Defense Spending Rider Caps Forest Service Cabin Lease Fees

Dec 19, 2014

Credit U.S. Forest Service Northern Region (CC-BY-2.0)

Sometimes the best things in life come from unexpected places. This was the case for Missoulian Dick Rothermel and his wife about 13 years ago when they stumbled across a modest cabin for sale on Seeley Lake-area Forest Service land.

"We were up there in November," Rothermel said. "It was cold and rainy and it looked like the most desolate place you can imagine. She was talking to the realtor and she said; 'I'll buy it.' I about dropped over."
Rothermel's a bright guy. He's a renowned aeronautical engineer who pioneered groundbreaking wildfire modeling techniques; but he says his wife immediately saw that "something special" in this place that he did not.  
"It's been wonderful ever since. We married late in life after both our spouses died, so we have two separate families that come and use the cabin. It's a year-round cabin with central heating and water supply, it's livable the whole time. The thought of losing it and our kids not being able to use it, just appalled us."

"Losing it" to what they characterize as an unpredictable fee-setting system for about 700 Montanans, and thousands of others across the country, who own cabins on land leased from the U.S. Forest Service.
The leasing program dates back to the early 1900’s when the Forest Service wanted more people to experience the nation’s new and growing national forest system. These cabin fees were kept at rock-bottom rates as incentive.

The fee-spikes came after a 1996 review from the Government Accountability Office found those cabin fees weren’t keeping pace with fair market value.

For instance, when the Rothermel's purchased their cabin, those fees amounted to about $5,000 annually. Those costs started mounting; incrementally at first, but by 2012, those annual fees had skyrocketed to $13,000.

Rothermel said "The next year it went to $19,200. We were thinking;' I don't know if we want to keep paying this much money when we've got grandkids that want to go to college that could use this money."

Rothermel and other cabin owners on Forest Service land met with Republican Senator-elect Steve Daines this week. They wanted to thank him and the rest of the delegation for inclusion of the Cabin Fee Act in the lands and resources legislation recently approved by Congress as a rider on the National Defense Spending bill. When the Forest Service now reassesses cabin lease fees, it must charge the lesser of the new formula or $5,600 a year.

Daines describes the new fee structure as fair and equitable.

Missoulian Chris Anderson agrees.

The Anderson's purchased their Seeley Lake-area-cabin about 4 years ago and, like the Rothermels, were also facing astronomical fee hikes.

Critics question why these cabin owners are essentially being subsidized.Why shouldn't those who are lucky-enough to own a cabin on federal land pay a premium for the privilege? Anderson says he's ok with paying that premium, as long as the fee structure benefits both parties.

"Cabin owners get an opportunity to recreate on a piece of property that the Forest Service is leasing to them. The Forest Service has an opportunity to have somebody' who's responsible, be on the property, take care of the property and be a good steward of the property," Anderson said.

Senator-elect Daines says revised cabin fee bills should soon be mailed out. He adds it's too soon to know what, if any, refunds will be available.