New environmental review required before roads can be approved for use
By Marcy Stamper
Okanogan County will have to close 597 miles of roads to all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) and do a thorough review of possible environmental impacts before opening any more roads to the vehicles.
The ruling is a result of a decision by the state Supreme Court not to hear the case, which leaves in place a Court of Appeals decision from June 2016 that found the county’s environmental analysis of the impacts of allowing ATVs to use the roads was “almost devoid of specific information.”
Okanogan County had asked the high court to review the case, arguing that it had been filed in the wrong jurisdiction.
The Supreme Court decision brings ends a nearly three-year-long legal battle between the county and the Methow Valley Citizens Council (MVCC) and Conservation Northwest, who filed repeated challenges to the county’s efforts to open additional roads to ATVs.
MVCC and Conservation Northwest contended that allowing ATVs to use all county roads with speed limits of 35 miles per hour (mph) or less would have significant impacts on the environment. The county is required to take these impacts into account, they said.
In a 2-to-1 ruling in June 2016, Court of Appeals agreed that the state Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) requires the county to assess potential impacts on the environment, including on water, air quality, and wildlife habitat. The court ordered county officials to prepare an environmental checklist with a complete disclosure and review of relevant information if the county wants to adopt another ordinance allowing ATVs to travel on county roads.
The environmental review must cover increased traffic, off-road use, noise, and the impact on endangered species caused by both legal and illegal traffic, the court said.
In the 2014 environmental checklist, Okanogan County Planning Director Perry Huston concluded that because ATVs would be traveling on existing roads already used by other vehicles, there would be no new environmental impacts.
“The bottom line is that there is overwhelming evidence from land-management agencies, backcountry hunters and environmental groups of widespread off-road riding,” said Melanie Rowland, an MVCC board member and co-counsel in the lawsuit. “It’s a vexing problem for public-land agencies,” she said.
The county had argued that claims of environmental harm were merely speculative and said the plaintiffs hadn’t pointed to specific roads or areas that would be harmed.
Rowland acknowledged that is unusual to assess the environmental impacts of violations of the law, but said evidence presented to the county of illegal ATV activity, in the state and across the country, was so overwhelming that the Court of Appeals agreed it must be taken into account.
“The county received overwhelming evidence of negative impacts, including evidence of actual off-road riding that damaged specified locations. Photographs confirmed the environmental harm,” said the Court of Appeals judges in their ruling.
But the dissenting Court of Appeals judge wrote, “There will always be people who violate the laws, but we do not measure the environmental impacts of a new regulation by looking to the conduct of those who violate other laws.”
‘Letting the dust settle’
“We have to take all the signs down and basically start over from square one,” said Okanogan County Commissioner Andy Hover last week after learning about the Supreme Court’s decision.
Hover said the commissioners will have to pursue the issue with ATV user groups and environmental groups including MVCC, but said they intend to “let the dust settle a little bit.” Hover said he is confident that county staff have a good sense of what they need to do to create “a good plan that isn’t all or none.”
Now that the Supreme Court has declined to take the case, the Court of Appeals must send a letter to the county within 30 days of the Jan. 4 decision ordering the county to comply with their ruling invalidating the ordinance that opened the 597 miles of roads to ATVs. The county will also have to take down or otherwise obscure the signs stating that roads are open to ATVs, said Rowland.
After that, the county can consider opening roads to ATVs, but must first do a meaningful environmental analysis, which would include location (including whether they traverse environmentally sensitive areas like wetlands), length (some of the roads previously opened were only a fraction of a mile), and the risks of off-road travel, said Rowland. It would include public input and a public hearing.
MVCC is not opposed to allowing ATVs to use some county roads, but “we want them to be sensible,” said Rowland. “Most ATV riders are responsible — absolutely,” she said.
The dispute over where ATVs may travel in the county dates back to a 2013 state law that was intended to increase opportunities for ATV riders while decreasing unlawful and environmentally harmful motorized recreation. It created a new class of wheeled ATVs with safety features and special licenses that could ride on roads of 35 mph or less. Decisions as to which roads would be open to ATVs were left to local jurisdictions.
Immediately after the law went into effect, the Okanogan County commissioners opened all county roads with speed limits under 35 mph to ATVs. They were compelled to close the roads again after a challenge by MVCC and Conservation Northwest over the lack of an environmental review.
The ordinance at issue in this case was adopted in 2014, accompanied by the environmental checklist the Court of Appeals judges deemed inadequate. That environmental review had been upheld in Okanogan County Superior Court in 2014.
Okanogan County has 336 miles of roads that were open to ATVs before 2014. These roads are not affected by the ruling and will remain open.
In an indication of the potential for broader ramifications of the local ATV case, Rowland and Sandy Mackie, the special deputy prosecuting attorney for Okanogan County who handled the ATV case, will conduct a session on the case at a law seminar about the environmental policy act later this month. Law Seminars International calls the Okanogan County lawsuit “an unusual case that raises several interesting SEPA issues.”