County plans public process to create new ATV routes

By Marcy Stamper

Okanogan County Commissioner Andy Hover has been talking with all-terrain vehicle (ATV) riders, public land agencies and environmental groups to try to come up with a balanced policy that will satisfy a court order — finalized last week — to consider environmental impacts before opening roads to the vehicles.

Hover has been holding what he called “preliminary discussions” with stakeholders to devise a “good, solid plan that will open up roads for recreation.” In a commissioners’ meeting last week, Hover proposed starting with District 3, in northeast Okanogan County, where many roads were already open to off-road vehicles before a 2013 state law expanded options for ATV riders.

The county has to rescind its 2014 ordinance that opened all roads with speeds of 35 miles per hour (mph) or lower to wheeled ATVs — almost 600 miles — and then analyze possible environmental impacts before opening specific routes. Wheeled ATVs are a special class of ATVs that must have certain safety features, including lights, mirrors and a special license.

“We’re not flying in the face of people’s wishes,” said Hover. “We’re going to plan, correct and mitigate issues. We’re not just going back in the same ruts — we’re taking a more thoughtful approach to which roads could be opened.”

Once the county has a formal proposal, there will be a public process with comments, said Hover. “It will be an open and transparent way of doing things,” he said.

Hover has also talked with officials from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) to address their concerns, since there has been some damage from unlawful ATV use on lands they manage, he said. The ultimate proposal may require extra signage or mitigation such as a guardrail on a steep bank to protect these areas, he said.

SEPA violation

The lawsuit, filed against the county three years ago by the Methow Valley Citizens Council (MVCC) and Conservation Northwest, argued that a wholesale opening of all roads, without regard to length or proximity to sensitive areas like wetlands, violated the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA), which requires the county to analyze the environmental effects of allowing the vehicles to use all these roads. A June 2016 Court of Appeals decision in favor of the plaintiffs became final when the state Supreme Court denied a request from the county to hear the case.

The county commissioners also plan to consult the U.S. Forest Service before drafting a plan, said Hover. The Forest Service has tried to create new ATV routes in the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, but had to close the roads to ATVs after a lawsuit brought by other conservation groups, who argued the agency first had to complete its travel-management rule and analyze environmental impacts.

Brian de Place, MVCC’s executive director, said this week that the group appreciates that the county appears to be taking a transparent and public process to opening roads to ATV riders. MVCC board member Phil Millam and Spencer King, president of the North Central ATV Club, recently met with Hover to discuss the issue. The discussions have been about the process more than about specific routes, said de Place.

The ATV club is primarily interested in roads that would connect to other ATV routes, such as on Forest Service roads, said King. There are roads open to ATVs in the Tonasket Ranger District, but not in the Methow Ranger District, he said.

“Right now, we’re not pushing for anything. We need to find out what’s happening with the Forest Service and let things settle down, and have more cooperation and communication with everyone,” said King.

Once the commissioners have a successful approach for District 3, they will start to look at roads in Districts 1 and 2, said Hover. The Methow Valley is in District 2.

While ATVs — and where they can be ridden — was “a hot-button issue” during last year’s campaign, Hover, who was elected in November, said he was encouraged that people seemed open to compromise. Unlike the previous county ordinances concerning ATVs, the next round “is not going to be an all-or-none-type situation,” he said.

Confusion persists

The county may also seek an opinion from Washington’s attorney general to clarify a confusing body of laws about off-road and all-terrain vehicles. For example, the county has more than 300 miles of roads that were already open to off-road vehicles (ORVs), which were grandfathered in when the 2013 law was passed and will not be closed by the court’s ruling. But it is not clear if those roads are also open to wheeled ATVs, despite the additional safety equipment, said Hover.

“If you can ride an ORV, but if you’ve got extra stuff like a horn and blinkers and can’t ride on the road — it seems counter-intuitive,” said Hover. “You want to be lawful, but when you read something and it says ‘do this, then go to this point,’ it becomes circular. It’s not always spelled out very clearly.”

The Okanogan County commissioners are not the only ones perplexed by state laws about ORVs. Two years ago, the attorney general issued an opinion in response to a question from a Lincoln County prosecuting attorney, but it apparently did not clear up the confusion. The attorney general’s opinion discussed laws affecting five types of vehicles, including “non-highway vehicles,” “off-road vehicles” and “wheeled all-terrain vehicles,” as well as various types of roads.

To comply with the Court of Appeals order, Public Works staff will take down all the signs that have been posted throughout the county showing roads open to ATVs. Hover did not know how many signs there are, nor what it cost the county to erect them, but said crews will unscrew them when working in an area, so removal shouldn’t be a major expense.

“I just want people to trust us, that once we get all our ducks in a row, we’ll let the people look at [the ATV proposal],” said Hover.

“If the county wants to open roads for ATVs, we’re encouraged the county is committed to having a public process and to following the law. We’ve always said we’re not anti-ATV. We’re glad to see they’re going to take a more nuanced approach,” said MVCC’s de Place.

The county has no specific timeline for retooling its ATV policy, but hopes to have a working proposal by late spring, Hover said.