Seeking access to existing routes
The Okanogan County commissioners are considering a proposal from the North Central ATV (NCATV) Club to open most county roads in the Methow Valley to wheeled all-terrain vehicles (WATVs) so that riders can connect to U.S. Forest Service roads and other backroads.
The club has asked the commissioners to allow WATVs to ride on portions of Twisp River Road, East and West Chewuch roads, the Twisp-Winthrop East County Road and the Twisp-Carlton Road. They also seek access to Gunn Ranch, Balky Hill, Bear Creek and other gravel roads.
State law allows counties to open roads with speed limits of 35 miles per hour (mph) or less to WATVs, which are a special classification that requires mirrors, turn signals, horns and other safety features, plus special registration tags.
Because most of the roads in question have speed limits of 40 or 50 mph, the county would have to reduce the speed limit or set a dual speed limit, Okanogan County Commissioner Andy Hover said during the March 6 discussion with members of the NCATV Club.
Many people like to start a ride from their home, so access on county roads to reach the national forest is critical, NCATV Club president Spencer King told the commissioners.
Opportunities for motorized recreation in Okanogan County are “huge” and would bring in significant revenue to the county, King said. Having access to these roads in the Methow would enable riders to do a loop on forest roads and to ride into town for something to eat, he said.
Some of the roads have many curves with posted advisory speeds of 35 mph or lower, but others have straight stretches where higher speeds are appropriate, Hover said. While lowering the speed limit on roads with lots of curves is feasible, in other areas, the higher speed is justified, he said. The commissioners may explore the option of dual-posted roads, where cars and trucks could travel at 50 mph, while WATVs would be limited to 35 mph.
Ferry County has changed regulations on some roads so that all vehicles must travel at 35 mph when WATVs are present, King said. West Curlew Lake Road has a variable speed limit so people can get to lake resorts, but otherwise, WATVs are restricted to roads that are 35 mph or lower, according to the Ferry County clerk of the board.
By state law, all paved roads are 50 mph unless otherwise posted. All unpaved roads are 35 mph unless otherwise posted. The law allows jurisdictions to set and post altered speed limits for different types of vehicles, times of day, or weather conditions.
The club made a similar proposal last year. At the time, the commissioners eliminated Gunn Ranch Road because of safety concerns near Lewis Butte and Riser Lake, where people often park on the road rather than use the parking lot, which requires a state pass. Being able to travel on Gunn Ranch Road opens up “a phenomenal amount of riding” in the Rendezvous, connecting with Sweetgrass Butte and Banker Pass, NCATV Club member and Methow Valley resident Joe Caillier told the commissioners.
The club has had informal discussions with representatives from the town of Winthrop about allowing WATVs to ride in town, but the town has been reluctant to make changes since the vehicles can’t travel on the roads that lead into Winthrop, Caillier said.
WATV riders want to be able to travel legally on all the logging roads in the area, which are already open to people in jeeps, on motorbikes, and in regular automobiles, King said.
The club also asked the commissioners to allow WATVs to ride on county roads east of the Loup Loup summit so they can connect to existing ATV routes. They’ve asked the commissioners to set dual speed limits for regular vehicles and WATVs. New WATVs are quite capable of traveling at highway speeds on pavement without any issues, King said.
The club asked to meet with the commissioners because they hadn’t heard back from them after submitting the proposal last year, King told the Methow Valley News.
After the state WATV law was passed in 2013, the Okanogan County commissioners immediately opened all county roads of 35 mph or less to ATVs. They were compelled to close the roads to the vehicles after a lawsuit filed by the Methow Valley Citizens Council and Conservation Northwest, which successfully argued that the county first had to do an environmental analysis to be sure that allowing ATVs to use roads didn’t jeopardize sensitive areas like wetlands and meadows.
After the environmental analysis, the commissioners opened roads in other parts of the county to ATVs, but they decided to wait to assess suitable roads in the Methow.
The Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest also initially allowed ATVs to use its roads, but withdrew the access because the change had to be considered as part of a larger transportation plan.
Some people are concerned that the nature of WATVs, which are designed to travel on any terrain, could tempt some riders to drive through wetlands and other fragile areas.
Opening the roads to WATVs would require an environmental review, including input from state and federal land-management agencies, Hover said.
There are almost 530 miles of roads open to WATVs in the county. A road list is available on the Okanogan County website.