As the Okanogan County commissioners look at potential routes for wheeled all-terrain vehicles (WATVs) in the Methow Valley, they’re consulting with land-management agencies about the routes and the potential for disturbance of environmentally sensitive areas.
The commissioners met with four representatives from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) last week. WDFW manages the 35,200 acres in the Methow Wildlife Area — all off-limits to motorized vehicles of any kind.
One of WDFW’s biggest concerns is how to keep ATVs on the road, WDFW Habitat Biologist Mallory Hirschler told the commissioners. Since all the routes under consideration go through WDFW lands, the agency needs assurance that riders won’t drive WATVs onto critical areas, she said.
Although WATVs aren’t currently allowed on any roads in the Methow — whether they’re county, state or U.S. Forest Service roads — people have driven ATVs on county roads and even off-road, damaging sensitive habitat for plants and animals. “One vehicle can leave a scar forever in a shrub-steppe,” Assistant Regional Wildlife Program Manager Brandon Troyer told the commissioners, noting that tracks are still visible in parts of the wildlife area.
After repeated violations off Lester Road, an Okanogan County road that connects Bear Creek and Beaver Creek roads, WDFW tested several approaches to block access, including posts, gates and boulders. The illegal activity appears to have subsided and there haven’t been problems in the past year, Troyer said. Troyer was the Methow Wildlife Area manager until recently.
The North Central ATV Club has repeatedly proposed WATV routes in the Methow to the commissioners. The current proposal encompasses about 50 miles of routes, including Boulder Creek to Lost River, Poorman Creek to Blackpine Lake, and Lester Road and Beaver Creek. The commissioners have opened more than 500 miles of WATV routes in other parts of the county.
WDFW is concerned about impacts to sensitive lands and bodies of water near the proposed routes. For example, if Lester Road became part of a WATV route, riders may be tempted to go to Campbell Lake, particularly in hot weather. “That lake’s going to entice folks that want to spin down there,” Troyer said.
Lester Road is also close to trails at Pipestone Canyon, and “the last thing we want” is having ATVs in Pipestone Canyon, Troyer said. Existing gates should help deter people from riding there, he said.
In recent years, WDFW has also addressed repeated violations near Sullivan Pond, where campers drove off-road vehicles up steep hillsides. Law enforcement handled that situation, Troyer said.
Washington created a complex system of regulations a decade ago, when the Legislature passed a law allowing counties to open roads with a speed limit of 35 miles per hour (mph) or less to WATVs. WATVs are a special class of off-road vehicle equipped with safety features such as lights and rear-view mirrors — and with a license plate that was intended to aid with enforcement. But there are many types of off-road vehicles, and riders may not be familiar with all applicable regulations, according to WDFW.
The range of regulations makes enforcement difficult. There are different rules about access for county, state and federal roads, but riders typically don’t know who manages a road or what the rules are, Troyer said.
Much of the problem appears to stem from lack of education. Because most roads are open to regular vehicles — everything from Volvos to pick-up trucks to dirt bikes — someone on an ATV may simply follow another vehicle onto a road that’s off-limits, Okanogan County Commissioner Andy Hover said. The fact that different counties have different rules also makes enforcement difficult, he said.
Sometimes officers issue civil or criminal citations, but law enforcement agencies are overwhelmed and it’s hard to do active patrols, WDFW Sergeant Troy McCormick told the commissioners. Laws for motorcycles and dirt bikes are different, which complicates matters, he said.
Counties across the state have experimented with different types of signage (such as green dots and red x’s) to indicate whether a road is open or closed to WATVs, but most off-road riders don’t understand what the signs mean, McCormick said.
Even if a sign says “No WATVs,” someone with another type of off-road vehicle — like a four-wheeler or a side-by-side — may not understand and is likely to follow the road, Troyer said. Some off-road-vehicle riders think that once they have registration and a license plate, they can go anywhere, McCormick said.
Having clear rules on a map could help, but if an area appears open, a small percentage of people will ride all over the place, Okanogan County Commissioner Chris Branch said. The ATV club has offered to help with education and enforcement, he said.
WATV routes in Okanogan County
The Okanogan County commissioners have opened roads in other parts of the county (Districts 1 and 3) to WATVs, but efforts to designate routes in the Methow have stalled because of opposition and the need to protect sensitive areas.
Creating routes in other parts of the county was also not straightforward. After the WATV law was passed, a previous board of commissioners opened every county road of 35 mph or less to the vehicles. The Methow Valley Citizens Council and Conservation Northwest successfully sued the county, arguing that state environmental laws required the county to analyze the routes to be sure they wouldn’t put fragile areas like meadows or wetlands at risk.
After a road-by-road environmental review, the commissioners opened more than 500 miles of roads, eliminating some that were close to environmentally sensitive areas.
The ATV club wants day-long excursions where they can ride to Winthrop and have lunch. The commissioners are still trying to figure out how that would work, since Winthrop doesn’t allow ATVs to travel on streets in town, Hover said.
The routes proposed by the ATV club all include Forest Service roads. Without those roads, it doesn’t make sense to open routes in the Methow, because the roads are a key part of longer loops, Hover told WDFW.
The commissioners discussed the potential for opening U.S. Forest Service roads to ATVs with Methow Valley District Ranger Chris Furr in November. Furr and the commissioners have asked the Methow Valley Trails Collaborative if the group would be willing to facilitate discussions about ATV routes as part of the planning process. The trails collaborative will discuss the request at its February meeting.
The commissioners are trying to balance different recreational interests. Hover said he enjoys riding ATVs and motorcycles, particularly on rough roads that aren’t appropriate for a pick-up truck. He also likes to hike and acknowledged that it can be annoying to find someone has driven to the place you’ve hiked to.
“I know that there’s people out there who are just are adamantly opposed to anything motorized. That’s fine; I understand why. But we share this planet with everybody, and so we have to try to compromise,” Hover said.
WDFW will provide input and recommendations to the commissioners to use in planning before they start the environmental review, WDFW North Central Region Director Brock Hoenes said.
There’s no clear timeline for reviewing ATV routes in the Methow, in part because of the Forest Service’s requirements for updating its travel management plan, Hover said.
The commissioners are focusing on three main ATV routes in the Methow:
• A route from Conconully to Boulder Creek to connect via West Chewuch Road to Cub Creek so riders could continue to Yellowjacket in Mazama.
• A route connecting Poorman Creek Road to Blackpine Lake and heading over the ridge via Antoine Creek to Manson.
• A route from Lester Road to Beaver and Lightning Creek roads that would connect with the Loup Loup area or Conconully.