MONTESANO — The Grays Harbor County commissioners unanimously approved an ordinance aimed at taking on Weyerhaeuser and other large timber companies who have been charging hunters and others to access their private land for recreation purposes.
The ordinance will prohibit large landowners from getting a property tax break if they charge for access.
The only tweak in the original ordinance came from an amendment offered by sponsor Commissioner Wes Cormier, providing an exemption for small forest landowners, who has harvested from his or her land in this state no more than an average timber volume of 2 million board feet per year. Timber companies will also still be allowed to charge for berry picking, mushroom picking and floral salal picking. The previous ordinance would have eliminated those incidental uses.
The decision by the county was not without some controversy, with farmers and timber owners in the community saying the county was infringing on their private property rights and hunters and outdoors enthusiasts, who insisted that large timber companies should not be gouging the community.
Before the commissioners made their decision, they took another 45 minutes of public comment from the 60 or so people in the room. The audience was about half as large as the numbers that overwhelmed the room two weeks ago.
Bill Pickell, the former executive director of Washington Contract Loggers who lives in Hoquiam, told the commissioners that he had no doubt that Weyerhaeuser would challenge the ordinance.
“It could be a costly issue and I hope you are prepared,” Pickell said.
Weyerhaeuser officials had issued a letter to the county last month threatening to challenge the ordinance or close off access completely if the county moves forward with its plans. Other large timber companies like Green Diamond and Rayonier never submitted comments to the county.
Montesano resident Howard Wilson, who serves as president of the Washington Farm Forestry Association, said the county was taking away distinct private property rights and encouraged the commissioners to work with Weyerhaeuser and ask them to make changes to offer reduced access fees for local residents, seniors and those with disabilities.
“I’m hoping a compromise will prevail,” Wilson told the commissioners.
County Commissioner Frank Gordon said that he and the other commissioners had individually met with Weyerhaeuser officials last month and the timber company wasn’t budging on its position.
“They’ve told us they won’t deal with you,” Gordon said. “We’ve asked them to deal with us.”
Gordon asked Pickell to help the county “bridge that gap.”
“My suspicion is if they throw their cards on the table and tell you to ‘shove it’ they’ve got more behind this legally than you do,” Pickell said. “And that’s the part that scares me because I think you’re going to lose there and then they’re solidified in their position.”
“I’m not looking for a fight we can’t win but there are some things that is morally right,” Gordon said.
Weyerhaeuser officials say they’ve moved to a pay-for-access model in order to reduce vandalism and theft in their forests and offset rising dumping costs.
“They’re turning a great sport into a wealthy man’s sport,” said hunter Steve Bova of Ocean Shores, adding that “only an idiot would dump trash in the middle of hunting season” because just about any hunter would take down a license plate and report them.
Cormier said that this is “absolutely not a property rights taking,” noting that the program to get the tax break is something timber companies must opt into. It’s a company’s choice. And it’s the county’s choice, he says, to decide what goes in the required timber management plans.
“The ordinance doesn’t force a timber company to prevent access,” Cormier said. “It does not force a timber company to close down land. That would be their decision.”
“As far as the possible cost to the county for litigation fees, that is definitely a concern,” Commissioner Herb Welch said. “That is one of my concerns having lived through the last one we had. … But if we don’t do something, we’re not going to know what that might wind up being. If we pass this and we run up against huge amounts of lawyer fees to try to keep it on the books and keep the big companies from beating us down, we can back off. We put it into effect, we can take it out. But unless we put it into effect, we’re not going to know what happens next. As far as them locking up the land, that’s very possible. They have the right do that. As far as I’m concerned, they’re locking it up now.”
Gordon said he voted to support the measure “very unhappily.”
“I have been told by our attorney, whom I respect highly, that we don’t have a chance of an ice cube in hell,” Gordon said.”… When they take us to court, where will the money come from? It’s not like we’re fat cats with a great big wallet. I’m going to vote ‘yes’ on this hoping it brings Weyerhaeuser and Rayonier to the table.”
Cormier, who spearheaded the ordinance, thanked outdoor enthusiast Dan Boeholt and state Rep. Brian Blake, D-Aberdeen, for their suggestions in amending the ordinance and making it possible. He also thanked his fellow commissioners for their support.
Visit https://www.facebook.com/TheVidette to watch video of the county commissioners’ decision.