Potlatch decides no more free rides

SUNDAY, OCT. 1, 2006

Forty-five minutes from his home amid the wheat fields of the Palouse, Steve Broemeling can lose himself in trees.

For nearly 30 years, he’s ridden his motorcycle over remote trails that stretch deep into the forested interior of north-central Idaho. Sometimes, Broemeling’s wife rides with him. Sometimes, he takes his 16-year-old son, the family dog and two fishing rods. “You can ride for days,” said Broemeling, a 47-year-old resident of Genesee, Idaho.

Broemeling’s travels take him through a vast, private forest owned by Potlatch Corp. The Spokane-based timber company is Idaho’s largest private landowner, with nearly 670,000 acres of trees. Each year, thousands of hunters, fishermen, hikers, berry pickers, bird watchers and trail riders visit the company’s holdings.

“We’ve been here 103 years, so at least two generations, maybe three, have used Potlatch forestlands,” said Matt Van Vleet, public affairs manager for Potlatch’s western region.

But free, unfettered access to the land is coming to an end.

Later this year, Potlatch plans to unveil a fee-for-use program. Details haven’t been released, but company officials are looking to capitalize on the land’s recreational value.

Fee-for-use programs already generate more than $1 million annually for Potlatch from company lands in Minnesota and Arkansas. The company also leases its hybrid poplar farm in Eastern Oregon to private groups, who use it for whitetail deer hunts.

Paying for recreational access is common in the South, where private hunting clubs are a long-established tradition. Westerners, however, consider forest access their birthright. Blessed with an abundance of public land, few have been willing to pay to hunt, pick huckleberries or fish on private lands, according to Van Vleet.

That’s starting to change, however. With both the popularity of outdoor sports and the population expanding, more people are competing for a piece of the woods. Timber companies, meanwhile, are looking for ways to recover the costs of recreational use on their land – including illegal dumping and vandalism. They’re also trying to earn extra bucks for shareholders.

Charley McKetta, a retired University of Idaho forest economist, views the trend as astute asset management. “One of the products from their land,” he noted, “is recreation.”

McKetta grew up in Texas, where paying to hunt on private land was the norm. He was skeptical that pay-to-hunt would ever catch on in the West until one of his graduate students researched the topic for her thesis in the early 1990s. She found that Idaho hunters were indeed willing to pay to hunt on private land when the quality of the hunting experience was perceived to be higher than free hunting on public land.

Besides Potlatch, other companies are testing the fee-for-use concept. Five years ago, Inland Empire Paper Co. began charging for recreational access to its 115,000 acres of forestland in Washington and Idaho. Families pay $50 for an annual permit that allows them to pursue activities such as hunting, hiking and mountain biking on company land. Inland Empire Paper is a subsidiary of Cowles Co., which also owns The Spokesman-Review.

In Western Washington, Weyerhaeuser Co. used to charge people for recreational use of tree farms near Snoqualmie Pass and the White River. “They were close to populous urban areas, and we had huge issues with trash and vandalism,” said Frank Mendizabal, company spokesman.

Weyerhaeuser later sold both properties. The company is considering whether to charge access fees for its 1.2 million acres in Washington, but hasn’t reached a decision, Mendizabal said.

At Potlatch, access fees for the company’s Idaho lands have been under consideration for three years. Based on research, company officials estimate the acreage attracts 200,000 visitor-use days per year. (A group of four hunters or campers who spend four days on Potlatch land would account for 16 visitor-use days.)

“We have people – locals – who bring their trailers out and stay from spring thaw to the first snowfall,” Van Vleet said.

Potlatch’s 5,000 miles of forest roads are one of the main draws. In addition to use by hunters and campers, the roads are popular with trail riders. The company fields requests from ATV groups scheduling rides of 300 to 500 people.

“They’ve all used Potlatch land without a fee and minimal restrictions,” Van Vleet said. But “the future is not going to be like the past.”

Some ideas under review by Potlatch officials include small-scale hunting licenses; requiring an annual permit to bring vehicles onto company property; and fees in high-demand camping spots, such The Dredges – gravel bars along the Palouse River that attract hundreds of RVs each year.

Fees would not be charged in areas where Potlatch has sold conservation easements guaranteeing public access, including 55,000 acres along the St. Joe River.

Van Vleet said a fee system could help disperse people on Potlatch lands and pay for damage from vandalism. A single instance of four-wheeling in a fragile meadow, for instance, can set the company back $5,000 in restoration costs.

By Potlatch’s estimates, however, an Idaho fee-access program would do more than recoup costs. “The program is focused on being a profit maker,” Van Vleet said.

In Minnesota, where Potlatch sells exclusive hunting leases in 19 counties, the fee-access program operates with very low overhead, he said. Hunting groups choose a tract for lease from maps on the company’s Web site and pay online by credit card. The groups help police the property, reducing vandalism and littering.

Dick McEwan, a retired forester from St. Maries, has hunted for deer, elk and game birds on Potlatch’s Idaho lands for more than three decades. He has conflicting feelings about paying for access.

“We’ve gotten kind of spoiled, we’re so accustomed to using their lands,” McEwan said. “I have fears of where it can lead to. It can lead to the point where the common people can’t get to it, and I hate to see that happen.”

He also noted that Potlatch gets a favorable property tax rate on its forestland because growing trees is a long-term endeavor. If the company starts collecting income from recreation, the state should review its tax rate, he said.

Alex Irby is chairman of an ATV group called PLAY in Orofino, Idaho. Twice a year, PLAY schedules all-day rides on Potlatch land, passing by groves of ancient cedars and old fire lookouts.

Most of the group’s 100 or so members aren’t opposed to paying an annual fee if that’s what it takes to keep Potlatch’s land open for riding, Irby said.

“Nothing’s free anymore,” he said. “We have to respect and protect the land, and pay, if that’s what it costs.”


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