WOODLAND — As Nelson Holmberg strolled along the Columbia River beach at Austin Point, he spotted a group of anglers and other folks soaking up the afternoon sun.
“This is the kind of recreation we like to see,” said Holmberg, the executive director of the Port of Woodland, which owns the land.
Not far away, Holmberg stared at a particularly deep set of ruts dug into the sand by four-wheelers.
“This use really concerns me because they’re driving in a wetland area,” he said. “It’s against the law.”
After years of abuse by off-roaders and ATV riders, the port is stepping up security at its 140 acres of land at Austin Point, which is on the Woodland Bottoms at the mouth of the Lewis River.
If more patrols and educating the public that off-road driving is prohibited on the property do not stop the practice, the port might block the road into the area.
In a news release, Port Commission President Paul Cline said the commission strongly prefers keeping the land open to the public.
But the commissioners “do reserve the right to close these properties — as a last resort — from public access if the rules are violated to an extent that major damage to the property occurs, causing excessive costs to repair,” Cline said.
The port has owned the Austin Point property since 1961, and over the years has had several discussions with potential industrial users about building a shipping dock there.
The port owns a right-of-way from the mainline railroad line, on which a rail spur to Austin Point could be built, Holmberg said.
However, with no industrial development on the horizon at present, the port welcomes some kinds of recreation use.
“Bank fishing is incredibly popular here,” Holmberg said.
With more than half a mile of Columbia River shoreline, Austin Point is also a popular place for families to spend sunny days. No overnight camping is allowed.
The pot-holed access road leads to a parking area. Some fishermen drive their boat trailers onto the beach and launch from there, which is allowed.
However, what’s not permitted is heading past the parking area onto the web of 4WD tracks that cut through the woods.
Most of the off-roading occurs at night, Holmberg said, disturbing people staying at a nearby RV park.
Last year, the port spent $900 to erect a gate on the access road and tried to keep it padlocked at night. The gate disappeared a few months ago.
To cope with the off-roaders, the port has a private security company, which patrols the area at night, asking people to leave. If they won’t, they could be cited for trespassing, Holmberg said.
“The sheriff has been called on numerous occasions to come down,” he said.
All Austin Point visitors are required to have a “Port Pass,” which costs $5 and is valid for two years.
Passes are available at the port office at 115 Davidson St. and Harper’s Outdoors and Tackle at 267 Millard. Money raised from selling the passes is used for security and portable toilets.
Problems with four-wheeling and ATV use was one of the reasons that most private timberland owners have limited all public access.
Off-road vehicles are allowed on only a few trails in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest. The Washington Department of Natural Resources does allow them on its roads, however.
“Four-wheeling is fun and guys like to do it, but it does take a toll,” Holmberg said.