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Weyerhaeuser Charging Big Bucks For Access To Big Bucks, Outdoor Fun

Photo provided by Weyerhaeuser.
Vandalism and illegal dumping like this on the St. Helens Tree Farm was a key reason for the new access policy, says Weyerhaeuser.

Timber giant Weyerhaeuser is joining the pay-to-play and pay-to-hunt trend. This week, the largest private forestland owner in Washington and Oregon will begin selling seasonal access permits to hunters, horse riders, hikers and other recreators.

The Washington state-based company is not the first to charge access fees. But the breadth and high prices it will charge are generating more push back than before.

Amy Spoon is an avid hunter, fisherman and outdoor blogger from Montesano, Washington.

“So 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 Washington and western Oregon tree farms to access by prepaid permit only. Families and clubs can also bid on leases to get a private hunting area.

Weyerhaeuser's government and community relations manager Anthony Chavez says 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. 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 said.

Weyerhaeuser is not the only company to go this route. Idaho's largest timberland owner, the Potlatch Corp., 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. 

Retired state worker Emily Ray of Tumwater, Washington occasionally hikes on private timberland with a club called the Tuesday Trotters. Then she saw permit prices ranging from a low of $75 up to $550 per tree farm.

"It would break us. 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 said.

Ray contends her group of watchful older ladies provides a service and doesn’t cause any trouble.

"As a matter of fact, some of our group members are almost fanatical about picking up aluminum cans. As we leave, we squash'em and stick them in bags,” Ray said.

Ray notes some private timberland owners have chosen not to charge a fee, instead just requiring prior registration for security.

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.

Weyerhaeuser doubts the county has the authority to do that, by the way. Protest petitions are circulating in nearby Cowlitz County. In just a few weeks, well over 1,000 people have joined a Facebook protest page titled "Sportsmen Not Buying Weyerhaeuser Permits." 

Spoon, an outdoorswoman, argues 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. Several hunters I contacted there sounded less rebellious. They were reluctant to tell a private company how to use its land.

Credit Photo provided by Weyerhaeuser.
Photo provided by Weyerhaeuser.
Vandalism and illegal dumping like this on the St. Helens Tree Farm was a key reason for the new access policy, says Weyerhaeuser.

"It only takes 10 people to ruin it for a thousand," lamented Oregon Hunters Association chapter chair Neal Reiser in reference to vandals and illegal trash dumpers.

Weyerhaeuser spokesman Chavez acknowledges his company 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. Over time, if the program is successful, there is potential to generate additional revenue,” he said.

Chavez points out 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 Aug. 31 to Jan. 31. 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,” he said.

Weyerhaeuser controls more than two million acres in the Pacific Northwest.

Correspondent Tom Banse is an Olympia-based reporter with more than three decades of experience covering Washington and Oregon state government, public policy, business and breaking news stories. Most of his career was spent with public radio's Northwest News Network, but now in semi-retirement his work is appearing on other outlets.