COWICHE, Wash. — As one of the oldest routes connecting the Cowiche Mill Road state wildlife lands and the state-owned forests of the Ahtanum, the South Fork Cowiche Creek Road has for decades attracted hunters interested in its deer and elk populations and four-wheeling enthusiasts on their way to other destinations.
Because it crosses the heart of one of the state’s largest game management units — 368 Cowiche — its use goes up exponentially in the autumn and early-winter deer and elk hunt seasons.
Nearly three miles of the road, though, aren’t part of the state’s Green Dot system of roads open to those recreationists. And the residents along that stretch are fed up with years of confronting passers-through over their dust, noise, pugnaciousness and occasionally errant bullets.
In the early 1990s, a few of those confrontations became quite testy, with gun-toting residents telling rifle-carrying hunters they were trespassing and needed to leave.
“Now there’s a recipe for disaster,” says Sgt. Bob Udell, chief civil deputy with the Yakima County Sheriff’s Department. “Everybody’s armed and nobody’s happy.”
So, several weeks ago, the locals put in locked gates on each end of the 2 1/2-mile stretch they say is private.
The 36 landowners who own the 44 parcels in Section 28, Township 13 North, Range 15 East, all have keys to the gates. So does the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), which still manages property and retains timber interests in the area.
But the hunters and four-wheelers, except those who have made a prior arrangement with the road’s residents, do not.
“It’s private property,” said one local landowner. “They have no right to be on the road. It’s noted as being closed on the maps.
“And we’re just tired of the crap.”
How tired? When approaching a reporter who had walked past the locked gate, that landowner had two holstered handguns.
Scene from ‘Deliverance’
In the mid-20th Century, South Fork Cowiche Creek Road (C1000) was essentially an extension of Cowiche Mill Road, serving as the main route from Cowiche to such destinations as Louie Way Gap and Divide Ridge.
But when the Green Dot system was set up more than two decades ago, this road — once essentially an extension of Cowiche Mill Road — was excluded. To stay within the Green Dot system, travelers have had to take what amounts to a winding, switchback-riddled detour around that 21/2-mile stretch of South Cowiche Creek Road. A 1994 Green Dot map of the area, in fact, showed the old C1000 road as entirely Green Dot — except where it crossed through Section 28. That section was off the grid.
And that’s precisely how many of the residents of that area like it — being “off the grid,” both figuratively and literally. Many of the residents are deeded landowners. Some aren’t. Some are “squatters” who have been there for years.
Many outsiders typically reference the iconic film “Deliverance” to describe the area’s unwelcoming ethic.
And that doesn’t bother the locals one bit — not if it means those visitors will be more apt to steer clear.
“It’s private property and they abuse the privilege of coming through here by going too fast,” says one local landowner who gave only his first name, Jay. “They think it’s a freeway, they throw their garbage out, they shoot out the windows of their vehicles. They haven’t hit any houses yet — well, there’s bullet holes in the one I own, but that’s when there was a previous owner. And they hunt our land even though it’s signed no trespassing.
“If there’s nobody around, they break into the cabins and trash them and steal stuff. It happens a lot.”
Threats and weapons
Not surprisingly, the locals along the road have developed a distinct sense of community and a communal distrust of visitors. Said the resident named Jay, “We hardly know anybody’s last names, but we take care of each other. We watch everybody’s places.”
The locals have put up numerous signs along the way — road-closure signs, no-trespassing signs, no-hunting signs — only to see the signs either torn down or shot full of holes.
And when passers-through come past the road-closed signs, residents have tended to come out, often carrying a gun, to ask — or demand — what the newcomers might be up to.
Not surprisingly, when the passers-through are hunters, that has made for some tense moments. A 1994 Sheriff’s Department report noted the “recurring problem on the South Fork of Cowiche Creek Road,” noting complaints including “weapons offenses, threats and trespassing.”
And the complaints came from both sides, though Yakima County Sheriff’s Sgt. Judd Towell said few of the incidents are resolved — in some cases because the hunters may well have suspected they were on private property, in others because the locals aren’t quick to contact authorities.
“The problem with arresting someone there is finding someone when you get there,” Towell said. “It’s remote enough that usually they know someone will be coming and they don’t make themselves available.”
And the ones making threats aren’t necessarily the locals.
One resident, who refused to give his name, said a passer-through he’d accused of trespassing “pulled a gun and said, ‘What are you gonna do about it?’ We stopped a guy another time and he threatened to get out and cut my beard off.”
“Wasn’t that the guy,” Jay interjected, “that said he was going to set you on fire?”
Closure a gray area
Whether that would be a typical hunter’s response is up for debate, but the gate closure on South Fork Cowiche Creek is part of an ongoing issue faced by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife — private individuals closing roads to hunters.
And those closures are understandable, said John McGowan, who retired two years ago as manager of the Oak Creek Wildlife Area.
“Hunters, especially if they’re in their quads, they think they’re in the wilderness and all the laws don’t apply to them and they can do anything they want to,” said McGowan, himself an avid lifelong hunter. “That’s just a feeling hunters get: ‘We’re going to go elk hunting,’ but some of them are really going elk camping and elk terrorizing.
“I had to deal with thousands of hunters for a lot of years, and they think they can do anything up there because they’re ‘hunting.’”
So people close what they consider their private roads — a circumstance that, according to Towell, is definitely a gray area.
“Here’s the contention I’ve always had with people closing these roads: These roads were in place before they were sold off to multiple individuals,” the sergeant said. “Those were all state-controlled, state-built roads for the removal of timber, for access to DNR land, all that type of stuff.
“I always tell people, ‘You can’t close the road, and the reason you can’t is you can’t decide for your neighbor who he invites to his property.’
“The guy who keeps putting the cable up is, in my opinion, opening himself up to a lawsuit.”
Jay, though, said the residents within Section 28 all agreed on the gates, a process that took years because, he said, “You know how hard it is to get a group of 50 people together.”
Gated and locked
One of the people who presumably agreed to the gates early last month became the victim of one of them.
Donald Wright, 63, owned a piece of property bisected by the South Fork Cowiche Creek Road. On Sept. 5, a few days after a cable gate was installed at the eastern end of the closed section, Wright — having apparently forgotten the new gate and unable to see it until too late — was on his way back to his property when he rode his ATV into the cable. He was thrown from the vehicle and killed.
Today that gate is hard to miss, festooned with colored flags and prefaced by several signs evident to anyone approaching from either direction.
Many hunters who encounter the gate — including those who already have, with muzzleloader elk season in GMU 368 having opened on Saturday — will almost certainly be surprised. Some may be angry.
But they may not have much of an argument. Whether it’s the locals’ road, the DNR’s or even a historically open road, those 21/2 miles of South Fork Ahtanum Creek Road are not part of the Green Dot system.
And there is some pretty specific verbiage in a 1962 agreement in which Boise Cascade, then the landowner, granted the DNR perpetual use of the road. The contract said it was “expressly understood and agreed that the road in use on this right of way shall not be a public road.”
That’s precisely what the locals have been saying all along.