OKANOGAN As Okanogan County commissioners mull a potential new ordinance to open about 597 miles of roads for all-terrain vehicle use, comments have poured in for a draft environmental review.
“The ordinance has not been drafted yet,” county Planning Director Perry Huston wrote in an email. “The actual ordinance/resolution won’t be drafted until I have reviewed the comments submitted.”
According to the list of potential roads to be opened, all have speed limits 35 mph or less.
The county’s next steps are to issue a final determination of potential environmental impacts and schedule a public hearing before commissioners can take a vote on a proposed ordinance.
If the ordinance is approved, the new open roads would join 336 miles already open between Malott and Molson.
The ordinance would replace two ordinances the commissioners rescinded in March. The withdrawal of those ordinances passed in July, which had opened more than 600 miles of county roads, settled a lawsuit filed against the county by the Methow Valley Citizens Council and Conservation Northwest.
In response to the draft State Environmental Protection Act checklist and determination of non-significance, issued by the county April 9, both groups still disagree with opening the proposed county roads to ATVs.
In a letter dated May 2, the groups asked the county to issue a determination of significance instead, then prepare an environmental impact statement for the proposal or start the process over with a new proposal.
The groups cited concerns over possible impacts on “sensitive lands and waters,” fish and wildlife habitat, traveling on roads with speed limits higher than 35 mph, law enforcement needs and other vehicles on the road.
They also asked the county to include cost estimates for signs to indicate where ATVs may or may not be driven, as well as monitoring increases in vehicle traffic and animal-versus-vehicle collisions.
“The proposal involves existing county roads already open to vehicle travel,” the county noted in its Determination of Non-Significance. “The average number of daily trips is not anticipated to increase to a point where vehicle density on the roads will cause a significant increase in animal/vehicle collisions.”
In 44 comments sent to the county by Monday morning, opinions covered all sides of the issue while a few citizens merely requested information.
The Colville Confederated Tribes’ planning department noted some concerns with roads opening within tribal boundaries. All reservation lands are closed to unauthorized ATV use by non-tribal members excepting immediate family members.
“Opening up ATV use on the reservation will have significant impact on tribal resources, including but not limited to watersheds, wildlife, and cultural resources,” land use shoreline Administrator Stephanie “Pete” Palmer wrote. “The county and the tribes have a long history of working collaboratively to address land issues. Because of this long history, the tribe is disappointed that this plan was not discussed with the tribe prior to issuance of a public comment period.
“The tribe vehemently opposes the opening of any roads for ATV use within the boundaries of the reservation without tribal consent.”
Longtime ATV rider Tom Windsor of Omak estimated he has ridden more than 20,000 miles over the past 25 years in Washington state.
“Based on this experience and my experience as an Okanogan County Deputy Sheriff, I believe that it is totally safe and appropriate to open these roads to ATVs properly licensed and driven by licensed drivers,” he wrote. “Having also been a motorcycle owner and rider, I believe that the (four-wheel) ATVs are as safe as, if not safer than, a two wheel motorcycle.”
The state Department of Fish and Wildlife said it believes there would be “substantial impacts” if an ordinance is approved. The agency noted concerns about soil erosion, new unauthorized trails, the spread of noxious weeds and interference with non-motorized recreation.
The agency also reiterated concerns over enforcement.
“The original ordinance placed an increased burden on WDFW enforcement staff associated with illegal ATV use on WDFW lands adjacent to roads recently opened to ATV use by the county,” Region 2 Wildlife Program Manager Matthew Monda wrote. “As there is no proposed added enforcement capacity to ensure that these ATVs do not trespass or violate other regulations, including traffic rules, enforcement will rarely occur.”
“As a former manager of the WDFW Methow Wildlife Area, I witnessed first hand the result of your prior decree to open county roads to (ATVs),” resident Tom McCoy wrote. “The SEPA checklist appears to assume that because there is a county ordinance that all users will comply…. I am by no means against (ATV) use on county roads, far from it, but as elected officials you need to be realistic and objective, and act accordingly in the interest of all citizens of Okanogan County.”
North Central ATV Club President Spencer King, whose letter noted support from “170 family memberships,” pointed to a Wall Street Journal article supportive of allowing ATVs to boost rural economies.
But “the economic benefit is only part of the consideration; there is also the benefit of allowing other forms of recreation to access public lands in our area,” King wrote, adding that riders in the ATV Club practice self-enforcement to keep all riders in compliance with the law.
In Tunk Valley, Nancy Soriano said opening some of the roads listed in her area would be on Fish and Wildlife land and could be hazardous to endangered sharp-tailed grouse.
The Methow Valley Snowmobile Association also indicated its support of opening roads.
“As residents of Okanogan County we need to learn how to share the many paved roads, dirt roads and trails that we have,” President Craig Stahl wrote. “All recreationalists should have an equal opportunity to enjoy the outdoors.”
Several more residents, in short emails to the county, also indicated their support.