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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Colville National Forest sued over vehicle access rule change

The sun sets on Monday July 30, 2018 in the Colville National Forest.  (Eli Francovich)

Two conservation groups are suing the U.S. Forest Service alleging that the Colville National Forest expanded all-terrain vehicle access without proper public, or scientific, input

Earlier this year the 1.1-million-acre forest changed the rules for 117 miles of road. These roads, while previously open to vehicle traffic, were closed to ATV use.

Tiana Luke, the Colville forest lead for Washington-based Conservation Northwest, said she was never formally notified of the change.

“They had sent out a Facebook post sometime in late June of last year,” she said. “I would have expected that I would have received a letter or an email or some sort of notification based on the amount of the work I was doing with the Forest Service over time on these issues.”

Conservation Northwest, alongside WildEarth Guardians, filed the lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for Eastern Washington on Monday. The suit asks the court to invalidate the Forest Service’s decision.

Although there are concerns about the environmental impact of the road openings, Luke said that is not the main focus of the lawsuit.

“It is primarily the process,” she said. “We don’t know whether there are going to be any major environmental impacts.”

The road openings are mostly in the west side of the forest in Ferry and Stevens counties, Luke said.

The suit is notable because Conservation Northwest mostly avoids litigation, instead focusing on collaboration.

“We emphasize collaboration and generally eschew lawsuits,” said Chase Gunnell, a spokesman for CNW. “We lead with our local conservation staff embedded in small towns and rural areas from Deer Park and Chewelah to Omak, Ellensburg and Onalaska.”

That collaborative approach sometimes angers other conservation organizations.

For example the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, a Montana-based environmental group, recently sued the Forest Service over a forest restoration project in the Methow Valley.

CNW sided with the Forest Service and the Forest Service won that case in December.

CNW is involved in a lawsuit against the state of Washington and the Department of Natural Resource over an interpretation of the state constitution and its mandate for state trust lands.

In 2016, CNW sued Okanogan County after a similar ATV expansion avoided public comment. That suit was successful in 2017.

Luke tried to address the road-opening issue with Forest Service leadership, but because it was an administrative decision that had already been made, she didn’t get anywhere.

“We’re still really committed to collaborating with the Colville National Forest even on this issue,” she said.

A spokesperson for the forest didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Luke and others worry that increased ATV road access will lead to increased illegal off roading in ecologically sensitive areas.

“We support legal, responsible ATV use on the Colville National Forest and the opportunity for users to ride in appropriate areas and visit beautiful vistas,” she said in a news release. “However, opening new motorized routes requires thorough public vetting and environmental review to avoid impacts on sensitive wildlife and habitat, consider other recreation values, and ensure enforcement and accountability for illegal behavior.”