The city of Montesano has blocked vehicle access to the forest land it owns.
The decision was made to protect the forest from fire, City Forester Loren Hiner said.
“It is totally under the city forester’s authority to close the forest when he deems the fire hazard (or other concerns) warrants it,” Hiner said in an email. “I let the mayor and forest (committee) know my concerns, and they concurred with me that since we now have gates in place and the ability to physically close the access, to go ahead and do it a little earlier than in past summers … .”
Montesano Mayor Vini Samuel and members of the forest committee, which is made up of Councilmen Ian Cope, Clint Bryson and Dave Skaramuca, have expressed concerns about an increase in vandalism over the past 18 months in the city-owned forest.
“We have seen substantially increased use and with that comes with both pros and cons,” Samuel said in an email. “We were one of the only forests that allowed motorized vehicles, but that has allowed destruction of signs, infrastructure, paths and trees. We had the first forest fire in over a decade. While the majority of users are respectful of the forest, the few who are not create substantial damage. We have also put up cameras and if people do criminal damage to our forest, we will charge them for that crime.”
The gates that block two roads to access the forest, Sylvia Creek A-Line west of the city and Camp Creek mainline east of the city, were locked beginning July 1 to cut down on danger from Independence Day-related sources, “campfires, cigarettes, sparks,” Hiner said. He also cited a recent increase in shooting of trees until they fell and vandalism.
Four landowners also were impacted by the locking of the gates because the city has easements through their property to access the forest. The Vidette reached out to Weyerhaeuser, R.D. Merrill, Green Diamond Resources and the Montesano School District.
Superintendent Dan Winter of the Montesano School District, which owns about 40 acres near the east gate, said “The district doesn’t have any issue with the city locking gates in terms of our property.”
A Weyerhaeuser spokeswoman said the organization thinks the city of Montesano “would be the more appropriate entity to comment” for this story.
A Green Diamond worker said that they were not against the move.
R.D. Merrill did not respond to a request for comment.
Hiner said the companies had been asking him for years to block access. He also said the companies have had similar problems with vandalism and garbage, including syringes, being discarded on their property.
The gates will remain locked until at least Labor Day.
“The council, the Forester and I are trying to make sure that there is public access while protecting the most valuable asset the city owns,” Samuel wrote. “I have tried to be clear to all users that while I appreciate, support and want recreational use, the forest’s purpose is as a watershed. It allows the citizens of Montesano NOT to pay (about) $1 million a year in taxes for municipal services. To that end, we have temporarily shut down motorized access while we determine how to address resident motorized access and public access during hunting season.”
She made clear that “the forest is open to hikers, bikers, walkers and foot traffic” and that the forest committee will work to balance competing interests over access.
Two area residents expressed their frustration with the closure at a recent City Council meeting. On Friday near the locked gate east of the city, Jeff Yeoman of Montesano expressed his frustration at being denied access to the city forest.
“I’d like to see cameras put up and for people to be held accountable for their actions,” he said.
Montesano residents who wish to access the city-owned forest can do so by first obtaining a two- or three-day pass and key from either City Hall or Hiner.
As of July 11, three people had requested and been granted passes to access the land to pick berries.
The Montesano City Council will develop a policy for access. The gates could be opened during winter, Hiner said, but the City Council will have to set policy, which likely will be done early next month.
The city forest land is owned by the city’s water fund, Hiner said. When the land was purchased in the 1930s, it was used as an active watershed. In the 1970s, wells were dug allowing for access to the city-owned land.
However, recent vandalism has worried Hiner and some on City Council leading to the blocking of the roads.
The land and trees on it are valued at $25 million, Hiner said. Funds from the harvesting of trees goes into the city’s water fund.