County reviews options in District 3; will consider other locations also
By Marcy Stamper
An additional 368 miles of roads, primarily in northeastern Okanogan County, may be opened to wheeled all-terrain vehicles (ATVs), based on a proposal by the county commissioners.
The new review of roads suitable for ATV riders comes after the commissioners rescinded previous county ordinances following a 2016 ruling by the state Court of Appeals. That decision said the county was required to evaluate the potential for damage to sensitive environmental areas from allowing ATVs to use the roads.
The new proposal would open roads in District 3, which includes Omak, Tonasket and Oroville. There are also 7 miles of roads that currently have a speed limit over 35 miles per hour (mph) where the county is proposing lowering the speed limit and then opening the roads to ATVs.
The commissioners held a public meeting in August for input about the proposed routes and solicited public comment.
In conjunction with the new proposal, Public Works has released a list of roads and recommendations regarding their suitability for wheeled ATVs. Wheeled ATVs are a special class of off-road vehicles that have safety equipment such as lights and mirrors, plus a special license.
The list includes almost 60 miles of roads that could legally be opened to wheeled ATVs but have been eliminated from consideration. These are primarily primitive roads less than a mile long.
The proposal also identifies another 818 miles of roads throughout the county, including the Methow Valley, that are not currently under consideration for ATVs, either because they are over 35 mph or because they are not in District 3.
Roads in other districts will be considered for ATV use “as time and staffing allows,” according to the checklist prepared by Okanogan County Planning Director Perry Huston under the state Environmental Policy Act (SEPA).
Another 85 miles were already open to ATVs before a 2013 state law allowed counties to open all 35-mph roads to ATVs. The status of those 85 miles will not change. The entire county road system is 1,338 miles.
Huston’s review states that, as a result of allowing ATVs to use these roads, “there may be potential for significant adverse environmental impacts.” The environmental determination specifically notes the potential for “damage to critical areas such as wetlands, sensitive plant species, or highly erodible areas” if riders leave the roadway and illegally ride in these areas. Roads adjacent or leading to sensitive areas were removed from the proposal as a result of public input, according to the SEPA checklist.
To minimize the possibility of damage from illegal riding, the county is proposing signs informing riders that they must remain on the roadway, as well as signs identifying specific critical areas adjacent to the road.
The commissioners are also considering an ordinance that would specifically outlaw illegal operation of ATVs and impose extra fines for illegal off-road use.
The commissioners will consult with state and federal land-management agencies and the public about enforcement concerns. They also plan to conduct an annual review of the routes and any impacts to critical areas, to be completed by March of each year.
One objective of adding more options for ATV riders is to avoid concentrating ATV use — and associated exhaust and air pollution — in any one area, according to the checklist.
The county ordinances that were rescinded opened all county roads 35 mph and below to the vehicles, almost 600 miles total. The Methow Valley Citizens Council and Conservation Northwest filed a lawsuit in 2014, which successfully argued that the county was required to look at conditions on individual roads, such as proximity to wetlands or fragile ecosystems.
The lawsuit also contended that the county had to take into account the possibility that ATV riders would be tempted to illegally ride off-road, where they could damage sensitive areas.
Maps and other documents about the proposal are available on the Planning Department website at www.okanogancounty.org/planning.