Darcy Mitchem grew up riding her bicycle on a Weyerhaeuser Co. logging road near Toutle. These days, her daughter trains for cross-country by running on other Weyerhaeuser roads. Beginning Aug. 1, the Mitchem family will need to buy a $150 permit to venture on either road or elsewhere on Weyerhaeuser property, even on foot.
Mitchem called Weyerhaeuser's coming fee access program "an upheaval of a whole lifestyle of living in the country. You might as well live on an island if you live in Toutle," with all the Weyco property around it, she said.
Several other outdoors enthusiasts and elected officials also have expressed dismay about the fee access program.
"I think Weyerhaeuser is going to hurt themselves," Rep. Ed Orcutt, R-Kalama said. "This is a public-relations nightmare for them."
"This is a huge culture shock and there's a lot of frustration," Rep. Brian Blake, D-Aberdeen said.
"There's a sense that this is a knife in the back from many in the hunting and fishing community," Blake said.
In the Longview area, Weyerhaeuser will charge a $150 fee for motorized and non-motorized access to 340,000 acres of its land from Aug. 1 through Jan. 31, 2015. A permit will be valid for a family.
Twelve areas ranging in size from 550 to 2,100 acres will be up for lease through an online bidding system that starts May 19. The high bidder will get access to the lease area for a year starting Aug. 1, with overnight camping allowed.
Mitchem said she wouldn't have a problem with charging for motorized access, but the walk-in aspect troubles her.
Mark Smith, who owns the Eco Park resort near Toutle and has been active in wildlife issues, says most hunters head out in groups that aren't related by blood. Under the new rules, hunting buddies who aren't relatives will have to purchase separate $150 permits, he pointed out.
Smith predicted that local hunters still will hunt in these parts, but those from outside the area will be deterred by the fees, with a resulting decrease in tourism spending here. Another deterrent to elk hunting in Southwest Washington is the spread of hoof rot, he said.
"Seattle guys will go east of the mountains, not here," Smith said.
Mitchem's mother owns the Kid Valley campground, which already has lost a reservation for camping during the hunting season because of the Weyerhaeuser fee, she said.
"My concern is you're going to have people who live next to the forest lands who can't afford to access them," Blake said. "You're going to have more well-to-do urban folks who can afford to come recreation on what we consider our community lands."
Dick Miller of Castle Rock, who's active in the Cowlitz Game & Anglers Club, said he'll stop hunting elk in Weyerhaeuser's St. Helens Tree Farm.
"A number of people, including me, are not going to go hunting any more," he said, because of the fee system, problems with hoof rot and many hunters' complaints that they didn't see many elk last season.
"Some can't afford it, or it's against their principles or they don't think there's enough animals to justify it," Miller said.
"Our decision for a fee access program has no relationship to this (hoof rot) issue," Weyerhaeuser spokesman Anthony Chavez said in an e-mail. "Hunters have to evaluate their hunt opportunities annually and the elk hoof rot concern is just one variable all hunters have to consider," Chavez said.
Miller and Mitchem doubt Weyerhaeuser's assertion that garbage dumping on its lands led to the fee system.
"We know the dumping is a false claim," Miller said. "It's just revenue enhancement," pointing out that the company would take in $2.25 million if it sold all 15,000 permits it's offering.
Mitchem, who once worked for Weyerhaeuser, said the company is more interested in "maximizing the dollar for every acre. If it works in Alabama, it should work here."
Private timber companies have charged for access to their lands in the Southeast for years, though it's a relatively new practice in the Northwest.
"I can tell you that the damage suffered by the tree farms each year is real," Chavez said. Damage from vandalism, garbage dumping, road damage and theft amounts to hundreds of thousands of dollars per year, he said.
"The revenues generated from this program will help to offset those costs and could potentially generate some additional revenues for the company," he said.
Miller said a volunteer program he was part of helped alleviate garbage dumping. In past years, Weyerhaeuser allowed hunting on its lands during special permit hunts because volunteers staffed gates and let in only those with the proper hunting permits.
Sandra Jonker, regional wildlife manager for the Department of Fish and Wildlife, said the agency is ending the volunteer gate-staffing program because of the Weyerhaeuser fees. Providing volunteers was in exchange for free or low-cost access, she said.
Jonker said the number of $150 permits the company plans to offer -- 15,000 -- is about the same as the total number of deer and elk hunters in the area last season.
"If you want to hunt, you can. You just need to get a permit," she said.
However, she said the agency may have to reconsider the way it allocates special hunting permits based on where Weyerhaeuser establishes areas that can only be accessed by lease-holders. "There's a lot of questions I don't know the answer to," Jonker said.
Former Cowlitz County commissioner Axel Swanson of Castle Rock said the new Weyerhaeuser rules will drive more hunters onto Forest Service lands.
Mitchem suggested that the state revisit its tax structure on timber companies, rewarding those that offer public access. As an example, Wisconsin gives property owners tax breaks if they provide public access and practice sustainable forestry.
"A lot of states are doing that," Mitchem said.
Orcutt said it wouldn't be fair to offer tax breaks for larger timber holders like Weyerhaeuser but not owners of smaller parcels. Decreasing taxes for some property owners only passes the tax burden to others, he said.
Blake said he doubts there would be enough support in the legislature to change the tax structure on timberlands with an eye towards public access.
Orcutt said he thinks Weyerhaeuser should have kept the volunteer gate-staffing program going. But he pointed out that Weyerhaeuser sold out the 1,400 permits it offered for its Pe Ell and Vail tree farms in Lewis County last year because hunters begrudgingly bought the permits.
"I will continue to talk to Weyerhaeuser," Orcutt said. "What's really going to get to Weyerhaeuser is for everyone to say, 'We're not going to do it' and not purchase permits. If hunters said no then Weyerhaeuser will have problems with elk and deer eating their tree farm."
Mick Cope, coastal wildlife program manager, said that after Weyerhaeuser started charging for access to its Vail Tree Farm last year, the number of deer hunters was halved but the overall harvest stayed about the same.
“It’s the same number of animals hunted with fewer people,” he said.
Like others, Orcutt said it will be hard for the company to enforce a permit system that's valid for a family when family members often have different last names.
"I think they're creating a bigger headache for themselves than what they think they're getting rid of," he said.
Chavez said the company won't require ID for children.
Blake, a logger himself, said Weyerhaeuser's image in the community will suffer.
"I think that the timber industry has worked hard to build its image in the community and I think this is going to negatively affect that," Blake said..
"Over the years, people have been supportive of large industrial land owners and their management. I think these large corporations really need to think twice about their perception in the communities where they operate."