Welcome to the Toutle Valley!

I'm starting this blog to help visitors find the many things to do around Mount St. Helens and the Toutle Valley.  Our area is surrounded by adventure, high and low, but it's sometimes genuinely hard to find information about these special places.  Before our volcano erupted, the Spirit Lake Hwy followed the Toutle River all the way to Spirit Lake and Mount St. Helens with easy-to-find adventure around every bend.  The route was lined with campgrounds, river access, logging roads, trails open to all,  and vast areas to explore. 

Today its different--With all the passes, permits, and rules, it's a tangle of red tape to just understand where you can go for a walk.  Don't dispair!  I know all the secrets... and I might even be asking for your help to make the area more accessible. 

Consider this blog your Insider's Guide to the Toutle Valley.  

Posted By Toutle Trekker

I'm done pussyfooting around.  I've teased; I've hinted; I've even written a post or two that touched on the subject.  Now I'm ready to jump in head first.  I'm going to tell everyone how to open gates to landlocked state land. And I'm going to give you all the links and sources to prove it!   I have the passcode, the combination, the Magic Number.  Here it is: 1-9-6-7.  That's it folks--1967 is the key to unlocking private timber company gates that block public access to public land.  

gatesign
 

Gates like this one on the 500 Road. It's one of the main access routes to Weyerhaeuser's St. Helens Tree Farm.  Maybe you even paid Weyerhaeuser for a permit and key.  Despite what the signs warn, "permit required for all access", the 500 Road is a shared road, and the state of Washington has legal access rights on it.  Just a few miles past that gate lies 15,000 acres of State DNR land.  

So how does "1967" open that gate?  It turns out that the 40th legislative session in 1967 was unquestionably the most important for outdoor recreation EVER.  Washington was the fastest growing state in the nation.  Sprawl was effecting farms, forests, and open space.  Governor Dan Evans was concerned about this loss of quality-of-life, and he intended to do something about it.  He even gave a special speech to highlight his outdoor recreation priorities.  He called for a scenic highway system, protection of the seashore, and broad cooperation between public and private entities.  Then he challenged the legislature to do even more...and they did.  Many significant laws were passed, including three that effect that gate on the 500 Road. 

First, the legislature passed recreational immunity (RCW 4.24.210).  For years the old Department of Game, along with large private landowners, had been pushing for a this change that would protect private landowners from lawsuits if they allowed free public recreation.  It passed in 1967.  Next, the State DNR obtained the legal authority to provide recreation and recreation access routes to public land. (RCW 79.10.140)  This law put the DNR squarely in the public access business.  And, most importantly, "current use taxation" finally passed in 1967.  This was the start of the process to fundamentally change how land is taxed.  It was a BIG deal, with a multi-step and multi-year process.  The next year, the people would vote to change in the state constitution to allow it.  And after that, in the decade that followed, the legislature would refine and tweak how current use taxation would operate for different types of open-space land, like farms, ranches, and forest land.  The change had the support of timber companies because it would mean a big tax break for them, but real estate entities lobbied against it, and stated in the 1968 voter's pamphlet that "this is a calculated effort by the major timber companies to shift the burden of real estate taxes to other types of property."

During this long process the timber companies needed to keep the people on their side.  Imagine the repercussions if they had started their expensive recreational permits while "current use taxation" was still in its design phase.  People would have been outraged!  The vote in 1968 would have failed.  And the generous tax breaks that passed in the subsequent years would have crashed and burned.  Instead, they (wisely) embraced free public recreation.  Private landowners heeded Dan Evan's call for cooperation and partnership in outdoor recreation. All through the 1970's and 1980's private timberland was wide open for hunting, fishing, camping, hiking, and biking.  This was not a coincidence.

And, most importantly for the 500 Road, the easement language between timber companies and the state of Washington changed virtually overnight.  Before the 1967 legislative session, the road easements between these entities have a restrictive clause that limited the use to "land management and administrative activities".  After the legislative session, this restricting clause was removed.  The easement on the 500 Road was signed in October of 1967, and it has a purpose of using existing roads to "provide access to and from the lands of the parties hereto." PERIOD.  No limiting clause tacked onto the end.  

easement map

The DNR knows all about these broadly worded easements, calling them a legal "grey" area. With the power and influence of the nation's largest landowners threatening them, the agency treats pre- and post-1967 easements the same.  They have simply forgotten the deals and promises, concessions and tax breaks, laws and agreements of 1967.  We all should be able to use these routes to access public land without being molested by corporate cops or the game wardens in their pocket.  

Help Out: Imagine how much public land would be accessible if our leaders confirmed that we could use these routes!  Contact Public Lands Commissioner Hillary Franz at the DNR, the Department of Fish and Wildlife leadership, or Governor Inslee's office (which has shown some interest).   Write legislators and remind them that the the broad and open wording of post -1967 easements were bought and paid for by the public! Do your own research.  Maybe that gate near you that blocks access to public land also has a lost and forgotten easement.

Learn More:  Check the history out for yourself, then spread the word.

Lewis County has all their easement online: Lewis County Auditor - Disclaimer (lewiscountywa.gov)  The Green River Easement is Auditor File 720413. 

Read Governor Evan's speech and all 1967 laws here: Legislative Information Center Floor Journals (wa.gov)

The "current use tax law' is here: RCW 84.33.010: Legislative findings. (wa.gov)  Read the legislative intent on forestland taxation, which states that providing  "recreational spaces" is part of the reason for the tax break.  The 1968 Voter's pamphlet link: https://www.sos.wa.gov/_assets/elections/voters' pamphlet 1968.pdf

 DNR Biennial Report (pg 19) 3aae2994-e920-4e2e-8bae-89046ff7d06e (wa.gov)  DNR states that these roads are open to public recreational use.


 
Posted By Toutle Trekker

When I grew up, in the 1970's, elk hunting was a lifestyle, a die-hard tradition that was passed down like religion.  I remember my first trip to Elk Camp on the 200-line.  (Logging roads are numbered and the railroad term "line" denotes a road.)  The main camp was fashioned from old railroad ties with an Army tarp roof. It was located in the old growth on Weyerhaeuser land way up high on a ridge.  It had a barrel stove and dirt floor.  It smelled like smoke and mud and whiskey.  I loved it.  But things sure have changed...

The eruption of Mount St. Helens impacted this region in unprecedented ways.  Big game and big game hunting went for a roller coaster ride.  First, the animals were wiped out by the eruption, and in response all hunting stopped.  Then, as the fireweed and other good elk food returned, so did the animals.  Elk birth rates doubled, and their numbers exploded.  By 1985 hunting returned but was limited to draw permits.  Success rates approached 100%.  Permit applications (and funds generated) soared.  Everyone was happy and elk were EVERYWHERE.  Herds with 200 elk were common.  In the winter, sometimes 1000 elk would gather in the North Toutle valley.   All the while, the little trees planted outside the Monument were growing fast, too. 10 years passed, then 20 years, and those little trees started to shade out all that good elk food.  By now the animals were clearly overpopulated.  In 2006, it all came crashing down.  Elk were starving; politicians chimed in with finger pointing; the public was outraged.  The state instituted emergency feeding a few times.  The population needed to be reduced, so the hundreds of cow tags were added.  But by now it was too late.  Another elk killer--hoof rot--was chewing into the St. Helens herd.  (It always amazes me how nature moves faster than human bureaucracy can react.)  The state was too slow to start the herd reduction, and too slow to stop it.  The elk today must deal with a trifecta of pressures: little feed, many cow tags, and hoof rot.  Consequently, now even seing a single elk on a day hunting in the blast zone is a success.

And hunting has changed in big ways.  Now families need to purchase permits from Weyerhaeuser just to hunt timberland.  Public lands have their own permit requiremens, and federal and state lands are often locked behind private pay-for-entry gates.  High-tech mapping applications that identify land ownership are needed more than map and compass.  Elk are no longer public resources held in trust for the benefit of all forever.  Game animals are now commodities being peddled by both public and private interests for the biggest returns.  And management of our game is now being sold and subcontracted to interests like Weyerhaeuser.  After a day hunting, my family was pulled over by private security and state WDFW enforcement working together for the benefit of Weyerhaeuser's permit system.  With three hunters, the state game warden was only interested in the license and tags of the youngest member of the group.  Why?  Because this teen might need his own $350 Weyerhaeuser permit and his license proved his age!

All is not lost.  There are still a few places to hunt by following only public rules on public land.  Unfortunately, the public Toutle State Forest is entirely in a draw only area for elk, but it is open for general deer, bear and other game.   The WInston Block of DNR land is accessible behind Weyerhaeuser's locked gate on the 1900 road. The DNR has not confirmed that that route is a legal easement that the public can use, so to be safe, have a Weyerhaeuser permit or a very good lawyer if you head to state land via the 1900!  While we wait, the Winston Block can be accessed from the north off Highway 12 near Mossyrock.  Additional blocks of state land exist along county roads along the Cowlitz/Lewis County property line.  Federal land, if you can get to it, is open.  Most hunters focus on the Lewis River Valley south of Mount St. Helens.  

  More information on public land opWDFW Hunt Planner (wa.gov)en to hunting:

 


 
Posted By Toutle Trekker

I wanted this story be about success.  I've been waiting to write for two years now, working behind the scenes.  It should have been a snap, easy-peezy.  Just one phone call and the illegal "no trespassing" signs come down, the public is allowed back in, all is operating as intended (and required).  Unfortunately, it hasn't quite work out that way.    

Posted Gate
I discovered that 260 acres of public land on the Toutle River was (is) being improperly restricted.  The land is accessed by a legal, written easement "for all road purposes associated with the ownership of the land".  Instead, the access road is gated and posted with bold "no trespassing" signs.  It should be a simple fix:   The land is in public hands and is dedicated to public use.  It was given, free of charge, to the local Conservation District by the state of Washington with along with this access road easement.   I have a copy of the easement; I have the deed requirements that outline how the land must be used. These include a provision specifically requiring uninterrupted river recreational access.  Don't take my word for it.  These documents are on the county's property website at the bottom under "conveyances" for everyone to see.

Cowlitz Property Info | Properties Listing Grid (cowlitzinfo.net

I contacted the Conservation District and made presentations.  I pointed out all the multiple agency goals for public access to our rivers and public lands. It seemed like such a little thing, an easy no-brainer win for recreation. JUST CHANGE SOME SIGNS.  But nothing is simple when dealing with Weyerhaeuser.

 It seems the mega-corporation--the largest landowner in the United States--will not allow anyone access on that 260 acres accept their paying clients.   All recreationists in the West know about how private land can block public land, giving exclusive access to private interests.  This is exactly what is happening here, with the recreational lease-holder of Weyerhaeuser's getting exclusive access to that 260 acres.  The Conservation District managing the land (with conflict of interest up to their eyeballs) doesn't want to ruffle the feathers of a powerful corporation that owns nearly half of Cowlitz County.  I've called and clawed and complained for two years now.   And what outrageous thing am I asking?  Change the "No Trespassing" signs on the gate to  "non-motorized access allowed", which is the way it was before Weyerhaeuser started their recreation fee program.  I haven't ask to open the road to vehicles, or to remove the gate, just modify the sign, and simply allow the public access to public land to walk, bicycle or horseback ride that easement route to public land.  But no.  Nope.  No way.  Big W wants to control not only their land, but everyone else's too.  The agency, after nearly two years of prodding, reluctantly asked the company about the issue, but was told in a fashion to "sit down and shut up", which they dutifully did.   Both the Consevation District and Weyerhaeuser are much more concerned about keeping the public from wandering onto the lease, than the public's right to access public land via a public easement.  And consequently, the lease holder gets virtual exclusive access to the public's land.  

Since these threatening signs are designed to keep regular hunters and anglers from legally accessing public land, they may actually be a violation of Washington law! (RCW 77.15.210) To paraphrase, it is illegal tharass, intimidate, interfere with or disrupt the lawful pursuit of hunting and fishing.  How is posting a legal access route to a river with public land NOT a violation of this law?

easement blocked
So what to do?  I'll keep chugging along, bringing the issue to more and more public officials.  Maybe someone, somewhere out there cares about the publics' rights, too.  If you know of such a person, please pass this on... 

UPDATE: The state Department of Transportation, who "gifted" the land to the Conservation District in the first place, doesn't want anything to do with enforcing their deed restrictions.  After multiple calls and a request from our state representative, the DOT finally did review the situation.  What did they say?  The same excuse that the Conservation District is using:  The public can SWIM the river to get to the land, so it is technically available for uninterrupted recreation even with the road closed and posted.  There is a lesson here for any community that has mitigation put in place to compensate for a harm.  Do not trust.  Make sure there is a strong enforcement of promises or you will lose.


 
Posted By Toutle Trekker

HELP TRAIL ACCESS PLEASE

The online mapping company OnX Maps is looking for landlocked trails and public access "Hotspots". Please help put the gated and held-for-ransom trails at Mount St. Helens National Monument on their radar.  There are several official, United States Forest Service trails that are locked behind Weyerhaeuser pay-to-enter gates.  These are some of the oldest, most historic, trails in the entire Gifford Pinchot National Forest, and they access some of the most spectacular parts of the National Monument.

Green River Trail 213   

T11NR5E sect. 31  Lat: 46° 23'16.62"N Long:122° 13'36.61"W 

Even before Mount St. Helens erupted, advocates were working on a National Monument that would protect the spectacular old growth forests, waterfalls, rushing streams, and unique habitats of the Green River Valley.  When the volcano erupted, a combinations of luck and geography sheltered this valley of the giants from the killing blast.  Today, trails open to horses, mountain bikes, and hikers loop through the deep timber and rugged landscape passing lakes and streams along the way. While the far (east) end is accessible from Forest Service roads, the western (Toutle side) of the trail is locked behind Weyerhaeuser gates.  The historic route to the Green River Trail was from Toutle on trails, and later via the 2500 logging road, which was shared by the public and private landowners along it. When the USFS was planning for the Monument they relied on the traditional, open-gate policy of timber companies that was common at the time to supply access, but assured the public that the government would aquire rights to these roads if the situation changed.  Well it sure has changed! Now only a limited number of paying customers can drive to those Monument trailheads. We need to put the Green River Trail on a priority list for an easement.

Landers Trail 217

This trail which connects with Green River Trail, is also locked behind gates.  It accesses Deadman's and Vanson Lakes, as well as the old Vanson Lookout site, and on toward Goat Mountain, Goat Creek Falls, or even farther.  Here's the location: T11NR5E Section 22  Lat 46°24'54.83"N, Long: 122 10'27°45"W

How to Help: From this website add the location of these two trailheads.  The category most appropriate is "easement to improve access".  Lets finally re-gain access to these key historic trails!

https://www.onxmaps.com/landlocked-state-lands/report-a-land-access-opportunity


 
Posted By Toutle Trekker

So now it is time to jump into some bit of controversy concerning access to our public lands in the Toutle Valley (and around the state).  I've already talked about "official" access routes to various parcels of state and federal land in the valley, but, behind the scenes, I have been pushing government agencies and elected officials about a more hidden layer of access: road easements.  It turns out that many of the gated roads that you might run into that are posted by Weyerhaeuser may have state easements on them that go to public land.  These roads are currently posted with signs that claim that a Weyerhaeuser permit is required for all recreational access, even if these roads go to state land.  In fact, the gate nearest the sediment dam (below) blocks a road with TWO government easements on it, both of which could allow public access to adjacent public land.  Weyerhaeuser owns the land on the right side of the road.  Now, keep in mind, these easements do not let folks walk or hunt or hike on private land, they only allow access through on certain roads leading to public land. 

Posted gate
 

Most of these easements are between timber companies and the state Department of Natural Resources.  Many were written in the 1960's and 1970's when both entities where logging new territory, and they needed to pass each other's lands.  One relavent easement, the Green River Easement, was written in October of 1967 and has no restrictions on how the road can be used. The easement simply provides access to and from lands of the parties.  The DNR says that public use of these easements is a "grey" area, but a closer look at the history shows that broadly worded easements were written this way in response to pro-recreation laws that passed the Washington legislature in mid-1967.  Unfortunately, easements written before mid-1967 often have restrictive language that limits use to "land management and administrative activities".

What this means for the Toutle Valley:  Right now access to our state lands is mostly at the whim of Weyerhaeuser.  The WDFW does have and "administrative-type" easement on the 3100 road, but the public isn't covered by that.  If the DNR could confirm that the public could at least walk or bicycle on roads covered under the Green River Easement, access routes would open up to the Winston Block of DNR land (16,000 acres just north of Kid Valley), the 8,000-acre Wildlife Area would have three or four additional access routes, and the 35,000-acre Toutle State Forest could be accessed from Sediment Dam Road. 

It's complicated, but right now is the time to contact your legislator, the heads of the DNR, and WDFW and to encourage them to confirm that the public may used these easement routes to access state land. 

 


 


 
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