May soon have to share the road

Editorial Gary MugThe county has won their fight, at least for now, to allow All Terrain Vehicles, or ATVs, on nearly 600 miles of county roads. This opens up our small towns to the additional tourists that need to run to town for supplies, visit restaurants and to see the sights. It could definitely bring in more tourist dollars for those that don’t want to hop in the car to make the journey – especially for places like Loomis, Chesaw and Molson. It seems to be good business for Conconully already, so perhaps some of those benefits should be spread around.

However, I’m of two minds – I see ATVs as a potential economic benefit, as well as a potential hazard on the road. It’s hard enough dodging cars and trucks that don’t want to share the road with motorcycles designed to travel over paved roads and have been with us for nearly as long as their have been four wheeled vehicles. Will it be any better for ATVs which are generally lower to the ground, harder to see and not primarily designed to go over pavement, especially at highway speed?

Methow Valley Citizen’s Council and Conservation Northwest, two groups that have been fighting the county on this issue say the ruling opens up the potential for “significant environmental impact.” They are appealing the county commissioner’s ruling and ask that they set aside the Determination of Non-Significance and perform a “more realistic and careful environmental assessment or change the proposal by eliminating certain roads that are proposed for ATV access.” The groups say a flaw in the commissioners’ reasoning is the assumption that no ATV operators would illegally ride off road, contrary, they say, to overwhelming evidence to the contrary. This illegal off-roading is especially damaging on public lands which protect habitat for sensitive fish and wildlife species and the proposal opens many roads that provide access to public lands.

While this is bound to be true – some people will abuse the privilege – these groups also assume the worst of riders, painting them all with an “outlaw” brush. ATVs can cause damage, I’ve seen it first hand on a family member’s ranch roads where improper off-roading led to erosion that cost the rancher money to fix. However, just as not all bikers are “outlaws,” ATV riders aren’t either. The laws against harming the environment through illegal off-roading apply to them just the same as if the commissioners hadn’t created greater access. I’d think the last thing we’d want to do is make our public lands harder to get to for legitimate recreational enjoyment. And perhaps, it will make access for those who have disabilities even easier.

I keep coming back to safety and wonder whether we will see an increase in injuries, not due to improper behavior, but more so from vehicles not designed to travel at 50 mph down County 7 or any of the many roads included in the county’s decision. Enforcement costs will likely go up, as may the cost of first responders. Only time will tell.

For now, we need to make ourselves aware and do our best to share the road and hope things work out for the best. If my experience with some of he “cagers” out there, those that drive cars and trucks, we may be in for some real potential traffic issues. My best advice is to pretend like you’re invisible, because to many drivers, you will be. Be aware of your surroundings, and for heaven’s sake wear the best safety gear you can afford. It only has to work once, but it could save your life.

According to the appellants, no date for the hearing on the appeal of the county’s SEPA determination has been set. A hearing on the ATV ordinance itself, opening 600 miles of county roads, is scheduled for June 16 at 3 p.m. in the Commissioners’ Hearing Room in Okanogan.