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Commissioners open roads to ATVs
Opponents claim it’s illegal

Fourteen roads in the Methow Valley were opened to use by all-terrain-vehicles by Okanogan County Commissioners Thursday despite pleas by many residents that they not be opened.

photoLarry Malcomb of Winthrop said he supports opening roads to ATVs. - Photo by Solveig Torvik

Opponents argued that the commissioners lack legal authority to open the roads because they do not connect with any existing ATV-approved recreation destinations, a requirement of state law for opening the roads.

The roads opened Thursday (July 25) all have posted speed limits of 35 mph or higher. The commissioners took the action Thursday to avoid provisions of a new state law that goes into effect Sunday July 28. It allows ATVs to operate on roads with 35 mph or higher speed limits if the roads were opened before July 28.

On Monday, July 29, the commissioners said they expect to pass a second ATV ordinance that opens all county roads with a speed limit of 35 mph or lower to ATVS.

The expected passage of Monday’s ordinance will also impose requirements of the new law that the operator be at least 16 years of age and hold a valid license, has liability insurance, and that the vehicle is registered and carries a license plate for identification, said Commissioner Jim DeTro.

However, he acknowledged that there’s likely to be some confusion caused by an announcement from the state Department of Transportation that it cannot implement the licensing and registration program for the ATVs until March of 2014.

About 75 people turned out for the public hearing on the road openings, with oral testimony against slightly outnumbering testimony in favor.

photoPaul Smith of Winthrop argued against opening roads to ATVs. - Photo by Solveig Torvik

ATV supporter Robert Walker of Winthrop told the commissioners that fear of the unknown, lack of knowledge about the equipment “and selfishness” was driving opposition to the measure.

The real question, said ATV proponent Steve Campbell of Winthrop, is whether the commissioners should treat the Methow Valley differently “or above the rest of the county.”

Wolf Creek resident Paul Smith objected to the machines on air pollution and climate change grounds, saying that even the improved, four-stroke ATV engines emit seven times the CO2 of new cars. “It just seems wrong to do anything to make it worse,” he said.

“What we’d really like is local control of this issue,” said Wolf Creek resident Kurt Snover.” It doesn’t make sense in the Methow.”

Pearrygin Lake State Park manager Rick Lewis asked the commissioners to exclude the portion of  the  East Chewuch Road that starts at the Winthrop town limits to the junction of West Chewuch Road because of the heavy recreational vehicle traffic to the state park and lack of shoulders for use by pedestrian or bicycles. “It’s already an unsafe traffic route," he said. Opening that section of road to ATVs, he said, would be “a detriment to our business model.”

Opponents also cited noise and safety concerns, though proponents said the newer engines are quiet.

In passing the new legislation, lawmakers ignored the Washington State Patrol’s opposition to having ATVs on higher-speed roads because of safety issues. The patrol has said the vehicles are not designed for roadway travel and lack proper safety equipment.

photoOkanogan County Commissioners (from left) Chairman Jim DeTro, Ray Campbell, and Sheila Kennedy ponder ATV testimony. - Photo by Solveig Torvik

Commissioner Ray Campbell said any problems that turn up “we can address at another time.” If opponents are right about the legal issue of opening the roads now, he said, “If it comes to that, we’ll let the court decide.” And, he said, “My biggest problem I see is the bicycles on the road.”

Commissioner Sheila Kennedy said any roads that prove to be a problem can be closed later. In response to complaints that there is not enough law enforcement manpower to ensure ATVs are operated legally, Kennedy added that “the ATV club is going to step up and help with that also.”

Commissioner DeTro, a former trucker, returned to the bicycle issue when he said: “How many times have I been impeded by a bicycle?”

Bicycles pay nothing and are not registered, he said. “These are the people who have the signs saying `Let’s share the road.’”

DeTro argued that everyone should have equal access to the wilderness and to their choice of recreation. He concluded that “it does not seem appropriate to me” to deny the ATV proponents’ request.

links to related past stories

ORVs on County Roads? 7/18/13

No, Yes, Maybe 2/14/13

Strong Feelings

Not in Town 11/8/1

All Terrain Vehicles in Winthrop? 9/20/12


see other past stories in the archive >>

Have a comment? >>

The Washington State Patrol got the safety issue right. However there is also the potential for economic damage, even before any new rules go into effect. Just the threat of ATVs on Methow roads will cause a significant proportion of our visitors to make alternative advance plans. These are the people who spend the most money here. During the 30 years I've lived here, I've watched visitor tastes change toward quieter, self propelled activities. ATVs are sending the wrong message to our best customers.

Eric Burr


The State Patrol did not get the safety issue right. They choose to ignore accident statistics from Idaho, Montana and Arizona, where ATV's are legal on the roads. These statistics show that ATV's are safer than bicycles. ATV's account for less than .5% of the reported accidents in these states, while bicycles account for 1.5% to 2.0% of the reported accidents. Which is safer?

Paul Tillman