Cabin owners protest Forest Service fee increases
WASHINGTON (AP) – David Mead’s patch of paradise is a rustic cabin his family built 25 years ago atop a steep slope in the Sawtooth National Forest in Idaho.
For years the vacation home came at a bargain price – just $390 a year for the half-acre lot. That changed in 1996, when a new land appraisal boosted Mead’s fee to $2,500, although a second appraisal brought it down to $1,750.
Still, the rising fees are bringing howls of protest from many of the 15,200 cabin owners on Forest Service land in 25 states. They are backing bills that would overhaul the Forest Service appraisal system and keep the fees roughly where they were before the new appraisals began.
”Some of our cabin owners have already bailed out,” Mead told a House subcommittee Thursday. ”The ‘cash cow’ appraisal objectives that appear to drive the Forest Service are now driving retired people and average-income families out of the forests.”
But Forest Service officials say changes were needed in their 20-year-old appraisals, which had fallen out of line with market realities. Bills backed by the cabin owners would essentially wipe out the additional $10 million the agency expects to collect each year under the new appraisals, the officials said.
”The use of national forest land for private recreation residences is a privilege afforded to a relatively few number of persons,” said Paul Brouha, a Forest Service associate deputy chief. ”Taxpayers should be adequately compensated for this private use of their public lands.”
Since 1915, the Forest Service has allowed Americans to build and use cabins on forest lands for an annual fee, although the number of such cabins has been declining in recent years.
Roughly 60 percent of the Forest Service cabins are in four states: California, Washington, Oregon and Idaho.
The agency in 1988 adopted new regulations on appraising the land used by cabin owners and in 1996 launched a five-year effort to reappraise the tracts.
With nearly two-thirds of the new appraisals complete, four in 10 cabin owners would see their fees at least double, an average increase of $1,110.
Another 3 percent would see increases of more than 500 percent, or an average increase of $4,098. Just 12 percent of cabin owners would see their fees decline.
The increased fees would double the Forest Service’s revenue collections under the program, from $9.6 million in 1998 to more than $20 million by 2003.
Congress in the past two years passed legislation to slow down the fee increases. But this year Rep. George Nethercutt, R-Wash., and Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, want to revamp the process by requiring the Forest Service to consider factors that would lower the appraisals.
For instance, families cannot live on Forest Service property year-round or subdivide their lots, Nethercutt said.
”Families are being unfairly penalized,” he told the forests and forest health subcommittee of the House Resources Committee, which held a hearing Thursday on his bill.