing before the county commissioners.