File photo by Marcy Stamper
French Creek Road.

Closures need more scrutiny, group says

By Marcy Stamper

Over the past 15 years, people who live on Okanogan County’s back roads started noticing that routes they used to visit friends, hunt or ride horses were being closed one by one.

In some cases, the roads had been blocked by gates, but in others, the road closures involved official actions by Okanogan County.

But as more roads were obstructed, people began comparing notes. Just last month, a diverse group from around the county formed the Okanogan Open Roads Coalition to advocate for keeping roads open to the public. Part of their mission is to work with the county’s elected officials to preserve public access.

Although when people petition the county to close — or “vacate” — a road, the county commissioners have to hold a public hearing. But because these roads are by nature remote, often only immediate neighbors took notice or attended the hearing.

Two years ago the visibility of disparate road closures was heightened when a group of Chiliwist residents — many still reeling from the Carlton Complex Fire, which took a serious toll on their neighborhood — mounted a court challenge to the commissioners’ decision to close Three Devils Road.

“Ever since the lawsuit, it’s brought a lot of awareness,” said Ruth Hall, president of Chiliwist Residents & Friends, the group challenging the vacation.

Loosely organized

The Open Roads Coalition has a 10-member steering committee, but it’s otherwise loosely organized. The group envisions being a clearinghouse for information about how people use roads and for research into the history of local roads. They also hope people will support legal efforts to keep roads open to the public.

In a statement about the coalition, the steering committee said, “This is a dirt-roads county, blessed with an historic network of rural byways that connect our small towns and scenic backcountry. Some roads are parts of ancient trails traveled by the native inhabitants. Some served as freight and stage routes for the pioneers in the 1880s and have been used ever since … Some roads serve as vital alternate routes during unpredictable natural disasters like fires and floods.”

“In recent years, more and more of these roads, which many locals grew up using, have been gated with prominent ‘No Trespassing’ signs. The public land beyond is locked up,” the statement said.

One of the Open Road Coalition’s first actions came in another lawsuit over French Creek Road. Last month, the coalition asked the county’s prosecutor and his deputy to recuse themselves from a lawsuit filed by Gamble Land and Timber, which seeks to declare a nearly 8-mile portion of French Creek Road private property through quiet title. Quiet title is a process used to clear up conflicting claims of ownership.

The coalition’s recusal request alleges that the county’s attorneys have shown a history of favoritism and failed to defend the public interest in public roads. The prosecutors refused to recuse themselves, saying the coalition’s claims have no basis in fact.

15 years of closures

Steering committee members said people came together after a series of road closures. Many have been the result of petitions or quiet-title actions by the Gebbers family or one of several companies it owns, including Gamble Land.

One of the earliest closures was Swamp Creek Road north of Brewster, which was vacated in 2001 at the request of Gamble Land. Six years later, the county considered another petition from Gamble Land to vacate Whitestone Canyon Road, also near Brewster. Whitestone Canyon Road was ultimately relinquished to the landowners through the quiet-title process.

A road in the Chiliwist referred to as both Swamp Creek and Hooker Creek — some people said they’d overlooked the petition because of confusion over the name — was closed by the commissioners in 2013 after a petition from Gamble Land.

But in 2009, a petition to vacate part of French Creek Road got considerably more attention. The county commissioners voted against vacation and ordered adjacent landowners Jim Weddle and Gebbers Farms to unlock the gate on the road. But that decision was overturned a few months later after attorneys for the property owners produced documents showing that the county didn’t have jurisdiction over the road.

That same stretch of road is now back in court — the subject of Gamble’s quiet-title action (and the Open Road Coalition’s request for recusal). It’s one of the issues advocates for public roads say galvanized them to form the coalition.

Freedom to roam

Open Roads Coalition steering committee member Kevin Creager has been researching the history of roads near his home on upper French Creek for years. Creager used to compete in dogsled races, training his dogs on the extensive public lands right out his door.

“That’s a big reason I bought this property — the access to public land. I could take a groomed snowmobile trail all the way to the Pasayten, and just have to cross the Loup Loup Highway,” he said. “It was pretty sweet — pretty endless.”

Creager has found maps and records going back as far as 1891 that he says show French Creek Road is part of a continuous route from Pateros to Carlton and Benson Creek.

Steering committee member Leaf Seaburg, who remembers exploring the hills while growing up on Libby Creek, said he got involved in the group because “I’m concerned about the desire to privatize public lands.”

“I don’t hunt, but I mushroom-hunt, hike and fish,” said Seaburg. “But it’s as much on principle as anything else. You should keep public lands public.”

Seaburg is a fishing guide, but he has always enjoyed finding places off the beaten path to fish, for the quiet and occasional benefits of the lack of competition. About half of the areas where he used to fish are now inaccessible, he said.

“It’s in our backyard, but it affects all of us,” said Hall, who has been taking back roads from the Chiliwist for decades to visit her son near Carlton or to go to events like the ’49ers Days. “It’s just fun going on back roads,” she said.

Chiliwist resident Yank Clark is concerned about how far-reaching the road closures have been — and that they could put large swaths of public land off-limits. “It encompasses the whole watershed,” he said.

The concern over loss of access to public lands — and an increased sense of vulnerability after wildfires and mudslides — has also prompted at least a dozen people to write to the county commissioners to urge them to keep roads open to the public.

One property owner in the French Creek drainage told the commissioners he had been concerned since the proposal to close that road back in 2009. “I identified my primary reason for wanting the road to be opened was as a secondary means of escape from wildfire,” he said in his letter.

Several letter writers were particularly alarmed that new gates had been erected since the Carlton Complex Fire in 2014. “French Creek provides an alternative evacuation route which gives great peace of mind to our family. I love to go up there. Please don’t close it off to the public,” wrote one, who said he rides motorcycles and snowmobiles on that road network.

Before the new gates were erected, there were still ways around them via state land, but the new gates now block several roads in the area, said Creager. “The next time there’s a fire or a flood, I want to know I can get out,” he said in an interview.

“To imagine somebody hemmed in by a gate is ridiculous. It’s crazy to me to think anybody would consider blocking a road to their neighbors,” said Seaburg.

“The more I learned about this, the more I was astounded. I know a lot of other people are, too,” said Clark.

For more information about the coalition, contact Okopenroads@gmail.com. The group has also launched a GoFundMe campaign.