Timber Group mulling legal action against Grays Harbor County over fee-for-access
Washington Forest Protection Association, the State’s oldest timber group, is taking legal action to protect private forest landowner’s property rights from Ordinance No. 412 adopted by Grays Harbor County Commissioners, July 7, 2014. The ordinance removes private timberland from its constitutionally designated forest land status, should landowners attempt to control access to their private property through a fee system.
A press release from the WFPA today said that landowners understand the recreational benefits their land offers to the general public and would like to keep their land open for public access, but that has become increasingly challenging and costly in recent years. Many landowners have established recreational access programs attempting to balance public access to their private property while managing environmental damage and over-use associated with wide-open access. Private forest landowners want to create good experiences for the public to recreate, fish, hunt, and enjoy their property by allowing access to their property for a fee. This helps landowners reduce the environmental and physical damage that occurs with wide-open use of their property.
“Our association and industry enjoys a strong working relationship in timber communities, such as Grays Harbor County and as such, I am disappointed that the recently passed ordinance now requires us to bring legal action against the county. Counties are the biggest beneficiary of the timber harvest excise tax, receiving 80% of the taxes upon timber harvest. Attempting to remove the basic right to control access to private property by adopting this county ordinance is illegal. As a longtime supporter of county government, it is unfortunate that it has come to this point, but we have no choice except to protect private landowners’ rights by taking legal action,” said Mark Doumit, Executive Director of the Washington Forest Protection Association.
Under the state’s Constitution, a tax system was designed “to encourage forestry and restocking and reforesting of such forests,” by taxing the timberland and timber harvested separately. Called the “current use” tax system, landowners are taxed on the bare land value of operating a tree farm, and unlike any other harvested crop in the state, landowners are also taxed on the trees when harvested. The county receives 80% of the tax on the trees in addition to the property tax. Ordinance No. 412 attempts to remove this taxation system if landowners control access to their property through a fee, and place timber into the same tax category as shopping malls, and housing developments.
Forest landowners believe this is illegal, and contrary to the very policy that lawmakers developed to encourage landowners to grow trees and maintain their land in forestry, instead of converting to another land use. If the county ordinance somehow was implemented, landowners would be forced to close off their lands to public access, or risk being placed in a tax category that is mismatched for growing trees.
Seventy-eight percent of Grays Harbor County is forested. Private forest landowners own 60% of the forestland. Forestry contributes to the economy by paying 14% of Grays Harbor County direct wages, and supporting a total of 6,087 jobs. Working forests, those managed for timber harvesting and replanting, pay more than $275 million in wages annually and $13 million in taxes, which primarily goes to the county. In 2012, timber harvest in Grays Harbor County was the second highest in the state, and provided enough wood to build 47,000 homes.
The Washington Forest Protection Association represents private forest landowners growing and harvesting trees on about 4 million acres in Washington State. Members of the 106-year-old association are large and small companies, individuals and families who practice sustainable forestry in Washington’s private forests. For more information, go to www.wfpa.org.