By Brandon Hansen/The Independent Staff
The first three-wheeled ATV rolled off the assembly line in 1969.
Since then they’ve morphed into OHVs – four-wheelers and side-by-sides that have become more and more popular. An OHV is any off highway vehicle that includes the ATVs (All-Terrain Vehicles), UTVs (Utility Vehicles), and SUTVs (Sport Utility Vehicles). OHVs have become a billion-dollar industry nation-wide, and Stevens County is becoming a destination area for enthusiasts. While it opens up access to hard-to-reach scenic areas in this area of the state, the movement also has had an impact on the local forest environments.
“The forest service began seeing a heavy increase of ATV and OHV traffic in the 1990s and there weren’t any restrictions back then and you could go offroading,” Former Stevens County Commissioner Merrill Ott said. “So there was some environmental damage.”
This caused the forest service to restrict off-road travel and the back-and-forth of people wanting to ride on federal public lands has become something of a hot topic. Tri-County outdoor vehicle groups are now trying to mitigate this impact on the environment and work with the Forest Service. In the spirit of compromise, OHV enthusiasts are volunteering their time to become Forest Service Ambassadors.
Ott and several OHV clubs are now working with the Forest Service to make improvements with the relationship between the service and recreational vehicle owners, open up roads in the Tri-County area and make things more accessible to an industry bringing valuable dollars into NE Washington.
With the Colville National Forest Plan revisions beginning in 2006-2007, OHV clubs and the forest service began opening dialogue on how people could enjoy the outdoors from their vehicle without negatively impacting the outdoors.
The solution was the South End Project in 2012 which has since opened up more than a hundred miles of Forest Service roads to OHV riders in the SE corner of the Colville National Forest. The project has also worked on establishing trailheads, parking areas and trail connectors.
“You can ride on hundreds of miles of Forest Service and county roads in an OHV,” Ott said.
With power comes responsibility and the OHV clubs are being proactive about that. As Forest Service ambassadors, they spend summers volunteering their time in the South End Project area of the Colville National Forest, manning trailheads. Working alongside Forest rangers, they tell people where they can ride in their vehicles, help spot off-road violations and help keep those roads opened by the service in good condition.
Usually several different families from various clubs man booths at the trailhead. During busy weekends, as many as six different families have helped tackle the increased traffic.
They’ll do rides themselves as outreach, logging in 40-mile and 55-mile rides. Ott said that the nice thing about OHVs is that they’re for all ages. On rides in the South End, Ott said he has ridden with people ranging from young to as old as people in their 80s.
All ambassadors are technically working for the Forest Service so they all go through background checks and are trained in CPR and first aid.
They also provide their own OHV vehicles, which are properly licensed and meet WATV regulations.
The goal is to create and promote a positive image for OHV riders and help the recreational vehicle industry grow in the Tri-County area. Ott said that every dollar put into the Stevens County economy is turned around three times. In Washington State alone, the OHV economy is a two billion dollar industry.
Local towns like Colville, Chewelah, Northport and Kettle Falls have passed friendly recreational vehicle policies allowing drivers to come into town with their properly licensed OHVs. Combine this with county roads being accessible and the amount of driving you can do in NE Washington is remarkable.
Ott hopes that 20-30 more miles will be opened next year in a continuation of the South End Project, along with better signage on which roads you can access.
Those looking to get involved with the Forest Service Ambassadors can email Merrill at firstname.lastname@example.org.