By Marcy Stamper
After spending almost a decade examining roads in the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, forest managers and planners have decided not to change the type of motorized access allowed on official roads and vehicle trails, but they are proposing to close all other areas in the forest to motorized traffic.
While the Okanogan-Wenatchee Forest’s travel management plan would not change the current status of official roads — for example, whether they permit cars, 4x4s or motorcycles — if the new proposal is adopted, vehicles would not be allowed on user-created roads or in other areas in the forest.
In the past, the Okanogan-Wenatchee forest has been open to vehicles — including cross-country use — unless explicitly closed, according to Shannon O’Brien, public affairs specialist for the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest.
The rule closing all areas to vehicles unless otherwise specified was adopted nationwide in 2005, with 10 years for forests to comply. The rule means that roads blocked by rocks or other barriers, some of which have historically been used by all-terrain vehicles (ATVs), and user-created trails will be off-limits, said O’Brien.
Motorized use in the forest has always been subject to some restrictions — people are not permitted drive or ride anywhere that will cause resource damage, said O’Brien.
The changes are part of the Okanogan-Wenatchee’s steps to meet a deadline by the end of 2015 to comply with a new nationwide motorized travel management rule and to update the forest’s maps accordingly.
Under the Okanogan-Wenatchee’s proposal, all official roads and trails will be shown on the forest’s updated Motor Vehicle Use Map, or MVUM, and travelers are encouraged to get used to consulting the map to see where they can legally drive or ride, said O’Brien. “If it is not on the map, it is not open to motorized vehicles,” she said.
Campsite access changed
The other proposed change in the plan covers parking for dispersed camping. While dispersed camping will still be permitted almost everywhere in the forest, vehicles will not be permitted to park more than 30 feet off official roads or 10 feet off vehicle trails. People could still park and hike to a campsite, but could no longer drive to sites further from the road, even if there is an informal road created by users to get to a popular site, said O’Brien. They also could not drive a vehicle within 100 feet of water.
While forest managers have elected to preserve the status quo for existing roads forestwide, they will be looking at the forest in smaller geographic sections and may propose changes to the existing road system in coming years, said O’Brien. For example, managers might create a connector between two roads or close an existing route that is duplicative, she said.
“We were trying to take a large-scale approach for the whole forest, but it was too complex to do an analysis with that level of site-specificity on 4 million acres,” said O’Brien.
The proposed changes list five maintenance levels for roads. All maintenance levels are open to some motor vehicles except maintenance level 1, which is for roads that are only opened intermittently for Forest Service staff to do maintenance or timber management. “These roads are kind of in storage,” said O’Brien. Even if opened for a specific project, they would most likely not be open to public to travel, she said.
Forest managers intend to complete an environmental analysis — which will compare the current road status, the proposed changes, and a set of alternatives — by the end of 2015, said O’Brien. The new forest rule also requires that forest managers review the motor vehicle map every year and make changes as needed, she said.
Input received at public meetings and through the scoping process since the travel management review began nine years ago will be used as managers consider changes to road access at the local level, said O’Brien.
Clarifying ATV access
A separate part of the Okanogan-Wenatchee’s policy that has attracted attention and caused some confusion over the past year relates to where in the forest people may ride wheeled ATVs, a new vehicle category created by a state law passed in 2013. The law permits county and city officials to open roads with speed limits of 35 miles per hour and below to ATVs that have certain safety features.
Supervisors and administrators of the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest have gone back and forth as they tried to determine how the ATV law applies to national forest roads. They determined in May that forest roads are open only to vehicles that are “highway-legal” — that is, vehicles that can operate on all public roads within the state, including interstate highways.
To know where they can ride, ATV operators must consult the forest’s current motor-vehicle use map, which shows roads “open to highway-legal vehicles only” and roads “open to all vehicles.” Even ATVs certified for use on 35-mph roads elsewhere in Washington are not permitted on roads in the Okanogan-Wenatchee Forest that are open only to highway-legal vehicles, according to the Forest Service.
Recreation planners in the Okanogan-Wenatchee and local ranger districts have been reviewing ATV access and “considering big loop rides to make a quality ride,” said O’Brien. These changes could be approved through a separate administrative process that does not have to go through the more in-depth environmental analysis that the overall travel-management plan will, she said. O’Brien said they are hoping to have some wheeled-ATV routes available by the spring or summer riding season in 2015. “I know they’re working on it,” she said.
For more information about the proposed travel management plan, including maps, go to www.fs.usda.gov/goto/okawen/mtm or contact Jennifer Zbyszewski at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 996-4003.
The Forest Service wants written comments submitted by Jan. 20. There is a link on the website to provide comments online.