Public input, agency review required before changing road access, they say
By Marcy Stamper
Three environmental and recreation groups have filed a lawsuit claiming that the U.S. Forest Service failed to follow environmental laws that require public input and an analysis of road conditions before allowing ATVs to use the roads.
The complaint, filed in U.S. District Court in Seattle on June 30, charges that the Forest Service violated federal law, its own travel-management rule and executive orders dating from the Nixon and Carter administrations when it opened 350 miles of roads to wheeled all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) in the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest on June 26.
The travel-management rule came out in 2005 and should have been the mechanism for deciding whether to create new ATV routes, but the Forest Service handled these routes separately, said Karl Forsgaard, president of Alpine Lakes Protection Society, one of the three plaintiffs.
Planners for the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest have been working on the travel-management plan and are expected to issue a document that incorporates public input gathered in the 10-year process this summer, said Forsgaard.
Okanogan-Wenatchee is the only forest in Washington that hasn’t finished its travel-planning process, which will result in new maps that show all roads and trails and the types of motor vehicles allowed to use them.
“We’re on the verge of seeing it—that’s one of the things that’s so odd. ORVs [off-road vehicles] fit within the travel-management process nationwide,” said Forsgaard.
This is not the first time the Okanogan-Wenatchee has been challenged on its policy regarding ATV access in the forest. The agency has flip-flopped on the issue several times since a new Washington ATV law was passed in 2013.
After the Forest Service said in March 2014 that its managers could not prohibit licensed, wheeled ATVs from using Forest Service roads, the Methow Valley Citizens’ Council and Conservation Northwest challenged the decision on similar grounds in a letter to the Forest Service. The agency reversed its decision and declared the roads off-limits again two months later.
From the perspective of ATV riders, a long-standing Forest Service policy that permitted off-road vehicles licensed to use public highways to also use forest roads became more restrictive as the agency tried to clarify its policy in light of the state law, said Paul Tillman, a member of the Methow Valley Chapter of the North Central ATV Club, last year.
The Alpine Lakes Protection Society is joined by Kittitas Audubon Society and the Sierra Club in the lawsuit. The plaintiffs were not among the environmental groups that worked with ATV rider groups and the Forest Service to come up with the new routes and a procedure to use volunteers to monitor them. Some of those groups separately criticized the process, saying their concerns about environmental damage had not been addressed.
The Forest Service is reviewing the complaint but cannot comment on litigation, according to Cathy Dowd, public affairs officer with the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest. No dates have been set for further briefing or a court hearing.