For years, human activity has trashed the pristine ecosystem of Phillips Lake.
Campsites are strewn with human waste and beer cans. Signs and fences have been shot, pushed to the ground or stolen for firewood. Graffiti tags the boulders that rise high above the lake and reappears after every time it’s cleaned off.
And, carved into the side of an adjacent hill, a horseshoe-shaped path appears to serve as an illegal racing circuit for off-road vehicles.
“This is one of our party hotspots,” said Karen Honeycutt, fish biologist for the U.S. Forest Service. “It drives me crazy when people do stuff like this.”
The site – which will soon be temporarily closed to all off-road motorized traffic pending an environmental cleanup – underscores an increasingly frustrating fight between Colville National Forest officials and some of their more flagrant visitors.
Yet forest officials now say they have an ambitious solution that opens up more access for off-road recreation and launches extensive restoration efforts.
The South End Project, finalized last month, will change traffic rules on more than 400 miles of trails, creating more opportunities for all-terrain vehicle riders to loop and connect to other communities. And it will barricade some of the most damaged user-created trails and move campsites away from nearby streams. The plan would cost nearly $750,000 over 15 years to implement fully. Officials say it will be paid through grants, timber sales and other funds.
After six years of negotiation, the plan has been praised by recreational groups and local government officials and has tepid support from conservationists – an unusual level of compromise, said forest spokesman Franklin Pemberton.
“Anytime you either allow more ATV use or you remove ATV use, you’re going to get a response,” Pemberton said. “I don’t think you can find a whole lot of happy medium, but I think we got pretty doggone close.”
Off-road traffic has been on the rise in the national forests, and riders have often made their own roads by expanding old paths created by timber companies and homesteads. Following a 2005 federal rule that all roads be closed to ATV use until designated open, Forest Service officials nationwide have been redrawing the agency’s Motor Vehicle Use Maps.
Conservationists have pressed states to develop restrictions on ATVs, arguing that any traffic on forest trails causes erosion, deep ruts and destruction of natural habitats that could take years to repair.
More access, more damage
Less than a week after forest supervisor Laura Jo West signed the South End plan in June, a group of off-roaders near Ione “ mudded” in a meadow – illegal activity punishable by fines up to $5,000.
The Forest Service’s inability to enforce the new rules is “inherently the biggest challenge” for the South End Project and draws the most skepticism from the environmental community, said Mike Petersen, executive director of the Lands Council, a Spokane conservation group that has worked closely with forest officials. The South End area, which spans nearly 200,000 acres of the forest’s south-central portion, roughly from U.S. Highway 395 to the Pend Oreille River, receives the highest level of off-road recreational use, officials said.
“There are great intentions by everyone, but the people violating the rules aren’t sitting at the table,” Petersen said. “Our concern was we’d open this new loop route, and what if illegal routes were punched into that?
“You can’t possibly cover it all,” he added.
In a nod to the conservationists, the plan’s writers included a sort of cease-fire: a one-year waiting period in which trails must show no illegal use before they can be opened. That means if just one rider goes off trail, the road will remain closed for at least another year.
Pemberton said the waiting period is an incentive for the riding community to self-police and demonstrate it can adhere to the rules.
“We’re building trust here,” he said, pointing to the Ione mudding as an example. “Yeah, granted, it was one incident – yet, boy, that has just been a lightning rod for opinion leaders in the environmental community.”
But some conservationists wanted more. David Heflick, conservation associate of Conservation Northwest, said he doubted the Forest Service’s key assumption that more access would cut down on illegal use. He pushed for a provision, he said, that would close the trails temporarily if the assumption was wrong and forest officials could not keep up with handling any increase in damage.
“Wherever there are concentrations of ATVs is where there is the most damage,” Heflick said.
More access, more dollars
Riders interviewed for this story disagree with Heflick, arguing that more restrictions promote illegal use and infringe on their recreational rights. And while off-road groups and officials involved in the South End project have distanced themselves from the mudding incident, some riders rationalized it by pointing to the lack of a designated mudding area.
“Those people weren’t thinking that they were tearing out a meadow – they were just out having fun,” said Pend Oreille County Commissioner Mike Manus. “Granted, they were wrong.”
For Manus, the South End Project’s significance is just as much economic as cultural for the region. Jobs and land use top the concerns of his constituents, Manus said, and he sympathizes when “they can’t ride their four-wheelers that they just spent $12,000 on.”
He’s seen disgruntled riders head to Idaho’s Panhandle National Forests for more trails and fewer restrictions, straining a significant part of the county’s recreation industry, he said. About 59 percent of his county is national forest land, he said.
“I want the ATVs to stay in our county, go to the grocery stores, go to the restaurants, go fill up gas,” he said. “We really lost a lot of our revenue sources.”
That was the big push for Manus to get involved in the plan.
Manus and Stevens County Commissioner Steve Parker approached forest officials and offered to open county roads to ATV use, he said. This helped connect the Forest Service trails and create loops, which Manus argued are “vital” to riders and will cut down on illegal use. Eventually, he said, he’d like to see a trail that connects Priest Lake with Okanogan.
“ATV riders have had nowhere to ride,” Manus said. “No one wants to just ride down a road and back. You want a loop or the connectivity.”
Nearly 80 percent of the project’s funding goes to work on more than 100 campsites for riders, including the restoration of existing campsites and designation of new ones. About 19 percent goes to the construction of new trails and trail heads. Route designations and restoration efforts will be phased in over the next 15 years.
The first phase of routes will connect Chewelah, Cusick and Usk, and some of them could be open as early as next summer, according to the plan.
Manus and Parker also offered to “go into the classrooms” themselves and educate elementary schoolchildren on the new rules, Manus said.
“We agree on the fact that we don’t want our forest torn up. That’s the number one thing,” he said.
More access, more management
Merrill Ott, a former Stevens County commissioner and member of three off-road recreation groups, said he floated the idea of an “ambassador program” managed by the Forest Service that would put volunteers from ATV groups at trailheads to pass out information on the legal trails.
“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been up in the forest and here come some ATVs that ask: ‘Is it OK if I ride on this road? The Forest Service doesn’t have a very good map system.’ ”
The ambassador program, which Ott said would likely begin next summer when the first designations are approved, would aid a Forest Service staff that officials widely acknowledge is understaffed and underfunded. The ATV groups wanted to “show the Forest Service there are people out there who are truly willing to exhibit good use on the roads and trials, despite the restrictions on where we can ride.”
On a recent Thursday, Honeycutt and Pemberton drove the main areas of the South End, showing the damaged campsites and illegal trails. Two sites within a mile of each other illustrated the difficulties with managing recreational traffic: At one site, forest officials had placed a wide gulf of jagged rocks on a slope to prevent traffic, but riders had carved a path around it. At the next site, not one rider had gone around a single signpost that, Pemberton pointed out, was easy to disobey.
Though preventing illegal use is a challenge, Pemberton said, closing more trails runs contrary to the Forest Service’s goal.
“You will inevitably end up with a system that won’t work for most people because everything will be either fenced, roped, blocked or gated,” he said. “And that’s not the point. The national forest belongs to everybody.”