Chiliwist neighbors say road is an escape route and access to public lands
By Marcy Stamper
A request to the county to relinquish a road that connects the Chiliwist area with the Loup Loup summit has attracted concern from more than 100 people, who say that closing the road to the public would cut off access to state and federal lands and eliminate a vital escape route for a community hard hit by last summer’s wildfire and floods.
Getting to the Chiliwist from the Methow Valley generally means driving Highway 20 over the Loup, but the area is just over the ridge from Benson Creek and Finley Canyon, part of a historic network of roads that connected the Chiliwist to the Methow Valley. Some of those roads are rough — particularly after fall mudslides — but some, including Three Devils Road, still provide access across the ridge.
Gamble Land and Timber, which owns much of the land surrounding Three Devils Road, submitted a petition to the Okanogan County commissioners on Feb. 17 asking the county to vacate a three-mile section of the road. The petition contends that the affected portions of the road are “completely contained within private property and have no value to the general public.”
In a separate statement provided by Clay Gebbers, the representative for Gamble Land and Timber, Gebbers said that they are seeking to vacate the road to protect their private property rights, to prevent illegal dumping and poaching of livestock and game, and to protect rangelands from noxious weeds.
The petition also asserts that the fact that the county has not reimbursed Gamble Land for road repairs shows that the road “is of no value to the general public.”
But residents of the Chiliwist say the road has considerable public value. About 40 of them organized as the Coalition of Chiliwist Residents & Friends in late March and hired a lawyer to fight the proposed closure. They say that the road leads to state land and lakes, as well as to U.S. Forest Service property around the South Summit of the Loup.
Of particular concern to a community devastated by the Carlton Complex Fire — where about half of the total residences burned — is the prospect of eliminating an evacuation route, said coalition member Joneen Ingram.
About four routes lead out in different directions, but Three Devils Road is the only road that goes west, said coalition member Ruth Hall.
“In the 12 years I’ve lived here, we have had fire on all four sides,” said Ingram. People used Three Devils Road during the Carlton Complex Fire because they were trapped, she said.
Area residents say they also use the road regularly to connect with other back roads to Brewster or to Highway 20 over the Loup.
Petition to county hearing examiner
At an initial public hearing on the proposed vacation before the county commissioners on March 17, the commissioners decided to follow a recommendation from Okanogan County Planning Director Perry Huston to have the county’s hearing examiner review the road-closure request instead. That hearing, before Hearing Examiner Dan Beardslee, is set for Thursday (April 9). Beardslee will provide his recommendation to the commissioners, who make the final decision.
Ingram, Hall and other coalition members met at Hall’s Chiliwist home on Monday (April 6) to strategize for Thursday’s hearing. “We plan to show that we use the road and that the county maintains it,” said Hall, president of the coalition.
But the coalition’s first move will be to ask the county’s hearing examiner to recuse himself from the matter. In a March 31 letter to the county, the coalition’s attorney, Barnett Kalikow, points to what he says are several potential conflicts of interest involving Beardslee.
Kalikow says Beardslee’s position as a land-use consultant with Erlandsen, a land-development company based in Brewster, coupled with Gamble Land and Timber’s economic clout in the county, pose a potential conflict of interest. Kalikow also points to the fact that Beardslee and Jon Wyss are cofounders of the Okanogan County Coalition for Property Rights. Wyss submitted documents to the county on behalf of Gamble Land.
“It has everything to do with the history. These guys [the neighbors] have tried to stop them [Gebbers] from vacating roads before, but all these other methods didn’t work” so we hired a lawyer, said Hall.
Letters oppose road closure
The three dozen letters to the county from area residents virtually all oppose closing the road. In addition, the coalition submitted petitions with 110 signatories seeking to stop the road closure.
“The proposition to abandon the Three Devils Road is a terribly dangerous and selfish proposal,” wrote Rodney Shrader, who owns property in the Chiliwist.
“To even consider closing off a public road that is a possible exit in case of emergency is unconscionable considering what the residents of the Chiliwist went through,” wrote Norma Brooks and Jessica Irwin.
In a letter punctuated repeatedly by the refrain “THIS ROAD IS USEFUL!” Jason Butler wrote, “The thought of closing this road for the benefit of a large corporation is dismaying. … If this fire had come from the opposite direction, our only exit would have been … Three Devil’s Road. If you lock off an exit, the blame for loss of lives will be directly on your shoulders.”
One letter writer said her son-in-law had traveled on Three Devils Road to warn them about the approaching fire. “If the road was closed he would have been trapped and more than likely be killed,” she wrote.
County engineer Josh Thomson examined Three Devils Road on March 12. His report states that “it appears the portion of right-of-way being petitioned for vacation is currently used minimally by the adjoining property owners.”
“The public will be neither be benefitted nor inconvenienced by the vacation and abandonment of this road and right of way,” concluded Thomson.
A history provided by the county states that the road was adopted as part of the county road system in 1955. It estimated an average of three vehicles a day used the road in 2005.
Several letter writers pointed to the historic significance of the route. The tribal archaeologist for the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation wrote that the road is within the traditional territory of the Okanogan Tribe. “We believe that the closure of this road segment has a high potential to affect cultural resources,” he wrote.
Access to public lands
Many letter writers say elected officials have a responsibility to preserve access to public lands. “There is state land right in the middle of the requested closure. … Our tax dollars pay for this land and we should not be locked out of it,” wrote one.
“On the one hand, the County Commissioners talk about expanding ATV [all-terrain vehicle] riding, and on the other hand, they are closing roads. The Commissioners need to represent all the users of the Three Devils Road,” wrote Orin Hamblen.
The road is one that has been opened to ATVs.
The Gamble petition states that the western end of the section they seek to vacate has been gated by the Forest Service.
The road has been gated intermittently as the Forest Service performs road maintenance, according to a March 16 letter from the Forest Service road manager. “The closure of this gate would be for relatively short time periods and should not be construed as a management decision to close the road long term,” he wrote.
While the gate — at one end of the three-mile stretch Gamble seeks to vacate — was closed as recently as last week, the gate was locked in an open position on Monday (April 6). From the gate, it is about half a mile to paved Forest Road 41, which leads to Benson Creek or the South Summit.
Signs tacked to burned trees along the road indicate that the road crosses a research plot for the Washington Department of Natural Resources (DNR). In a letter to the county, the DNR engineer wrote that the agency had no formal comments since access to state trust lands would be preserved under another easement.
The county engineer said the county performs “little to no maintenance” on Three Devils Roads. In 2013 and 2014, the county spent between $2,300 and $3,100 annually, but this year the county has already spent $3,300 to repair storm damage, according to county records.
In his statement supporting the vacation, Gebbers wrote that Gamble Land has maintained the road annually since acquiring the adjacent land in the 1990s. The company also repaired damage caused by the Carlton Complex Fire and floods last September, which Gebbers said cost $35,000.
Almost all the land traversed by the road was burned severely in the Carlton Complex Fire and Gamble Land is doing extensive salvage logging in the area.
The public hearing before the hearing examiner is Thursday (April 9) at 10 a.m. in the commissioners’ hearing room in Okanogan. For more information, contact Kellie Jo Conn, administrative secretary for the county planning department, at (509) 422-7214 or firstname.lastname@example.org. People can testify at the hearing or submit comments to Conn in advance.