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New terrain: ATV drivers will have more access, less anonymity

ATV drivers will have to have metal tags, similar to license plates, on their vehicles. (Associated Press)
ATV drivers will have to have metal tags, similar to license plates, on their vehicles. (Associated Press)

Starting today, drivers of all-terrain vehicles will have more access to Washington’s rural roads than ever before. They’ll also have less anonymity thanks to a requirement they’ve never had before.

House Bill 1632, approved by the 2013 Washington Legislature is going into effect to give ATV drivers immediate access to 35 mph-or-less rural roads in seven counties with fewer than 15,000 residents, while allowing more-populous counties and municipalities to grant greater access to roads.

Under the new law, all ATVs – whether their owners plan to ride on roads or not – will be required to display a small metal license plate similar to those on motorcycles, thereby making it easier for witnesses to report mudding – the practice of tearing up meadows and similar vulnerable places – and other abuses to law enforcement.

“I think it’s a mixed blessing,” said Bob Schafer, a spokesman for the Cascade Quad Squad, a Yakima-based ATV club. “The bill started out being a little more generous.”

The law does allow rural communities to designate roads for ATVs that meet safety standards – such as brake lights, turn signals, mirrors and headlights, Schafer said.

Residents of larger areas, such as the city and county of Yakima, will still have to petition to see if they can get more riding opportunities, he said.

Yakima County Sheriff Ken Irwin said he’s aware, but not terribly familiar with, the new law and indicated his office would be willing to work with ATV groups in developing rules.

Currently, ATVs can be driven on approved roads, known as the Green Dot system, on land under the state departments of Wildlife and Natural Resources. They are restricted on roads within national forests according to each forest’s motorized vehicle management plan.

Schafer said opening up even a few short stretches of unpaved county roads in rural areas, such as the Wenas, would make a big difference to ATV enthusiasts.

“In Yakima County now, there are a few places where we have riding areas, but they’re not connected,” he said. “If we could talk the county into giving us those little stretches of road to use, that would be an improvement.”

ATV users shouldn’t expect greater access to roads any time soon in the Naches Ranger District, which expects to release its draft environmental impact statement this fall for its long-awaited plan on where motorized traffic will be allowed.

Dealing with additional ATV access issues “would throw a whole monkey wrench into our planning process, and we don’t want to push that decision out any further,” said District Ranger Irene Davidson.

The law sets the license fees, both initial and renwal, for ATVs at $12 for on-road use and $18 for off-road use. In addition, the metal tags similar to license plates must be replaced every seven years at a cost of $2.

Revenue generated by the sale of the required licenses and plates must be spent only on projects or activities benefiting off-road vehicle recreation. Those dedicated funds and the prospect of greater trail access were critical to the bill, said Gary Johnson of Yelm, who chairs the Gifford Pinchot Off Highway Vehicle Alliance.

“It’s a great bill,” Johnson said. “There’s a lot of environmentalists who want to close these forests down, and we were able to stop that with this bill.”

The license-plate requirement’s potential to curb unethical trail use attracted such diverse supporters as Conservation Northwest and Trout Unlimited.

“I almost signed on for the entertainment value three years ago,” cracked one of the bill sponsors, Rep. Brian Blake, D-Aberdeen. “Because I thought, yeah, if the ORV guys and conservation folks are going to come to agreement, well, I want a front-row seat.”

The presence of those seemingly incongruous political bedfellows, though, turned off at least one group, the Washington Off Highway Vehicle Alliance (WOHVA), which warned its membership that “anti-OHV forces” had joined the process and “poisoned the work.”

“We were very much advocates for this and are still advocates for some of the overall goals, but the nature of the political process is you have to be on top of this,” said WOHVA president Byron Stuck. “Things get added on and allegiances get murky.

“There’s a dynamic in the outdoor world where certain people want to completely eliminate the sports of some other kinds of people. There’s a tension between motorized groups and non-motorized groups.”

Requiring license plates on ATVs is expected to put a dent in the amount of illegal or unethical off-trail riding because it will help identify violators.

Mark Mauren, DNR’s recreation program manager, estimated there are 3,000 to 6,000 miles of unauthorized trails created by “that 1 percent that’s ruining things for everyone. Now we have another way of dealing with them, and that I see as a real positive thing. … In my discussions with the ORV community, they’re just as frustrated as anybody” about unethical trail users.

Count Graham among them. An outspoken proponent of ethical trail use, Graham founded Yakima/Kittitas Forest Watch several years ago after seeing some quad drivers “doing doughnuts through the creek” alongside an Ahtanum trail.

“Personally, I’m all for having plates to identify them,” Graham said, “because too many times I see this red quad out there tearing up a meadow and I take a picture of this and turn it in to the sheriffs.

“But there’s too many quads that look the same. You can’t get any detail identifying who it is.”

You can now.