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Real Estate Debate Rages In America's Federal Forests

Doug Nadvornick

There's a great real estate debate raging in America's federal forests. The question is: How much rent should the government charge to people who own cabins on national forest land? The Forest Service is raising the rates to reflect the fair market value of the property. Thousands of Northwest families are complaining they may lose the rustic vacation homes they've used for generations. Correspondent Doug Nadvornick says this argument goes way back.


Priest Lake is one of north Idaho's great vacation meccas. There are hundreds of cabins in the shadow of jagged mountains. Some are on private land, some on state land. Some are big and fancy. Lisa Thaler's cabin sits on US Forest Service land. It's comfortable, but far from luxurious.

Thaler: "Knotty pine walls. Knotty pine doors."

Nadvornick: "Heat with wood stove?"

Thaler: "Heat with wood stove. Water from the lake. Just haul in drinking water."

Thaler's a realtor. She owns her cabin, but not the land beneath it. The government has given her a 20–year special permit. It has also imposed a set of rules. For example, she can't live in her cabin year round. The Forest Service also limits everything from the size and color of her cabin to the trees she can chop down.

Thaler: "You're not even supposed to have hummingbird feeders hanging out. They don't want you to have coolers sitting out."

In the Northwest, there are about 3,000 cabins on Forest Service land in places like Oregon's Mount Hood and Lake Wenatchee in Washington. Some were built as far back as the early 1900s. That's when the Forest Service encouraged working class people to vacation in America's new national forests. Back then, you couldn't make a day trip to a national forest. So, the agency allowed people to build simple cabins in the woods and it charged bargain basement rent, $20 or $30 a year, for the land under those structures. Jim Sauser oversees the Forest Service Recreation Residence program in Washington and Oregon.

Sauser: "Currently, some of the fees in the region are below $200, which is not too bad for your little slice of heaven."

Over the years, the Forest Service has raised rents, but in 1996, the Government Accountability Office reported it was still charging cabin owners too little. It said the agency should raise its rates to reflect fair market value.

In 2000, Congress approved a law to boost that process. But only now, after a new round of appraisals, are cabin owners getting the latest signs of sticker shock.

Karen Snyderscott: "Oh goodness. That cabin fee has quintupled since we started in 1988."

Karen Snyderscott and her husband Paul also own a cabin at Priest Lake. She says their new annual fee will eventually reach $13,000. They say that's a lot of money for a cabin they can only get to six or eight months out of the year. They say, for now, they can afford it. Paul Snyderscott says it's a different story for many of his neighbors who are retired and on fixed incomes.

Paul Snyderscott: "They will have to sell. They will have to give up their dream of seeing their grandkids grow up in the same environment they grew up in."

The cabin owners are fighting the fee increase. They've enlisted the help of Washington Republican Representative Doc Hastings. He has sponsored a bill that would throw out the Forest Service's new appraisal program. He would replace it with a tiered system that assigns fees based on appraisals that are more than 10 years old. Hastings testified about his bill at a House subcommittee hearing in April.

Hastings: "The fee schedule spelled out in my bill was crafted to be balanced and fair to both the cabin owners and the treasury. And I'm more than willing to consider additional proposals as long as they provide a simple, predictable system that does not result in fee increases that are beyond the reach of average Americans."

Hastings says, under his bill, the Forest Service would take in less from cabin owners, but that would be offset by not having to do appraisals.

Joel Holtrop says Hastings' bill has its merits. But the deputy chief of the Forest Service says it also has its flaws. He told the congressional subcommittee that the current appraisal system discourages those who look to make money off the federal forests.

Holtrop: "Without a fee system that approximates market value, we will continue to see large profits from the sale of cabins where cabin owners are in reality selling the value of the underlying lot. And we, the American people, own these lots and not the cabin owners."

Scott Silver heads the group Wild Wilderness, based in Bend, Oregon.

Silver: "Well, they're absolutely getting a sweetheart deal. The amount of revenues they have been providing to the American people, in the form of their permit fees, are trivial compared to the special privilege they enjoy."

Back at Priest Lake, Lisa Thaler and I are driving back to her real estate office. Sunshine filters down through the pine and cedar forest. She says, despite the uncertainty, people are still buying federal cabins because it's the only way someone who isn't rich can afford something like this.

Thaler: "Some people will buy on federal land simply because they want that location. Some of the nicest areas of the lake are on federal land. You get onto the waterfront for a lot less money."

As for Thaler, her cabin fee bill is now about $5,500. She says it's set to go up to $12,000. Like many of the cabin owners here, she's not sure she'll hold on to her woodsy getaway.

I'm Doug Nadvornick at Priest Lake, Idaho.

© Copyright 2010, Northwest News Network

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