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Weyerhaeuser challenges county’s power to regulate fee-for-access

Weyerhaeuser has divided their forestland in the southwest into five parts for permitting purposes -- Pe Ell North, Pe Ell South, ZAberdeen, Vail and Longview.
Weyerhaeuser has divided their forestland in the southwest into five parts for permitting purposes -- Pe Ell North, Pe Ell South, ZAberdeen, Vail and Longview.

Officials with the Weyerhaeuser Co. say their timber company as well as others on the Harbor would likely be forced to close off access to all of their timberland should the Grays Harbor County commissioners move forward with an ordinance prohibiting forest landowners from getting a property tax break if they charge hunters and others to access the land for recreation purposes.

A letter from Jim Johnston, an attorney for Weyerhaeuser, tells the county commissioners that they don’t have the authority to make a change in requirements for county forest management plans preventing the access fees from taking place — and the county’s ordinance “would no doubt be challenged and could cost the county its own litigation costs and those of the landowners forced to challenge the authority.”

And, whether the county has the authority or not, “it will not succeed in allowing free use of the land because landowners would be forced to not allow any recreational access, free or otherwise, in order to avoid losing their ‘designated forestland’ status,” Johnston writes.

The letter was sent the day after a standing-room-only crowd weighed in on the county’s ordinance. Weyerhaeuser officials were not present at the hearing, choosing to meet with the commissioners private one-on-one to avoid public meeting laws from kicking in and to send a letter after the fact.

The commissioners are set to consider the ordinance during their meeting, 2 p.m., July 7 in the county commission chambers at the Grays Harbor Administration Building in Montesano.

“As you know, Weyerhaeuser historically permitted public access to its forestlands in Grays Harbor County for hiking, hunting and other recreational uses so long as they were compatible with its forest land practices,” Johnston wrote. “Recently, to help defray the costs of allowing such access, including the collection of garbage and mitigation of vandalism and to better manage the use of the land, Weyerhaeuser insituted an access fee program.”

A land-use manager for Weyerhaeuser warned Grays Harbor residents back in 2011 that access to the timberland would be restricted or completely closed off if the vandalism and dumping problems weren’t solved.

Weyerhaeuser spokesman Anthony Chavez said that the problems have just persisted. He said a pilot program put in place last year at the Pe Ell tree farm, where permits were sold and more gates installed, saw a dramatic drop in both vandalism and dumping.

Weyerhaeuser is charging residents $75 per year for year-round access to its general permit area, consisting of 126,640 acres. Weyerhaeuser has also divided specific areas out that need “enhanced permits.” The Upper Donovan area has 8,645 acres at $200 each. The forest in the Satsop area has a $200 fee for 35,561 acres. The Artic area has $16,500 acres at $250 each.

The company will continue to allow free walk-in access to 17,000 acres of forest in the North Elma/Lower Donovan areas.

Weyerhaeuser is also willing to lease 1,206 acres of land on the North River for exclusive access for a nine-month period.

The company stands to make from the fees, alone, $666,500 per year on just its forestland on the Harbor, using just simple multiplication of the number of permits available based on the fees charged. The company is also charging for access to its timberlands at Pe Ell and Vale.

Weyerhaeuser officials say that the county’s ordinance is improper because the state allows property tax breaks under the open space forestland designation so long as the main revenue coming in is from harvesting timber.

“Our primary revenue driver is growing trees,” Chavez says. “That’s what we’re in business to do. If you look at the broader perspective, timber companies have always had some kind of recreational access permits — for firewoood, tree bows for Christmas wreaths, salal picking and bear moss. Those permits were already in place. Change always is new and folks are not used to this new model. The Southeastern U.S. has been doing this for years.”

Critics of Weyerhaeuser’s plans say that the timber company will drive people to overuse state land, impacting wildlife management plans and that people will always find ways to dump trash in the woods.

Chavez said that the demand is present for the permits, which was crafted with each forest area’s potential for hunting wildlife in mind and there’s already proof through a pilot program that vandalism and dumping decreases.

The permits are good for the purchaser, spouse and children/grandchildren age 18 and under.

Hunters with a state-approved Disabled Hunter Permit, who has purchased a recreational access permit, may also be accompanied by a companion hunter.

Critics say that there are issues with being only able to start from one gate and exit out the same gate and being unable to call for help to haul game out. Chavez notes that several of the designated areas have multiple gates that can be used and re-iterated that the permit is good for a large family.