BETHEL — In the space of just days, a crackdown targeting four-wheelers and snowmachines on the streets in the rural Southwest Alaska hub of Bethel changed life for many.
The Bethel City Council on Sept. 27 passed two enforcement measures. Streets grew quiet. In the first week, Bethel police wrote more than two dozen tickets carrying $50 fines for four-wheelers illegally on the streets.
Some residents are pushing back, signing a change.org petition and organizing on Facebook as they urge the city to reconsider. For people with no other way to get around, it hits especially hard.
Council members may ease off. Mayor Rick Robb has proposed a fix.
Surely, some Bethel residents say, there's a solution between zero tolerance for off-road rigs and the free-wheeling way of just last month, with doubled-up riders flying down the roads, people driving without insurance, a license or headlights, and worries about crashes that escalated after one happened in front of City Hall on Chief Eddie Hoffman Highway.
"This is Bethel," Ray Watson, a lifelong resident, told the city's Public Safety and Transportation Commission earlier this month. "I think there's a middle point here."
Four-wheelers are getting more popular, he said. He just bought his daughter one and was teaching her safe riding, he said. People who observe traffic laws are being punished along with dangerous riders, he said.
Technically, ATVs and snowmachines have been banned from Bethel city streets since June 2013, when the City Council decided to replace the local traffic code with state laws. That eliminated a local provision dating to 2006 that allowed ATVs and snowmachines on city streets, though not on the state highway.
"It was inadvertently removed," Robb said.
ATVs and snowmachines should be allowed on roadways, with limits, the mayor said.
"I have always favored a shared road system," Robb said. "I think it goes with our way of life."
He is a trapper yet can't get onto tundra trails from his home without traveling a short ways by snowmachine on city roads, he said. Snowmachine riders mainly are trying to get off roads, he said. Four-wheelers in town are more like a car substitute, then go off road for berry picking and hunting.
The City Council didn't abruptly ban four-wheelers and snowmachines, said member Leif Albertson.
"The law didn't change," he told the public safety commission, and its unusually large audience on Oct. 4 when off-road vehicles were on the agenda. "This was the law."
He also is a volunteer paramedic and said: "I spend a lot of time scraping those folks up."
In practice, the 2013 change did not eliminate four-wheelers and snowmachines from roadways busy with cars and SUVs, pickup trucks and city water and sewer trucks.
The City Council took two actions on the topic at the late September meeting. First, council members agreed, in a split 5-2 vote, to ask Alaska State Troopers for help in enforcing state laws on snowmachines and ATVs in roadways. Then council members, in a 4-3 vote that happened after midnight, directed the city administration "to increase the active enforcement of state laws to include ticketing of snowmobile and ATV operators."
Council member Byron Maczynski, who sponsored both measures, ended up voting against the second one. He said he wanted to give the public safety commission time to recommend a more balanced approach. But the City Council acted before its appointed advisory panel had a chance to step in.
Police Chief Andre Achee told the public safety commission he believed the council action took away police discretion and that officers now had to "strictly enforce" what was already on the books.
In the first nine months of the year, Bethel police issued seven citations related to ATVs or snowmachines on roadways.
After the council acted, officers issued 25 ATV tickets in the span of four days, plus two more to people driving an ATV without a license.
Residents say they were caught by surprise.
Brian Hughes said his teenage daughter was driving safely when she was ticketed picking him up from work. He urged the public safety commission to figure out a compromise.
Loni Upshaw, with the Salvation Army in Bethel, said she drives a Polaris side-by-side, which is insured and registered, and has brake lights, seat belts and a windshield.
"With this law, you shut me down," she said. She said she spent $30 on cab fares that day, almost the same as for a month's worth of gasoline for her little off-road vehicle.
Cab rides are inexpensive but can add up — $5 a person in town, $7 to the airport, more to the farthest neighborhoods.
When the ice went out on the Kuskokwim River in late spring, Samuel Hare hauled his trailered boat by four-wheeler to the small boat harbor. He avoided main roads as much as he could as well as Bethel rush hour during the changing of shifts at Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corp.
With the crackdown, he said, he is mainly on foot. He will ask a relative to help him pull out the boat for the season.
Police say they recognize that for many in Bethel, off-road vehicles are basic transportation.
"It is not a luxury item," Achee told the City Council in September.
Some people who have lost their driver's license or who can't get one were driving four-wheelers without one. In winter, residents of nearby villages travel along the frozen Kuskokwim by four-wheeler or snowmachine to shop in Bethel.
Achee said his officers ticketed reckless drivers before. But off-road vehicles weren't a top priority in a town where an understaffed police force is busy with shootings, stabbings and assaults.
Rogue drivers may speed away onto the tundra, out of reach of police in SUVs, the police chief said.
"Wintertime is the worst time, because of snowmachines," Achee told the City Council. Most complaints concern "kids racing up and down the side of the road, stuff like that, 2 or 3 o'clock in the morning."
But most everyone has seen recklessness.
"We could sit here all night and tell horror stories of people driving without lights on," said City Council member Zach Fansler, who is coming off the council for a new role as state representative. "I saw one just last night." The driver cut through traffic in pitch-black dark, Fansler said at the meeting before the changes were made.
Albertson, the City Council member, told the public safety commission he didn't see much evidence of ticketing beforehand. He said he wants safer roads in town but no one on the council intended police to all of a sudden ticket every driver on a four-wheeler.
"It's a little bit bewildering to me," Albertson said.
Police say they tried to get the word out. They posted an announcement on Facebook, alerted the Lower Kuskokwim School District and put notices up around town, the chief said.
Other Bush communities have found ways to accommodate off-road rigs.
In villages, most travel is by ATV or snowmachine, often the only vehicles that can negotiate wooden boardwalks or rutted dirt roads.
In Kotzebue, ATVs and snowmachines are allowed as long as they are registered with Division of Motor Vehicles as well as insured, and the driver is licensed, said Police Chief Eric Swisher.
"If you have all those things, you can drive up and down the streets all day long," he said. The vehicles must follow the same rules as cars, he said.
In Dillingham, off-road vehicles are not allowed in the downtown business district, but can go within the right-of-way in other parts of town with a string of restrictions, including that they can't go faster than 20 mph. There are extra limits on night driving. Kids under 18 must wear helmets.
At Tuesday night's council meeting, members plan to revisit the matter.
Mayor Robb intends to introduce a measure to allow ATVs and snowmachines on city roads as long as they are registered and insured. His proposal would limit them to 15 mph. Drivers would need to be at least age 18 or have a driver's license, or be accompanied by a licensed adult driver who is at least 21 years old. Kids would have to wear helmets.
The council also is considering a request by the public safety commission to suspend strict enforcement until Robb's proposal is reviewed.