Once Free, Many Private Timberlands Begin Charging User Fees
It is getting more expensive to be a committed outdoor enthusiast in Washington state. An annual pass for state parks is $30. A National Forest pass could be another $20 to $30. There are also fees for campgrounds and snowmobile/ski trail parking.
Until now, there has been a free alternative: private timberland. But that's about to change – and it will make those other charges look like bargains.
Timber giant Weyerhaeuser, which controls more than 2 million acres in the Pacific Northwest, is joining the pay-to-play and pay-to-hunt trend. Starting June 16, the largest private forestland owner in Oregon and Washington will begin selling seasonal access permits to hunters, horse riders, hikers and other recreation seekers.
The cost varies by permit area, but it can be hundreds of dollars.
'Disgust when I heard that'
Amy Spoon, an avid hunter, fisherman and outdoor blogger from Montesano, Washington, is dismayed by the permit fee.
"Even just to go hunt with my mom -- a person who may go out maybe once or twice a year -- she has to buy a $250 permit and I have to have a $250 permit," Spoon said. "Just a flood of frustration and disgust basically came over me when I heard that."
Weyerhaeuser operates tree farms on three sides of Spoon's hometown. She and her neighbors use those woods as part of their rural way of life. But this year, the timber company is switching most of its western Oregon and western Washington tree farms to access by pre-paid permit only. Families and clubs can also bid on leases to get a private hunting area.
Weyerhaeuser spokesman Anthony Chavez said an access fee tryout last year convinced management to now roll out the policy statewide.
"The permits sold out in three hours, showing there is obviously interest and demand," Chavez said. "Two, we absolutely saw a decrease in vandalism and dumping on our tree farms during that period. The other thing we heard is that folks who were able to get a permit said this was a really great quality recreation experience."
Chavez pointed out that in many cases there are ways for people to get around the permit fee outside of hunting season.
"Just to give you an example, in Washington for the Longview Tree Farm and the Vail and Pe Ell tree farms you are required to have a permit from August 31 to January 31," he said. "So from February to the end of August, if you were a horseback rider or a hiker you would not be required to have a permit."
Weyerhaeuser is not the only company to go this route. Idaho's largest timberland owner, the Potlatch Corporation, started requiring hunters and campers to buy a recreation permit back in 2007 for the same reasons. Others include Inland Empire Paper Company, Rayonier, Hancock and Green Diamond.
'It would break us'
Retired state worker Emily Ray of Tumwater, Washington, occasionally hikes on private timberland with a club called the Tuesday Trotters. But permit prices ranging from a low of $75 up to $550 per tree farm, could change that.
Over time, if the program is successful, there is potential to generate additional revenue.
"It would break us," Ray said. "It is something we could not possibly do as individuals. Even as a group, it is beyond the kind of dues structure we have."
Ray contends her group of watchful older ladies provide a service and they don't cause any trouble.
"As a matter of fact, some of our group members are almost fanatical about picking up aluminum cans," she said. "As we leave, we squash 'em and stick them in bags."
Ray added that some other private timberland owners have chosen not to charge a fee, instead just requiring prior registration for security.
Protesting the charges
State fish and wildlife agencies are concerned rising fees will result in additional crowding on public lands. Later this month, commissioners in coastal Washington's Grays Harbor County will even entertain an ordinance to prohibit recreation access fees on private forestlands, although Weyerhaeuser doubts the county has the authority to do that.
Protest petitions are circulating in nearby Cowlitz County. Separately, well over 1,000 people from across the Northwest have joined a new Facebook protest page titled "Sportsmen Not Buying Weyerhaeuser Permits."
Spoon insists resistance is not futile.
"A lot of people fear if we don't do anything, then it is just going to keep progressing, fees are going to get higher, areas that are locked up are going to be bigger," she said.
Unlike Washington and Idaho, the Weyerhaeuser-type access permits are a new trend in Oregon. Some hunters there sounded less rebellious. They were reluctant to tell a private company how to use its land.
Chavez acknowledged Weyerhaeuser may eventually turn a profit from its recreation permit program.
"At the outset, we are hoping to at least offset those costs we are incurring," he said. "Over time, if the program is successful, there is potential to generate additional revenue."