In Our View: From Free to Fee

Weyerhaeuser has right to charge for use of its land that has been open to public

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There likely is no quicker way to raise the ire of the public than to tell people there will be a fee for something they have been enjoying for free. Never mind the right of the company to impose such a cost or the fact that we’re talking about for-profit business or the idea that there are costs associated with running that business — if people are accustomed to receiving something for free, they come to view it as a birthright.

And while the debate over such a situation could apply to any number of issues — particularly government benefits — in this case it is applicable to lands held by Weyerhaeuser Co. in Western Washington. In this case, we’re talking about the company’s St. Helens Tree Farm and other holdings east of Aberdeen. Weyerhaeuser is planning this summer to begin charging for access to those lands, which previously have been open to the public, and some people are not happy about it.

The plan: Weyerhaeuser will open 340,000 acres of land to holders of $150 permits, with the permits also being valid for spouses, children, and grandchildren. A total of 15,000 such permits will be available, meaning the company could generate up to $2.25 million from the sale. In addition, access to 12 areas ranging from 550 acres to 2,100 acres will be auctioned off through a bidding system.

Critics — especially hunters — complain that the sale will limit access to lands they have always enjoyed at no cost. Local resident Darcy Mitchem told The (Longview) Daily News that the program is “an upheaval of a whole lifestyle of living in the country.” Company officials counter that the fees are necessary because of concerns over increased garbage dumping, theft, and vandalism on the lands.

Yet whether Weyerhaeuser’s assertion is genuinely behind the program or whether the idea represents a disingenuous money grab on the part of the company, one thing is certain: The reason doesn’t matter; Weyerhaeuser has every right to impose the fee on lands that it legally owns. “This is new to the Northwest,” company spokesman Anthony Chavez said. “We’ve been doing this in the Southeast for years.”

The notion of paying for access to the land is anathema in the Northwest, where the ethos long has been one of unfettered access to the area’s wondrous nature. One of the region’s defining characteristics was forged decades ago when Oregon Gov. Tom McCall ensured public access to that state’s beaches, reflecting a mentality that long has been ingrained in Northwesterners.

Whether or not Weyerhaeuser’s decision is wise from a public-relations standpoint is open to debate. Some critics have noted that hunting in the area already is hampered by an epidemic of elk hoof rot, and others have said that limited access will harm the economy in small towns that benefit from an influx of hunters during the fall. And the move undoubtedly will lead to some backlash against the company and boycotts on the part of some hunters. As The Daily News wrote editorially, “The fee system is a public-relations setback for a company that has had a relatively good reputation among private timber firms.”

As with any businesses decision, company officials will have to weigh those drawbacks against the benefits of increased revenue and improved control over lands they own. But the suggestion that Weyerhaeuser somehow owes the public free access to its land simply because it has provided it in the past is an argument without merit.