Potlatch Corp. land has been open and free for people to use for more than 100 years.

The land is still open, but the free part has changed.

As of April 1, everyone 16 and older must pay to access Potlatch's 660,000 acres in northern Idaho.

Matt Van Vleet, spokesman for the company, said sales have been brisk so far, with more than 600 people purchasing permits as of Wednesday. He attributes most of those sales to local residents buying permits so they can hunt their favorite spots during spring turkey and bear season.

Permit costs range from $10 for a walk-on permit to $25 per ATV, $50 for a truck and $100 for a motorhome.

Permits required

Van Vleet said Potlatch tried to formulate a fee system that would fit the lifestyles of people in the Northwest. Every year, tens of thousands of people recreate on Potlatch land.

"It's important that people buy the permits and that this process is successful," Van Vleet said. "Otherwise, the situation could change."

He said if the fee system doesn't work out, one of the company's alternatives is to break the land into large sections and lease them to hunting groups. That is how Potlatch derives additional profit from its land holdings in Arkansas and the Midwest.

"This is something unique to our land in Idaho," Van Vleet said of the user-fee system. "On our other property in Arkansas, people lease whole sections for hunting and they're the only ones that can use it. Here, it's open to everyone."

People might be buying the permits, but they're not celebrating the company's decision to charge for land use.

Joe Yockey, who runs cattle outside of Troy, said many people feel they have a traditional right to use the land and are furious at the change. Others are grateful they can still use the land, but would prefer access be free of charge.

"It's Potlatch's land and they should be able to do with it what they want," Yockey said. "But it's a big change around here. There has been a lot of talk."

Potlatch resident Tomi Andres plans to avoid the company's land. Her family usually camps two weekends a year on the company's ground, but they'll probably find somewhere else to camp rather than pay the charge.

"It's not worth buying permits for a couple weekends," she said.

Questions abound

Nick Heath, an outdoor recreationist and employee at Idaho Rigging in Potlatch, said most people are forming opinions on rumor and a lot of them haven't sought ways to buy permits or even find out which land belongs to Potlatch.

Heath said people might be more willing to buy permits and maps if they were available at local retailers.

Van Vleet said the company plans to work with local sports shops to sell the permits, but the process is taking longer than anticipated. Until then, a Web site and telephone hotline are the only way for people to purchase permits.

Heath, Andres and the Yockeys said one of the biggest problems is that people don't know where a lot of Potlatch's land is.

Forest Service, Idaho Department of Lands, Potlatch and privately owned property runs together in no organized manner throughout the area. People cruising through the woods on an ATV can cover a lot of ground and cross between management areas and not know it.

Heath is undecided if he'll buy a Potlatch ATV permit. He said he'll try to stay off Potlatch land, although he'll probably buy a $10 walking permit to hunt.

Potlatch developed map systems to illustrate where it's land is located. People must purchase the map systems, and each section has a topographical map on one side and a Global Imaging System overlay on the other.

Prices

Arnes said the fee scales are a source of frustration. She said a flat rate makes more sense to her.

Van Vleet said the fees are designed to charge permit holders for what they do. If someone just rides ATVs, they pay $25 instead of charging people $200 a year to go on the land.

Arnes said that's fine, but a family with a camper, truck and ATVs that wants to recreate on Potlatch land will be forced to spend several hundred dollars.

Van Vleet said the permit charge for a truck and two ATVs is the same amount it costs for a family to go out to dinner and a movie.

Arnes said that might be true, but a lot of people say they don't have the room in their budget to absorb the rising costs.

Why fees are needed

Van Vleet said the company has worked to make its property more profitable for the last several years.

Last year, Potlatch became a real estate investment trust for federal income tax purposes. That change requires that the company coffers be filled with money from investments in real estate. One of those uses for the land revolves around recreation.

Van Vleet said the fees weren't necessitated by the change, but it does work nicely with the company's new business model.

Making the company more profitable wasn't the only motivation for instigating user fees.

Van Vleet said the company pays about $350,000 a year to repair damage caused by people who abuse the land.

Some of the more visible abuses of the property include torn-out gates, ripped-up trails, mud bogs and personal property and waste that has been dumped on the land.

Van Vleet said someone recently dumped cyanide on company property and a hazardous materials team had to be called to in to clean it up.

Mud-bogging is a popular activity for people on ATVs and in trucks. Van Vleet said many people don't seem to think a torn-up area constitutes a lot of damage, or that someone in a bulldozer can just level it out.

Van Vleet said it can cost $10,000 in labor, machinery and reconstruction to repair areas damaged by mud-bogging. If mud gets into area waterways, it can put Potlatch out of compliance with the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality.

"Normal wear and tear is part of the equation, but not dumping cars, trash and destruction of private property," he said.

Enforcement

Part of the revenue from the permits will go toward property supervision. Independent contractors will patrol the property and serve as rangers. If they see illegal activity, they will document the event, gather information when appropriate and contact local authorities.

The forest patrol will not issue its own tickets. People found using Potlatch property will have the option to purchase a temporary pass, with the understanding and formal documentation that they will purchase permits within one week. They will be asked to leave if they do not want to purchase a pass.

Van Vleet said there is a system of escalation. If people are continually caught using the land without a permit, the final step would be criminal trespass charges.

"We are looking at intent," Van Vleet said. "We are looking for people to do the right thing."

Yockey said vandalism on his land increased over the last few years. He's had people rip out gates, push over fences and rip up the ground with their ATVs. It costs his family hundreds of dollars to replace the fence and gates. It also costs them time and creates the potential for their livestock to escape.

The Yockeys put up signs, installed locked gates and iron fence posts and put up 'No Trespassing' signs every 600 feet, but Yockey said none of it really helps. They all get torn down or circumvented.

"There is a lack of respect for the land," Yockey's wife, Frankie, said. "We've had gates ripped out by the railroad ties."

The next step

Ivan Rounds, who hunts elk at an undisclosed location on Potlatch land, said he's been expecting a permitting system for the last several years. He's relieved that it's a fee-based system and not a lease agreement.

Van Vleet said that could change for certain sections of the land.

"Being a real estate investment trust will drive us to get more value from the land," he said.

Van Vleet said there's been a lot of public input. Some people have requested special areas where ATVs are not allowed and sections that are specific for bow hunters, muzzleloaders and modern rifle hunters.

"Being private lets us try it out," Van Vleet said. "Frankly we can have some fun with it. We always welcome ideas. The property is big enough we can try things like that."

Another change that could be on the horizon is reserved campsites. People would be able to submit Global Positioning System coordinates to Potlatch and reserve a specific camping area.

Heath said people have taken free access for granted for so long that it will take a while for people to adjust to the new costs.

He thinks people eventually will figure out how to balance their budgets, needs and Potlatch's new rules.

"It's a big change," Heath said. "A lot of people are just waiting to see what happens."

To purchase a permit or for more information go to: recreation.potlatchcorp.com or call (866) 437-7730

The skinny on potlatch permits

Prices

* Foot only: $10

* Automobiles, trucks and SUVs: $50

* Motorhome: $100

* Pickup camper, trailer, fifth-wheel: $50

* ATV, motorcycle, snowmobile, ridden livestock: $25

- Permits are good for one year

When traveling on Potlatch land

* People can drive through Potlatch land without a permit if it is a road connecting non-Potlatch parcels

* Anyone recreating on Potlatch property must have a permit specific to that activity.

* A permit for a truck covers only the truck, not the ATV being hauled in the bed.

* A vehicle permit may be used in any vehicle, so long as it's being used for one vehicle at any given time.

Other information

* Potlatch Corp. has not set a limit to the number of permits it intends to sell.

* A permit does not give the holder exclusive rights to the property. Users must respect all closed areas.

Ryan Bentley can be reached at (208) 882-5561, ext. 237, or by e-mail at rbentley@dnews.com.

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