There will be no more free rides from the Potlatch Corp.
Starting April 1, Idaho’s largest timberland owner will start charging for recreational access to more than 600,000 acres of company-owned property in the St. Joe and Clearwater regions, including thousands of miles of trails and roads used by hunters, ATV riders and others.
Users will have to buy an annual pass. The fees will be based on recreational users’ vehicle type, ranging from $100 for a motor home to $25 for a motorcycle or ATV.
Potlatch, which is headquartered in Spokane, has subsidized public recreation on its Idaho lands for more than a century. But now the company is looking for ways to capitalize on growing demand for outdoor recreation, a $300 billion industry in the United States.
“When the last of the snow melts, a lot of people from Lewiston to Coeur d’Alene have moved their RVs onto company property and parked there for the next eight to nine months,” said Matt Van Vleet, Potlatch’s spokesman. “They’ve done that at virtually no cost.”
The fees will help ensure that the land stays open to the public, he said.
The April 1 effective date coincides with the beginning of spring hunting season. However, fees will not be charged for recreational use on 55,000 acres of Potlatch land along the St. Joe River. That land is open to the public for free through a prior conservation easement.
Potlatch officials spent three years crafting the fee-to-access program, floating the proposal to a variety of user groups. “For the most part, people think it’s reasonable,” Van Vleet said of the fee schedule.
Alex Irby and his wife, Julia, will spend $175 annually to use three ATVs and a camper/truck on Potlatch lands.
“That sounds like a lot of money if what you paid before was zero,” said Irby, who is chairman of PLAY, an ATV group based in Orofino, Idaho. “But most people said if it costs more, it costs more. It’s a privilege to use the land.”
Money from the fees will reimburse Potlatch for costs associated with vandalism from public use and illegal dumping. Last year, the company spent $10,000 repairing damage from a single incident of mud-bogging in a fragile meadow.
The program is also set up to turn a profit for Potlatch’s shareholders, Van Vleet said.
Recreation fees already generate more than $1 million annually for Potlatch from company lands in Minnesota and Arkansas. The firm also leases its hybrid poplar farm in Eastern Oregon to private groups, who use it for whitetail deer hunts.
“From a shareholder’s perspective, we have to do this,” Van Vleet said. “We have to derive as much value out of the land as possible, without compromising our stewardship commitment.”
Fee-for-use is a growing trend. Outdoor recreation is a booming industry, and timber companies are looking for ways to cash in.
Paying for recreational access is common in the South, where private hunting clubs are a long-established tradition. In the West, however, fee-access has been less common because public lands are so abundant. Since people could hunt, hike and snowmobile for free on federal and state lands, they weren’t willing to pay to recreate on private land.
But that’s starting to change. Six years ago, Inland Empire Paper Co. began charging for recreational access to its 115,000 acres of forestland in Washington and Idaho. Families will pay $65 this year for an annual pass 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. has tested the concept of fee-access to several of its tree farms.
Potlatch has been contacted by more than 450 people who want to reserve their favorite campsite for the summer. That shows that people are willing to pay for use, Van Vleet said. The company isn’t taking reservations yet, but it could be by 2008.
Van Vleet is encouraging people to take global positioning units to their favorite hunting camps or summer hang-outs, and report the coordinates. That way, they’ll get first dibs on leasing the site, he said.
Potlatch wants to inventory the popular campsites. Some, such as The Dredges — a series of gravel bars along the Palouse River — suffer from overuse. Allowing people to lease their favorite spots for a year could help disperse the crowds, Van Vleet said.
But Irby, who supports Potlatch’s annual use fee, said he’s less comfortable with the company offering exclusive, yearlong leases to select individuals. Overtime, the leases could become too pricey for local families to afford, he said.
Irby is a member of Idaho’s Fish and Game Commission. He’d rather see the state raise money to pay Potlatch for perpetual public access.
“I would hope … that we in Idaho could respond to keep it open to all people,” he said.