Standing in the newly graveled parking lot at Liberty Lake’s Off-Road Vehicle Park, one wouldn’t know there were whining dirt bikes or buzzing all-terrain vehicles just above on the forested hillside.
“You should be able to hear them if they are still inside the park,” said Derrell Hilgers, implying that the riders had ventured onto someone’s private property. Hilgers owns land adjacent to the park, which borders Idaho.
The battle to keep off-road vehicle park users from trespassing and marring adjacent landowners’ property has been ongoing for nearly two decades. Off-road vehicle enthusiasts insist it’s only a few unruly riders who misbehave, and they don’t want to lose a park that’s unique to the Spokane area.
“What trail riders are seeing is less and less opportunities for places to ride,” said Lonny McNett, who has ridden in Liberty Lake’s Off-Road Vehicle Park for more than 30 years. “In America, if we keep taking away rights because some people can’t conform, then what will we have left?
“Most of the riders who go out there would chastise the disobedient riders.”
That disobedience has taken a toll on neighbors’ land. Five acres burned on Joyce Young’s property after someone had discarded a lighted cigarette. There’s a permanent trail embedded into Ron Knudson’s 150-acre parcel. And trails erode the hillside of Hilgers’ 15-acre piece of property.
More than 4,500 riders use the 350-acre park between March and October.
Spokane County park officials and the Sheriff’s Office received a grant this summer for law enforcement and education efforts. It’s the first time in recent years that the park – founded in 1966 – has had a regular law enforcement presence.
However, it’s not the first time officials have tried to resolve problems between riders and landowners.
A grant in the mid-1990s funded a wood fence along the border and a large sign stating the park’s rules to try to keep trail riders and operators of four-wheel-drive vehicles in line.
In the following years, the large sign in the parking lot and other signs in the park have been torn down and holes have been cut in the fence. But park officials and riders have made repairs at the beginning of each season.
When mounting concerns about erosion were raised in 1997, officials threatened to close or sell the park but instead banned four-wheel-drive vehicles. Trail-rider advocates volunteered again, helping repair deep ruts and replanting grass.
The erosion concern was mainly about soil runoff from the park’s hillside into shallow, fragile Liberty Lake. Vegetation that normally would have helped filter the soil had been destroyed by heavy use of the park.
The park consists of trails that wind through pine trees on a hillside and in some open areas. A restroom has been brought in for riders, and a new color-coded sign has been posted near the parking lot showing the park’s boundaries. The ORV park is open year-round, weather permitting.
“There’s nothing (else) like it around. You go out to Riverside (State Park), and they put four-wheelers, motorcyclists and ATV riders all together in a compact area and there are conflicts,” said Joe Close, an avid motorcyclist who has enjoyed the Liberty Lake park for nearly 20 years. “The landowners think all motorcyclists are bad, but we’re not. We tell the trespassers: ‘If you trespass, then you make it hard for all of us.’ “
Close and McNett both have volunteered to work in the park.
“I got involved at the Liberty Lake ORV because it was close, and when I got home from work, I could load up and go out there,” McNett said. “I do feel for the landowners because I’ve had people trespass and dump trash in my yard. Hopefully, the ranger being out there will help.”
Liberty Lake, Riverside State Park and Airway Heights off-road vehicle parks are the three official locations where riders are allowed in Spokane County.
Airway Heights differs from the other two – it’s designed as a racetrack.
Riverside State Park offers 600 acres of fenced riding area and borders private property. Moose Hempel, a Washington state park ranger who works at Riverside, said patrols in the ORV park were stepped up significantly about six years ago during the park’s heavier-use times.
“The folks who ride out there know it’s heavily patrolled, and it has had a dramatic impact,” Hempel said. “Increasing patrols (along the five miles of fence) really has helped stop people from cutting holes in the fence and leaving litter.”
Landowners surrounding Liberty Lake’s ORV Park said the fence helped reduce trespassing, but some riders act as if they are entitled to ride wherever they want to, even though the private property is marked clearly.
” ‘We’ve been doing it for 30 years; we’re not going to stop now,’ ” landowner Jerry Homes said, quoting trespassers’ comments when he has confronted them.
Homes, who has lived adjacent to the park for 22 years, said that on numerous occasions, landowners have taken matters into their own hands.
They have stood at the head of the trail and stopped riders to inform them of the park’s boundaries, and they have put up handwritten signs that have been ripped down. Then the riders say they didn’t see a sign.
“You can take a perfectly good person and put him on a dirt bike and he’s a completely different person,” said Homes.
Bryant Robinson, park ranger for the Spokane County Parks and Recreation Department, said regular patrols by deputies and himself should help eliminate trespassing problems.
The $37,823 grant, awarded to the county Parks and Recreation Department and the Sheriff’s Office by the Interagency Committee for Outdoor Recreation, was implemented this summer for education and law enforcement.
It funds part of the park ranger’s salary and meets riders’ requests for trail and educational signs, boundary markers, park maps and an enforcement presence.
The grant also has helped pay for an all-terrain vehicle for a park employee and for digital cameras. The county matched the grant with $23,762 in equipment and 500 hours of volunteer patrols by community police, known as SCOPE, and its mounted patrol.
“This level of service is unprecedented for this park,” said Robinson. “I’m here to let the property owners know the Sheriff’s Office and I care about their concerns.”
Landowners say the regular enforcement this summer has made a difference.
“The damage has greatly gone down for me,” Hilgers said of his property, which borders the park. “It’s fenced all the way.”
Robinson said a grant to continue funding enforcement next summer was submitted Thursday. The current funding will run out in June.
Because it appears that many riders obey the rules, banning chronic trespassers could be one solution.
“It’s not something that has been done to date, but they could be banned,” Robinson said. “First, they’d get a fine. If they did it again, we could let them know they weren’t allowed back in the park.”
Joe Hamilton, 34, of Greenacres, regularly rides his dirt bike in the ORV park. He said he has noticed holes in the fence that lead to private property, but he said he doesn’t stray. “It’s not worth it to get in trouble,” Hamilton said.
Trespassing is a criminal offense. If someone is caught, a court appearance is mandatory, but deputies say the offense is considered low priority, so they don’t arrest people. The largest citation a person can get is for throwing out a cigarette while riding through the forested area, a violation carrying a fine of more than $1,000.
“It’s a nice place to ride, but it’s only good for about two hours,” Hamilton said. “The biggest thing is if you pack it in, you bring it out and have respect for the land. We’ve seen beer cans and cigarette butts while riding up in there.”
The patrols by deputies started midsummer in the park.
Law enforcement coverage has been close to five days a week during varied hours, officials said. The biggest need has been on weekends, but deputies also have been there weekdays during daylight and evening hours.
“At first, they’re surprised to see us,” said deputy Dan Middlebos, who has patrolled the park this summer. “Then they are usually pretty receptive. A lot of riders (who are found on private land) don’t know where they are, but others do and do it anyway.”
“Usually we can get good compliance from people we talk to,” sheriff’s Lt. Steve Jones said. “Just our mere presence also seems to help.”
Deputies have mainly been doing education work this summer. Next year, patrols will start in the spring when trespassers are apt to do the most damage because of the wet, soft ground. Enforcement will include citations for all violations, including trespassing.