By Marcy Stamper
When it increased opportunities for all-terrain vehicle (ATV) riders — one of the intents of a state law passed in 2013 — did the county violate other parts of the law by increasing confusion about where people can ride and heightening the potential that sensitive environmental areas would be damaged?
Was the county required to evaluate these issues before opening 421 miles of county roads to ATVs? Do the parties who say they have been harmed by expanded ATV use have to demonstrate specific harms or show explicit examples of environmental damage?
These questions were debated in Okanogan County Superior Court on Monday (Nov. 17), when Superior Court Judge Henry Rawson heard an appeal by the Methow Valley Citizens’ Council (MVCC) and Conservation Northwest about the county’s failure to do an adequate environmental review when the Okanogan County commissioners opened all roads with speed limits of 35 miles per hour (mph) and below to ATVs.
Sandy Mackie, an attorney representing Okanogan County, said the plaintiffs had not demonstrated that they had suffered sufficient injury connected with the increase in areas where ATVs can ride, but that the harm was merely “remote, speculative and hypothetical.”
David Mann, an attorney for the plaintiffs, pointed to an annotated list they submitted of all county roads now open to ATVs, many of which have short, higher-speed sections that would be closed to ATVs. Other roads connect to public lands closed to ATV use.
“It’s not logical to say it won’t result in increased use,” said Mann, who said the county had not addressed the huge impacts of this patchwork of authorized and unauthorized routes nor posted signs explaining where people can and cannot ride.
“Once you’ve opened these roads that provide access to sensitive areas, you can’t put your blinders on,” he said.
The plaintiffs want a review of local conditions before the roads are open. “There are a heck of a lot of road segments that are logical, that we don’t object to,” said Mann.
Another issue before the court was whether past activity by ATV riders who illegally rode on state and federal wildlife lands and private property is any indication that similar violations should be expected in the future.
Mann said they had provided substantial evidence and eyewitness statements documenting illegal off-road ATV use. For example, in a letter to the county, a public lands manager described an immediate increase in illegal trespassing after the county first opened more areas to ATVs two years ago.
Mackie conceded there has been illegal ATV use in the past, but said that unlawful riding would decrease because many new roads are now open to ATV riders.
He also said those objecting to expanded ATV use have provided no specifics about the environmental damage or other harms.
While the county asserts there will be no impacts to streams and wetlands because ATVs are only allowed on existing county roads, they have presented no evidence that illegal riding and environmental harm will not ensue, said Mann.
Mackie argued that the state Legislature would not have passed the law if legislators had found that ATVs are dangerous or that the law would not provide environmental benefits.
Mackie also told the court that the appeal had not been filed in the appropriate jurisdiction and should be dismissed.
Rawson said he would review the record in light of the arguments presented and provide a written opinion, but gave no indication as to when to expect it.