By editorial board • 

No cause to lock public out at behest of timber company

In August 2001, the county commissioners serving at the time authorized Willamette Industries to gate off a 6.7-mile section of High Heaven Road, a public road providing access to public and private timberland in the Coast Range.

In April 1919, an entirely different set of commissioners capped six months of meetings, hearings, debate and study by ordering successor Weyerhauser to lock the gates in open position, restoring public access.

Now, in July 2022, two holdover commissioners and one new addition are revisiting the issue at the request of about a dozen families complaining about traffic, littering, dumping, shooting, partying and inadvertent firesetting.

They say such activity has increased since the reopening, but don’t seem to be able to offer any hard evidence in support. According to county officials, that’s not reflected in complaints to the county Sheriff’s Office or Public Works Department.

Weighing in on the other side are hunters, campers, Scout leaders, target shooters, other outdoor recreation enthusiasts and at least one local resident — Mary Bryant, who led the charge to get the gates opened in the first place.

Bryant lives behind one of the gates and fears being trapped in the event of fire. One thing she and her neighbors agree on is that wildfire is a real threat in an area facing a high fire danger rating and low fire protection rating. 

We think the county got it right in 2019 when it ordered Weyerhauser to lock the gates open and let the public in to enjoy public Coast Range timberlands on the other side. And we see we have an unusual mix of company for that.

Among those who appear to agree, in addition to Commissioner Casey Kulla, who provided one of the two yes votes three years ago, are Commissioner Lindsay Berschauer and local government gadfly David Wall.

Berschauer said, “My basic view is, this is public property and the public has a right to access it. I understand the fear around wildfires, but ... are we just going to shut off all access to public lands for five months?”

In a letter to the editor back when the debate was raging in 2019, Wall said, “There should be absolutely no gates across public roads as a means of denying access to and by any element of the public. Creating gated communities by blocking access to county roads isn’t in the best interest of the public.”

Commissioner Mary Starrett has consistently sided with private landholders trying to gate the public out. She cast the lone no vote when the gates were reopened in 2019 and remains an advocate for restoring their closure.

Kulla and Berschauer have teamed up to refer the matter to the county’s Road Improvement Advisory Committee and charge it with developing a countywide policy on the gating of public roads.

We take no issue with that.

However, a study the Public Works Department undertook in 2019 determined High Heaven was the only county road that had been subjected to gating. So the committee shouldn’t have a hard time taking a stance capable of being applied with consistency and uniformity.

Prior to 2001, the county managed to provide the rather limited levels of maintenance and enforcement required to keep an unpaved county road open in such a lightly visited and populated area. It has apparently resumed doing so, and we see no reason it can’t continue meeting that obligation going forward.

The public should not be locked out of its own recreational timberlands without compelling cause, and we see no such cause here.


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