Status of many county roads remains uncertain
By Marcy Stamper
Okanogan County’s 1955 list of almost 500 roads looks predictably dated, produced on an old typewriter with neatly handwritten notations and starting to fray at the edges.
Now the engineers and technicians in the county’s Public Works Department are going through that old list — as well as subsequent changes — to clear up the legal status of roads throughout the county, according to County Engineer Josh Thomson.
As they review the log, Public Works staff are finding some roads on the list are no longer part of the county system. Most of the roads in question appear to have been removed from the system in the late 1980s or 1990s, but in many cases there is no record of a signed order by the county commissioners, throwing the road’s legal status into question, said Thomson.
While the majority of the roads in question are handled as if they are part of the U.S. Forest Service road system, they may officially still be Okanogan County roads, said Thomson.
The majority of the changes in road status occurred between 1987 and 1991 when there was a lot of logging on Forest Service lands and the agency wanted the roads, said Thomson. It appears the road transfers were done with good intentions, but they have been unable to find the final paperwork, he said.
Reconciling road status was suggested by County Commissioner Ray Campbell, and Thomson said he and the other two commissioners agree it is important to resolve legal road status. If they determine a road was not properly transferred to the Forest Service or state, county staff will inform the agency and then explore the best way to clear up ownership, said Thomson.
While there have been prominent disputes over road ownership — most recently, in the matter of Three Devils Road in the Chiliwist, still the subject of a court challenge — the current process is an effort to address a different, underlying issue, said Thomson.
“It’s difficult to sort out whose jurisdiction they are — some are from the late 1800s and early 1900s. There are not a lot of records,” he said. Most of the roads in question traverse state or federal land and are being administered as if they are Forest Service roads, with no county maintenance or snowplowing. But that may not be correct, said Thomson.
County engineers have been reviewing a few roads each week and comparing them to maps to compile a complete list of roads with unclear status. The roads are all over the county and engineers still do not know how many miles are involved, said Thomson.
The road review has caught the attention of the Coalition of Chiliwist Residents & Friends, the group challenging the Three Devils Road vacation. “Based on our research and our concerns that not all county road vacations have been done correctly, this raises questions,” said coalition member Ruth Hall. Some vacations haven’t taken into account the fact that the roads are useful to the public, she said. As with half-a-dozen road vacations over the past decade, the vacation of Three Devils Road was the result of a petition by members of the Gebbers family or one of their business — in this case, Gamble Land and Timber, who own the adjacent property.
Road status is important because it affects whether public agencies like the Washington Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the Forest Service can use the roads to haul timber or for access to public lands, said Jeff Wolf, an asset management specialist for DNR.
Wolf said it is not uncommon to spend many hours working with the Forest Service, the county and other agencies to determine jurisdiction. In the absence of complete documentation, he often sends evidence to the county saying, in essence, “If you don’t dispute this, I’ll haul timber over it.” Without clear road access, sometimes an area just doesn’t get logged, said Wolf.
Everyone struggles with having enough staff and time to research these matters and if jurisdiction were clearly mapped, it would save considerable time, said Wolf.
By state law, a county can assert ownership of a private road if they can show it has been used for at least 10 years, but a county cannot exercise the same rights over a public road, said Wolf. Once a county adopts a road, the county is liable for maintenance.
Anyone can travel on a county road, but to use a public road for logging requires an easement, said Wolf. These agreements typically include an obligation to leave the road in good condition, which can entail improving it before logging and then repairing it afterward, said Wolf.
These issues come up around the state, but Okanogan County seems to have the greatest number of roads with ambiguous status, said Wolf, who has worked for both DNR and the Washington State Department of Transportation. “The majority of these happened in the ’50s, but some were in 1908 or 1913, when the county incorrectly claimed or dropped jurisdiction without due process,” he said. “The county may have claimed jurisdiction without knowing, but it catches up with you eventually.”
DNR spends about $500,000 annually on road easements for access to lands they manage for the school trust. They have thousands of easements and have been working steadily to acquire more, according to Janet Ballew, rights-of-way program manager for DNR.
In the 1970s, the Legislature passed the Multiple Use Act, encouraging the state to provide access to public lands if it doesn’t conflict with DNR’s trust activities, said Ballew. While DNR likes to provide access to its holdings, there is no requirement that the public be able to reach state land, she said. Some state trust lands are completely surrounded by private property and, where possible, DNR attempts to negotiate easements, she said.
In addition to questions from public agencies that need road access for timber management, the county also periodically hears from citizens who live on a remote road and would like the county to take over the road so that it receives regular maintenance and snowplowing.
For example, a resident on a Forest Service road near Tonasket recently urged the county to take over the road, saying that family and friends would be interested in moving to the area if the road received better maintenance. In that instance, the county informed the man that the road is not a high priority for the county.
Waiting to hear
The current review of the road log is separate from another set of discussions with the Forest Service that started last year, in which the agency proposed transferring management and maintenance of 73 miles of roads to the county. In most of those cases, the roads are outside forest boundaries but have become increasingly residential, said Thomson.
The Forest Service has seasonal road crews and typically does not plow roads except when needed for special access, according to Jason Peterson, engineering and minerals staff officer for the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest. Like the county, the Forest Service also often hears from people who expect more year-round maintenance, he said Peterson.
Peterson said the Forest Service is still awaiting a response from the county as to whether the county would be interested in taking over any of those roads.
County engineers and attorneys are still researching the appropriate legal process for any road transfers determined to be necessary. Road vacation would necessitate an engineer’s report, testimony from the relevant agency, and a public hearing, said Thomson.
The commissioners were scheduled to consider an initial set of corrections to the road log on Tuesday (Jan. 19). The first changes, correcting mileposts and road-surface information on 11 roads in the Okanogan Valley, would be submitted to the Washington State County Road Administration Board, which is supposed to receive annual updates.