There’s a fault line in the woods and rural areas of Washington, one that has nothing to do with geology and earthquakes. It concerns people and the means by which they transport themselves on the open roads. Essentially, it comes down to whether an individual’s travels involve a motor or not.
Hikers and backpackers relish the quiet and the chance to get away from it all. Drivers of all-terrain vehicles just want to wheel about, cover some ground and have some fun. The noise issue at times has led to dueling, noisy constituencies.
It’s not all quiet on the ATV front, but at least there is a truce. A week from Sunday, a new Washington state law will allow ATV drivers more rural-road access in return for stricter vehicle identification requirements. The new law is aimed at getting a handle on the small percentage of riders who tear up meadows, streams and other sensitive areas in a practice called “mudding.”
Of most direct concern to ATV owners, House Bill 1632 requires all ATVs to display a small metal license plate similar to those on motorcycles; right now, they just need a registration sticker. The more visible plate should make it easier to identify and track down those who illegally and irresponsibly drive on roads and off-road. Revenue from the sale of the tags is designated to projects benefiting off-road use.
The measure allows ATVs to use rural roads with speed limits of 35 mph or less in seven counties with populations of 15,000 or less; Yakima, Benton, Kittitas and Klickitat counties all are above that threshold. In those counties, residents can petition their respective governments to open some roads.
Law enforcement is a bit leery about letting ATV riders mix with general traffic on these roads for safety reasons; the State Patrol and the Washington Traffic Safety Commission testified against the bill. The measure does allow the smaller counties to designate ATV safety standards such as brake lights, turn signals, mirrors and headlights. In Yakima County, Sheriff Ken Irwin has indicated a willingness to work with ATV groups in developing rules and designating roads.
Environmental groups like Conservation Northwest and Trout Unlimited, recognizing an opportunity to get a handle on the mudding problem, signed on to the proposal. The user/conservationist alliance caught the attention of the Legislature, as the bill sailed through the House 81-11 and the Senate 39-5 with significant bipartisan support. All of the Yakima Valley legislators who voted supported it; Rep. Norm Johnson was excused.
The soon-to-be law embodies the very definition of compromise. ATV users recognize that the small percentage of mudders tarnishes an entire group and causes problems that need addressing. Environmental groups recognize a right to motorized use in the woods and out in rural areas. Not everybody gets everything they want — they can’t — so they agree on a workable approach. This is an example of our system working — and working well.
• Members of the Yakima Herald-Republic editorial board are Sharon J. Prill, Bob Crider, Frank Purdy and Karen Troianello.