Methow District is part of agency’s review
The Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest plans to resume work on its travel-management plan, which could change motorized access for roads and trails and create new ATV routes in the Methow Valley Ranger District.
Representatives from the Okanogan-Wenatchee forest and Methow Valley District Ranger Chris Furr updated the Okanogan County commissioners about the status of the travel plan on Monday, May 24.
The Forest Service is also looking for ways for the county and the forest to cooperate on travel planning, Furr said. He pointed to the county’s study of its back roads network as a key component in understanding road connections.
Work on the travel plan can’t come soon enough for Okanogan County Commissioner Andy Hover, who’s eager for the Methow to be first on the Forest Service’s list for the road analysis. He hopes the process will lead to routes in the forest for wheeled all-terrain vehicles (WATVs). WATVs are a vehicle category created by state law in 2013.
The Forest Service has been working on the plan for years, but trying to tackle all 3.8 million acres in the forest proved overwhelming, Sendi Kalcic, project lead for the Okanogan-Wenatchee travel plan, told the commissioners.
In 2015, the Forest Service was instructed to close the forest to cross-country travel to comply with a nationwide order. Before that, the entire forest — even areas without roads — was open to motorized travel. It couldn’t be learned by press time whether that change has been implemented.
The Forest Service did a preliminary environmental review the following year, which included a proposal for about 350 miles for WATVs, Kalcic said. The agency’s current focus is to determine which roads are suited to motorized travel. That could open some roads to vehicles, but could close roads where vehicle use is deemed unsuitable, Kalcic said.
Determining roads suitable for WATVs is the primary focus of the review, Kalcic said. Because there are relatively few roads in the Methow Valley open to WATVs, the Forest Service is seeking input about opportunities for those riders, Furr said.
Doing it in stages
The forest has decided to approach travel planning on a smaller, landscape scale, which will more closely follow county boundaries, rather than attempt to tackle all 3.8 million acres in the Okanogan-Wenatchee, Kalcic said. Moreover, the Tonasket Ranger District, which had previously been part of the Okanogan-Wenatchee, was transferred last year to the Colville National Forest.
That’s expected to simplify the process, since that leaves just 740,000 acres in the Methow ranger district. The review won’t include the approximately 400,000 acres in the district that are officially designated as wilderness and therefore already closed to all motorized vehicles.
The travel plan distinguishes between roads and trails. There are currently no trails in the Methow Valley Ranger District open to ATVs or other off-road vehicles. There are about 41 miles open to motorcycles and less than 1 mile for mixed-use, Kalcic said.
The 740,000 acres contain about 1,600 miles of roads, which are designated by five maintenance levels governing the types of vehicles that can use them. One level is for Forest Service maintenance and not open to the public, Kalcic said.
Who goes first?
Now that the Forest Service has narrowed its focus, they’re getting in touch with key partners — including Okanogan County — to plan the next steps.
Although the Forest Service aims to streamline the process by breaking up the areas into smaller chunks, it’ll still be a while before the road analysis and environmental review are complete. Because they’re looking at multiple ranger districts and counties within the forest, the agency plans a staggered approach over the next five years, with a final decision by 2026. They don’t know which region will be first on the list, Kalcic said.
Okanogan County has done its own review of roads suitable for WATVs in two of the county’s commissioner districts, but postponed an analysis of District 2, which includes the Methow Valley, because those routes would be short or impractical without connections with Forest Service roads, Hover said.
All roads currently open to cars and trucks should also be open to WATVs, Hover said. Groups like the Methow Valley Trails Collaborative and the North Central ATV Club are eager to participate in the discussion, he said. “I’m going to be honest. I want ATV travel — but not everywhere,” he said.
Okanogan County Commissioner Chris Branch acknowledged that roads open to cars and trucks could theoretically accommodate WATVs. But he cautioned that the nature of WATVs — vehicles designed for any and all terrain — could tempt some riders to ride in streams or across meadows.
The analysis should also consider non-motorized trail users, who might not expect to encounter motorized vehicles in the forest, Branch said.
The third part of travel management, which covers motorized over-snow travel, won’t be part of this review.
There’s still a lot of work before the Forest Service can determine which area will go first and what they need to consider as they finalize the next steps, Okanogan-Wenatchee Public Affairs Officer Victoria Wilkins said.