Study generates maps, identifies needs
Okanogan County is one step closer to creating a network of dependable back roads so people in an ordinary passenger car can visit friends, conduct business, hunt — and, most important, get to safety in an emergency.
Researchers provided their report on the first phase of the Okanogan County Backroads Study to the Okanogan Council of Governments (OCOG) earlier this summer. The first set of maps from the county and state and federal agencies has been posted on the OCOG website.
For now, these maps are unedited versions of county, state and federal agency maps. But putting them in one place has allowed planners to compare them and start building a linked network of key roadways, said principal researcher Thera Black, a transportation planner with 3 P Transportation Services.
In an area as large as Okanogan County, coming up with the road network can seem like an overwhelming task. But the goal became more straightforward as she gathered data, Black said.
Existing emergency plans and consultation with city and county officials helped build an essential list of “rural clusters of activity” — towns like Winthrop and Omak; unincorporated places like Malott and Synarep; and airports and utility corridors, Black said.
After state highways that serve the county were closed during wildfires in 2014 and 2015, the need for a dependable road network in the county became alarmingly clear. Creating a coordinated map to get people out safely in an emergency was the motivating factor for OCOG, Black said. OCOG oversees the county’s transportation planning and has made a unified road network a regional priority.
Not only is this project a first for Okanogan County, but compiling a usable network of back roads also appears to be a first in the Western United States, Black said. “It’s hard for me to believe that Okanogan County is the first to do this. If they are, I want them to get recognition,” she said.
The researchers are calling this a “backroads study” because some terms, like “primitive roads,” have a specific legal meaning.
Needed: coordination, money
As expected, Black found little active coordination between the county and the state and federal agencies that own and manage roads, since they all have different mandates. But she was pleased to find the agencies were open to working together to create a comprehensive road network.
Black expects to get more input from the U.S. Forest Service and the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) this fall, when their seasonal projects slow down.
Black has also uncovered challenges. Most land-management agencies don’t have funding to do road maintenance and repairs. In the past few decades, the Forest Service has had to abandon some roads simply because they don’t have the money — or staff — to repair them, Black said.
The cumulative lack of funding is having serious effects. “It’s not just Okanogan County and the Forest Service. There is a slow-motion crisis building in our collective transportation system,” Black said.
Black hopes that a coordinated road network could redirect scarce funds. For example, there may be more money for emergency management than for transportation. And having a network could enable agencies to share costs and resources for maintenance, she said.
There are many reasons roads may not be passable. Some are unmaintained or washed out, but others are simply blocked.
“Every agency consulted spoke of regularly finding their public-use roads illegally closed off with boulders, gates, or logs as some rural residents try to limit access to ‘their’ road,” Black wrote in the report.
Staff of the Okanogan County Public Utility District expressed frustration at finding some of these critical access roads have been closed off by gates, she wrote.
Once the researchers have combined all the county, state and federal roads on one map, they’ll ask the general public for feedback. They’ll also talk with fire districts, farmers and ranchers, and utilities and telecommunications providers.
The back-roads study may also be helpful to county planners as people settle in increasingly remote areas. What would it cost the county to maintain a road to serve people at the far end of the network? Black said.
“Maybe people who build there need an extra warning that there’s only one way in and out,” Black said.
With a developed back-roads network to consult, people could decide whether they’re willing to take full responsibility for their safety. “It’s a tension between private rights and the expectation of government services,” Black said.
This fall, Black is talking with agency reps to fill in the blanks, but completing the work to narrow down the roads for the essential network will require more funding. She’s looking toward several grant opportunities this fall, in conjunction with OCOG and state and federal land managers.
“OCOG is really a symbol in Washington state of the power of regional, rural collaboration,” Black said. “It’s a part of the state where people would least expect a volunteer group of governments to take this on.”
Maps and other information are available on OCOG’s website at www.ocog.org.