State’s new road access law confuses ATV riders

CORRECTION: Gary Prewitt is an active member of the Eastern Washington ATV Association, but not the group’s president. He is an officer in a group that broke off from EWATVA called Eastern Washington Search and Rescue.

A law enacted last year by the Washington Legislature to amend guidelines on all-terrain vehicles was hailed by ATV enthusiasts as a way to increase access to rural lanes and national forest roads.

In some parts of the state, it has.

It has also created confusion about where it’s legal to ride and fueled frustration over the Forest Service’s inconsistent interpretations of its own rules.

With everything House Bill 1632 did to update rules on ATV use – setting minimum age limits and requiring safety equipment and state-issued metal tags – motorized user groups thought the national forests in the state would fall in line with those in several other western states where ATV use is commonplace on federal and state lands.

That didn’t happen.

Several counties – Kittitas, Chelan and Douglas among them – and rural communities such as Prosser, East Wenatchee and Cashmere, used the new law to adopt ordinances allowing street-legal ATVs on some or all of their roads with speed limits of 35 mph or slower.

Other counties took action earlier. Stevens County commissioners passed a county ordinance in 2012 that allows ATVs to operate on most county-managed roads.

But national forests in the state have remained off-limits.

In March, Mike Balboni, supervisor of the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest – the only federal forest in the state without a map delineating what roads are open to what type of motorized use – said he believed ATVs could use the roads in his forest since there was no rule expressly forbidding it.

Officials at the Forest Service’s Portland-based Region 6 headquarters disagreed with his interpretation, which led to Balboni’s May 15 letter to various media outlets reversing his earlier statement.

The new 37-page law details the requisite equipment and circumstances under which an ATV can be driven “upon any public roadway of this state.” But the criteria are followed by this six-word caveat: “not including nonhighway roads and trails.”

One of the law’s definitions of a nonhighway road is “any road owned or managed by a public agency.”

“The act itself excludes national forest roads,” Balboni said recently at a Cashmere work session of groups and agencies impacted by the law.

To some motorized-access supporters of the bill, that was a catch-22.

“We plugged every hole the Forest Service had been telling us needed to be plugged over the years,” said Gary Prewitt, president of the Eastern Washington ATV Association. “And then when 1632 passed, they reneged on everything.”

Bob Schafer of Gleed, a retired state wildlife enforcement captain and an avid ATV user, knew the new state law wouldn’t open national forest land to ATVs but remains frustrated.

Schafer’s two recreational vehicles, an ATV and a wider-wheel-base utility-task vehicle (UTV), are equipped with all of the law’s safety requirements, except the metal license plates that the state didn’t make available until this month. But so far, all of his best riding experiences have occurred in other states.

“This is street-legal in Idaho, Arizona and Utah on their public roads,” Schafer said, gesturing to his UTV. “Each state has its own rules (governing ATV use on public roads), and Washington is the only one with this 35 mph thing.

“It would be street-legal here, but there are no streets it could be operated on in this county.”

Schafer can legally drive his vehicle on hundreds of miles of county roads in Douglas or Chelan counties or, to a lesser degree, in Kittitas County. Kittitas commissioners last month approved an ordinance allowing ATV use on certain county roads, but the lack of connectivity with other trails that would allow loop trails prompted one ATV online forum poster to describe the county’s plan as “a lot of roads to nowhere.”

That’s still more roads than Schafer could use in Spokane County or Yakima County, which has been petitioned by two groups to consider an ATV roads ordinance.

“Doing a real quick tally of all the eligible roads, that would be 302 miles of (county roads) 35 mph and lower,” said Yakima County engineer Gary Ekstedt. “Right now, the commissioners just want to do some fact-finding and figure out the best way to respond.”

The motorized-use community was excited about the potential of increased access as the bill was debated. Their environmental counterparts, Conservation Northwest and Trout Unlimited, were in it more for the accountability that came with the newly mandated metal tags, enabling easy identification of those who might be tearing up the landscape.

When Okanogan County commissioners responded to the 1632 passage by opening all of their low-speed county roads to ATVs, Conservation Northwest filed suit to stop them.

Gregg Bafundo of Trout Unlimited said conservationists hoped for a more gradual implementation.

“I don’t see how an ATV following me up a dirt road in my Toyota Tundra does any more damage to that road than my Tundra does,” he said. “But what I do see is that it’s easier for that ATV to quickly hang a right and drive up a user-built trail, or create user-built trails.”

He said the Teanaway Community Forest includes roughly 12 miles of roads open to ATVs, and another 300 miles of unofficial roads created by motorized users who repeatedly ventured off the road system.

While Schafer notes that the average ATVer in Washington is at least 50 years old and a responsible rider, the conservation groups point out that a small group of irresponsible motorized users can inflict a lot of slow-healing land damage in a short time.

“A lot of other people go out and use public lands, and many of them don’t use ATVs or motorized vehicles, but they see a lot of damage caused by illegal behavior,” said Dave Werntz of Conservation Northwest. “So there’s this association between ATV use and illegal behavior. Right or wrong, it exists.”

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