By Marcy Stamper
Okanogan County’s systematic process to assess roads for use by all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) got high marks from members of the local ATV rider club — and from a conservation group that filed the successful lawsuit which led to the county’s new approach.
A dozen people attended a hearing with the county commissioners on Monday (Nov. 13) to consider 368 miles of ATV routes and a series of approaches — including signs about sensitive areas and higher penalties — to minimize the possibility of environmental damage from illegal riding. All the roads are in District 3, which includes Omak, Tonasket and Oroville.
“I have to give them credit for an improvement in the process,” said Methow Valley Citizens Council (MVCC) member Phil Millam, who attended the hearing. The proposal didn’t seem controversial and the mitigations suggested by the county are appropriate, said Millam. MVCC was one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit over possible environmental impact.
The North Central ATV Club has been happy with the process, said board member Ed Surette. The proposed routes “cover roads people want to ride on, so you could get someplace,” he said.
MVCC commented on the county’s overall proposal but not on specific routes. The organization wanted to leave that to neighbors and people more familiar with that part of the county, said Millam.
Some dead-end roads that lead only to private property may be eliminated from the list if the people who live on the roads don’t plan to ride ATVs, said Okanogan County Planning Director Perry Huston after the meeting.
In addition to soliciting input from ATV riders and the public, the commissioners met with state and federal land-management agencies about routes and enforcement concerns.
In a comment to the commissioners, Carmen Andonaegui, regional habitat program manager for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW), requested that the county exclude certain roads that offer valuable critical habitats for priority species but little recreational benefit to ATV riders. While those roads are not on the county’s list, the agency wanted to be sure they won’t be added, she said.
Some of the county’s remaining discussion is about how to make signs most effective. The county is considering a variety of signs to indicate specific local conditions, such as sensitive environmental areas and areas prone to erosion, said Huston.
“WDFW also appreciates the County’s plan to place additional signage to protect critical areas where there is high likelihood of illegal operation of WATVs [wheeled ATVs]. To increase the opportunity for successful management of this ordinance, WDFW recommends extensive outreach by the County to WATV riders,” said Andonaegui.
Following a recommendation by WDFW, the county is considering posting signs only to indicate roads open to ATVs. Signs indicating a route is closed are sometimes torn down, effectively “opening” the road to illegal riding, said Andonaegui.
In comments to the county, MVCC said the organization supports posting signage adjacent to areas that may be attractive for illegal off-road riding. But MVCC asked for more details about how the county will evaluate whether or not the signs are an effective deterrent.
The county commissioners launched the new review of ATV routes earlier this year after they had to rescind earlier ordinances that opened all roads 35 miles per hour or lower to ATVs. In 2016, a judge with the state Court of Appeals agreed with MVCC and Conservation Northwest, who filed a lawsuit contending that the county was required to evaluate the potential for damage to sensitive environmental areas before letting ATVs use the roads.
Once the process is complete for District 3, the county plans to review possible ATV routes in other parts of the county, including the Methow Valley.
The commissioners continued the hearing but closed public testimony. They will take up the ATV issue again on Monday, Nov. 20, at 1:30 p.m.
At present, there is no draft ordinance to open a specific set of roads, but the commissioners may direct him to prepare one for that meeting, said Huston.