Feds Reclaim Priest Lake Island Cabins Area Families Losing Their Long-Held Refuges
Like waves that hit the beach below, memories wash over Dick Russell as he steps inside his family’s Bartoo Island cabin.
Bunk beds crowd one end of the big room. At the other end are picnic tables; you can almost see one more hungry kid squeeze onto a bench. In between, worn easy chairs hunch near the fireplace. Few things match, but everything fits.
The Russell family has owned this place for 43 years. Trouble is, they’ve never owned the property.
Russell’s pine-shaded paradise is on national forest land. His permit for a summer home is one of six at Priest Lake that the federal government isn’t renewing this year. So Dick Russell is agonizing. And suing.
“I’m not selfish. I can see the handwriting on the wall. If they don’t make decisions to take care of the public, there won’t be anyplace to go,” says the Spokane retiree. “But I don’t think it should be done the way they’re doing it.”
He claims U.S. Forest Service officials are unfairly singling out island permit holders and are basing their decision on an outdated study.
Bill Damon, deputy supervisor of the Idaho Panhandle National Forests, defends the decision to remove the last of the island cabins, except for two that will house volunteer campground hosts.
The agency wants to make more room for campers, boaters and picnickers - even as it looks for ways to protect the islands from overuse.
“We’re convinced that it is in the public interest to terminate those permits,” Damon says. “We’ve been working on this quite a while. These are not easy things to do.”
As proof of the difficulty, he points out that the removal process has dragged on for decades.
For Russell, the story started in 1952. He was a Spokane firefighter with a young family; he, his parents and his seven brothers and sisters pitched in to buy a tiny 1928 cabin. They added on, so eventually the place could sleep 30 people. It buzzed all summer.
“We raised our families there, and everyone brought their friends,” Russell says. “It was ‘The more the merrier.”’
For years, they played in isolation. When they heard a boat approaching, they knew it was one of theirs.
But something else happened in the ‘50s. A highway was punched into the Bonner County wilderness.
U.S. Forest Service officials, who manage the west shore, watched as the pristine lake became a popular playground. The original purpose of the summer-home permits, to encourage recreational use of the national forest, was becoming moot.
Someday the lake might get overcrowded. What to do?
Conduct a study.
The 1964 report confirmed the obvious. Everyone likes the beauty and isolation of islands, which are in short supply. The two big ones, Kalispell and Bartoo, are mostly national forest land.
So the Forest Service decided to return the permitted parts of the islands to the public, says resource forester Debbie Butler. In 1966, 18 out of 139 cabin owners were told their annual permits would not be renewed after 1986. The targeted sites were on the islands or remote mainland beaches.
Some cabin owners gave up their permits before the deadline. Others left in ‘86. Still others, including Russell, had overpaid the Forest Service for their permits and stayed on to use up those credits.
The overpayments came about after the Forest Service dramatically raised fees in the 1980s. Some cabin owners cried foul when their fees rose from $250 to as much as $3,045. Russell was outraged to find a Forest Service memo suggesting a fee hike was one way to get rid of permittees.
Distraught cabin owners got the ear of Idaho Sen. Jim McClure. He pushed through a retroactive law preventing the Forest Service from raising fees more than 50 percent over five-year periods.
But the agency wouldn’t refund overpayments. The only way for Russell to get back his $8,000 credit was to stay until 1994, well past the 1986 deadline. That was fine with him. It also was inconsistent, he says.
“If they wanted this land so badly, why didn’t they just return my money and kick us out?”
Good point, says Butler, who handles recreation residence permits for the Priest Lake Ranger District. “It’s a national policy. It seems in ways contradictory.”
Russell also asks why, if the Forest Service wanted more land on Bartoo, it didn’t buy five nearby acres that recently sold for $160,000?
Because, agency officials say, the limited money available for land purchases is spent on nationally “high profile” places such as Lake Tahoe and the Yellowstone basin.
Russell isn’t the only critic of the federal evictions.
Craig Austin, president of the Priest Lake Permitholders Association, describes Butler and Priest Lake Ranger Kent Dunstan as good people who are upholding an outdated decision.
Austin considers the 1964 summerhome report to be not only old, but full of guesswork. He has the same complaint about a 1981 recreation survey that supported the terminations. He’d like the Forest Service to take a thorough look at needs as they exist in the 1990s.
Austin especially sympathizes with longtime cabin owners such as Russell and Dean and Jannis Snook of Deer Park. The Snooks have a cabin on Kalispell Island, inherited from her parents.
Of the 18 cabin permits targeted in the ‘60s, six remained last year: two on Bartoo, two on Kalispell, and two south of Tripod Point, at the upper end of the lake.
Those who bought cabins after 1966 aren’t fighting the feds. They knew from the start the permits weren’t forever.
Still, says Arlene Fox, “no one wants to lose their cabin.”
Fox and her husband, Dan, who live in Spirit Lake, bought their cabin in 1979. Built in 1933, it boasts the original bedspreads, dishes, even the paint. The Foxes looked for an affordable Priest Lake lot where they could transplant the cabin, but couldn’t find one. So they bought an island in the Pend Oreille River and are thinking of having it moved there by helicopter.
“The Forest Service has been very congenial. They want us out of there, nicely,” Fox says. “They offered to barge out our belongings, even the lumber from the cabin.”
Russell never thought the termination would actually come. It came last fall. He hired a lawyer.
In December, Forest Service officials came to his Spokane home and raised the possibility that Russell could buy other lakeside land and swap with the Forest Service. That way, he could keep his cabin site.
“It was surprising, but I was elated,” says Russell. “They said I’d have until June 1, 1995, to exercise that option.”
But Russell, a retired real estate broker, knew he would need time to find that land. Government land swaps can take years. He wrote to Dunstan, asking for a permit extension.
“That way, I could pursue the land exchange and be protected at the same time. The government would have revenue instead of expenses,” says Russell. “He never wrote back.”
The ranger did write to Russell’s lawyer in late December. He called the land swap “a long shot” but said he’d work on it.
The offer went into limbo when Russell filed suit Feb. 14, claiming the government’s decision to terminate was arbitrary. He’ll ask the court to prevent Forest Service action until the case is heard.
Russell swears he’ll spend this summer in the cabin.
It is the only place he ever saw his parents together. They separated when he was a toddler, but came as elderly friends to the island.
Now the 70-year-old widower sees the cabin as a lure to keep his grandchildren and great-grandchildren in the area. To keep them close to each other.
Under the terms of his permit, he won’t be responsible for removing the cabin if the government wins.
“If I lose this, I won’t have the heart to go up there, much less tear it up,” he says. “It’s just devastating to me.”