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The Weyerhaeuser Experiment

It's being called the Weyerhaeuser Experiment, and whether it's greeted with a sullen sigh or the gnashing of teeth, it's getting more face time every day with Oregon hunters.

After decades of offering public access to its highly managed commercial tree farms — often loaded with deer and elk — the private timberland giant slapped the gates closed on huge swaths of its Western Oregon holdings and put up a "for rent" sign just before last year's controlled-hunt drawing.

Weyerhaeuser now is selling year-round access permits to the public for $350, which allow use of such places as its 174,000-acre Millicoma tree farm outside of Coos Bay, and hunters are buying them up just to keep hunting some of the only lands they know.

No permit? No access. Not even to pick blackberries.

Now hunters are worrying openly whether private timber companies that own the backbone of lower-elevation hunting lands in the south Cascades will see those dollars reflected in their eyes and follow suit by selling recreational access permits of their own.

"I think they're probably being watched," says Duane Dungannon of the Medford-based Oregon Hunters Association. "If it's successful for them, I'm afraid you may see others follow that lead."

For hunters feeling more and more squeezed for prime hunting access on the eve of this year's general black-tailed buck deer season, the good news for now is two-fold.

First, Weyerhaeuser has no tree farms in Jackson or Josephine counties — just a seed farm.

Second, there are 1.2 million reasons hunters could pass on buying private-access permits here if, by chance, local firms look to recreate the Weyerhaeuser Experiment.

"I think if there's a way to make money on it they'll look at it," says Dave Schott, executive director of the Southern Oregon Timber Industries Association in Medford. "But I really don't think it would be really attractive to people for something like this down here. Three-hundred-fifty dollars is pretty spendy. And there's 1.2 million acres of federal holdings in the Rogue Valley."

Weyerhaeuser officials did not return telephone calls for comment, but details of their access program are found on their Web pages.

At its Millicoma holdings, Weyerhaeuser is selling up to 1,200 year-long permits that begin Aug. 1 and allow regular access to the holder, spouse and minor children to hunt, fish, collect berries and mushrooms but little else. Restrictions abound on vehicle access and camping, with stipulations for no fires and even no alcohol. Violators can be booted with no refunds.

A similar Weyerhaeuser program two decades ago in the Molalla area died over a lack of interest.

But not this year. Despite being resoundingly panned on social media and in complaints for OHA leaders somehow to intervene, hunters angry over a $4 increase in a deer tag are writing $350 permit checks to the company — 975 permits had been issued as of Wednesday to the Millicoma lands, which includes big chunks of the popular Tioga Unit.

"They're selling permits, so not everybody's mad about it," Dungannon says. "While one guy's complaining, his neighbor thinks it's the greatest thing in the world."

Part of the rub of pay-to-hunt is that many Oregonians, particularly Western Oregon hunters, don't realize how good they've had it.

Buying access to the public's big game on private lands is standard fare in states like Texas, which has just 1 percent of public lands. Even Eastern Oregon hunters routinely reach fence lines with Keep Out signs for those not paying access fees.

OHA's official position is that the organization recognizes private property rights and that Weyerhaeuser's program fundamentally is no different than private ranch access or selling of Landowner Preference tags.

If it works, it will expand. If not, it will die. Simple supply-and-demand. As American as it gets.

"It's an awkward one because, what can you do?" Dungannon says. "The state's half public, so that's the good news."

Also, the checkerboard pattern of private and federal Bureau of Land Management lands here may mean that expanding it here would create more problems for timber companies than it would solve.

"I just don't see that taking place here," Schott says. "The only thing I've heard of about access down here is about fire."

But it's certainly gotten part of the hunting community ablaze, as well as Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife biologists, who have met with Weyerhaeuser officials and are warning hunters not to apply for tags for hunts in these units unless they first secure access.

As for whether the Weyerhaeuser Experiment eventually becomes known as the Weyerhaeuser Model, only time and money will tell.

"Is it a trend? I don't know," says Ron Anglin, ODFW's Wildlife Division administrator. "Certainly, as landowners there's always something they can do to make money off their lands. This is one of those ways. But if it's not profitable, they'll reconsider it. We'll see how it goes."

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@mailtribune.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.

Mail Tribune / Bob Pennell illustration