By Marcy Stamper
As all-terrain vehicle (ATV) enthusiasts seek more places to ride, and conservation organizations try to protect fragile lands, the groups continue to cut each other off at the pass.
The latest volleys are over county roads in the Methow Valley and proposed ATV routes in the national forest.
The North Central ATV Club has asked the Okanogan County commissioners to reduce the speed limit on several roads, which would create the possibility of longer, uninterrupted ATV routes in the Methow Valley.
In petitions submitted May 18, the club has asked the commissioners to lower the speed limit to 35 miles per hour on portions of East Chewuch Road, Bear Creek Road, Twisp-Winthrop Eastside Road and Upper Beaver Creek Road.
By connecting these short segments, ATV riders could go all the way from Twisp or Winthrop to Conconully — a two-hour ride — instead of having to trailer their vehicles to the Beaver Creek campground or the Loup Loup summit, said Ed Surette, a board member of the North Central ATV Club.
State law allows cities and counties to open roads with a speed limit of 35 mph or lower to wheeled ATVs. Without the reduction in speed limit, these roads would not be eligible as ATV routes.
Reducing the speed limit does not automatically open the roads to ATVs, since that would require action by the commissioners, but it does make the roads eligible, said Okanogan County Engineer Josh Thomson.
The Twisp and Winthrop city councils have both declined to allow ATVs on town streets, so those policies would have to change before people could ride within the towns.
The ATV club believes the expanded routes would provide economic advantages for towns at both ends of the routes by allowing all-day outings with meal stops, said Surette.
If approved, the new speed limits would affect 1.6 miles outside Winthrop, from the intersection of East Chewuch Road and Studhorse Mountain Road to where Bear Creek Road switches from pavement to gravel.
The changes could also affect 1.9 miles from Twisp to Balky Hill Road via the Twisp-Winthrop Eastside Road, plus another 0.6 miles on Upper Beaver Creek Road, heading north from the intersection with Balky Hill to the end of the pavement. Riders could then continue on state or U.S. Forest Service roads.
Gravel roads in the county, which have a speed limit of 35 mph unless otherwise posted, have already been opened to ATVs by the commissioners.
Okanogan County Public Works staff will install traffic counters to help determine a safe operating speed, said Thomson. He will report his findings to the commissioners at a public hearing on June 30, at 2:45 p.m. in the commissioners’ hearing room in Okanogan. People can comment on the speed-limit proposal at the hearing, or in advance to firstname.lastname@example.org.
USFS routes challenged
An announcement last month by the U.S. Forest Service that the agency would allow ATVs to ride on select roads in the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest drew a prompt objection from seven environmental organizations. The new routes provide about 150 miles of riding and are slated to open June 26.
In a May 29 letter to the deputy forest supervisor, the conservation groups contend that opening the roads to ATVs violates national environmental laws. The Forest Service must assess the likely environmental consequences of allowing ATVs to ride on forest roads before opening them, they say.
“The bottom line is, you’ve got to let the public know what’s going on and let them comment,” said Melanie Rowland, a board member of the Methow Valley Citizens’ Council (MVCC), one of the groups that signed the letter.
In addition, since the Okanogan-Wenatchee forest is revising its travel-management plan and will release a new map at the end of September, the groups say it is premature to allow ATVs to use the roads now.
A 2005 travel-management rule closed all off-road areas to motorized travel in national forests around the country as the forests update their plans. The travel-planning process includes a detailed review of all roads, which can then be opened on an individual basis, according to Jennifer Zbyszewski, recreation program manager for the Methow Valley Ranger District.
The formal travel-management revision involves public input, but the Forest Service can designate these trial ATV routes through a separate process, according to Cathy Dowd, public affairs officer with the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest.
The process for creating ATV routes included a review by rider groups and environmental organizations. Their recommendations were evaluated by Forest Service staff, and only those roads where there was no risk of environmental damage were selected, said Dowd.
After working with the agency and other groups, Conservation Northwest, one of the participants, wrote its own letter to the Forest Service in May expressing concern about the lack of a formal monitoring plan and saying they felt they had been relegated to an advisory function.
The groups that worked together to come up with the routes are holding their final meeting on Wednesday (June 10) to set ground rules for trail monitoring before the June 26 opening date, said Surette.
Members of the ATV club and environmental groups — including MVCC — will ride together to document baseline conditions on the Forest Service roads before they open so they can compare the condition at the end of the season, said Surette.
“We are participating in the baseline information gathering at the Forest Service’s request to make sure that, if there is damage after the roads are opened, we know the baseline monitoring was adequate,” said Rowland.
The letter to the Forest Service was signed by MVCC, the Alpine Lakes Protection Society, the Washington State Chapter of the Sierra Club, the North Cascades Conservation Council, El Sendero Backcountry Ski and Snowshoe Club, Washington Wild, and the Kittitas Audubon Society. None of those organizations helped identify the routes, although MVCC received updates from the other conservation groups after the meetings got underway, according to Rowland.
Staff for the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest and the northwest regional office are still working on their response, said Dowd.