Spin Control: Off-road-vehicle bill a shining example of compromise

SUNDAY, FEB. 26, 2012

OLYMPIA – With all the examples of disharmony in the Legislature, it’s nice to tell a tale of folks with different agendas finding common ground and working together.

Although it doesn’t involve such high-profile issues as taxes or budgets or gay marriage or abortion, there is such a tale with two sides as diametrically opposed as Puget Sound liberals and Eastern Washington conservatives or the state Labor Council and the Building Industry Association of Washington.

The issue involves off-road vehicles, also known as four-wheel all-terrain vehicles or off-highway vehicles. In one corner, we have the people who love to ride them, wherever they can; in the other, we have the people who want them ridden less, in fewer places, with more controls.

Put another way, we have on one side people who believe in their God-given right to enjoy the outdoors and regard their opponents as tree-hugging, whiny busybodies. On the other, we have people who believe it’s their life’s mission to protect the environment against loud louts and their fume spewing machines.

One might expect them to reach a meeting of the minds about as often as Planned Parenthood and the Catholic bishops. But they did last week on SB 5366 – although not without some significant prodding from legislators like Rep. Matt Shea, R-Spokane Valley, and Dave Upthegrove, D-Des Moines, who rarely vote together on some of the big issues like budgets, taxes or social policy.

The bill was designed to give both sides a bit of what they wanted. For ORV riders: access to streets and roads where the speed limit is no higher than 35 miles per hour, so they can more easily get to designated off-road areas. For environmentalists – and timber companies that are tired of their forest lands being ripped up by illegal jaunts: stiff penalties, equipment on the machines that make them roadworthy, helmets for the drivers, and licenses.

The last one was a big issue with folks like Mitch Friedman, of Conservation Northwest, who considers the illegal use of ORVs on undesignated trails and lands “a plague.” License plates mean the machines, and thus their owners, can be identified when spotted where they aren’t allowed.

Giving opposing sides something that they want in exchange for agreeing to something they don’t is the art of politics. Finding the swap is where the art comes in.

After passing the Senate, the bill was bogging down in the House, and a handful of legislators called the sides in for a rework. Environmentalists were initially leery of Shea, Friedman admitted, because of his support from the tea party wing of the GOP and their fears that meant he’d side with ORVers and their appeals to be left as free of government as possible.

Shea turned out to be a “stand-up guy,” Friedman said, who helped deliver a message from all legislators: If you blow up this compromise, you won’t get anything out of the Legislature for the next decade.

“Practically speaking, that’s true,” Shea said later. Everyone wants access and accountability and this was the way to get it.

Rep. Mike Armstrong, of Wenatchee, the ranking Republican on the Transportation Committee who also sat in on the talks, said there was some loud talking and some grumbling, but eventually the message got through to the ORV forces. Shea’s amendment was drafted, which included requirements for licenses for any vehicle driven on the streets, turn signals and brake lights; the bill went before the Transportation Committee on Friday.

From the Eastern Washington ATV Association to Trout Unlimited to the Green Diamond Resource Co., all sides described it in terms ranging from glowing to generally supportive. Sure, the Washington Off-Highway Vehicle Alliance had some concerns about how riders were going to tell legal areas from illegal ones, but that’s the kind of quibble that can be fixed in the redrafting. The Washington State Patrol has concerns about adding a new class of vehicles to the roadways, but that, too, is manageable.

The amendment passed, and the bill made it out of committee late Friday just before one of the “cutoffs” that winnow legislation throughout the session. It heads for the House floor and has a fair shot at passing within the next two weeks.

Jim Camden can be reached at (509) 879-7461 or jimc@spokesman.com.

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