Cabin owners on U.S. Forest Service property at Priest Lake had better brace themselves for sticker shock.
A recent congressional report suggests that fees for some of the cabins should increase by more than 300 percent.
“That would kind of take you off forest lease land, wouldn’t it?” said Craig Austin, a Spokane schoolteacher and president of the Priest Lake Permitholders Association. “That’s a very serious situation in terms of what kinds of fees people can afford.”
The General Accounting Office is more concerned with what Uncle Sam can afford.
“In recent years, it has become clear that the federal government needs to operate in a more businesslike manner,” concludes the December GAO report, “Fees for Recreation Special-Use Permits Do Not Reflect Fair Market Value.” The GAO is the investigative arm of Congress.
As the title indicates, the report found that fees for most recreation permits across the nation are based on outdated assessments.
Most federal recreation lots were appraised between 1978 and 1982.
The GAO also takes the U.S. Forest Service to task for not recovering the costs of administering the recreation-residence permits.
While the agency has no immediate plans to recover those costs - estimated at $13 million - the properties will be reappraised this summer.
“We initiated this process well before the GAO was involved,” said Dave O’Brien, Idaho Panhandle National Forests information officer.
The GAO also criticized the Forest Service for charging belowmarket rates for commercial leases. Fees for ski areas are being readjusted, but the agency has no immediate plans to raise rates for resorts, such as Hill’s Resort at Priest Lake.
Together with the cabin lots, the recreation special use program is the agency’s second-largest revenue generator, netting $36.8 million in 1994. Timber sales bring in the most money.
Nationwide, the Forest Service has 15,500 recreation residence sites, 150 of which are in the Panhandle forests. Of those, 140 are at Priest Lake.
Cabin owners pay a fee based on 5 percent of the appraised value of their lot, and own the cabins outright.
Their permits are renewed every 20 years. The fee is adjusted each year based on an annual inflation index, but the GAO found that it hasn’t kept pace with actual values.
When the Forest Service tried to increase fees in the early 1980s, cabin owners cried foul and Congress rolled back the fee hike.
“Last time it was a very nasty situation,” Austin recalled.
Austin and other cabin owners argue that the value of their lots cannot be equated with private lots around Priest Lake.
Many restrictions are placed on the federal permittees, such as a prohibition on year-round residency, limits on cabin size and color, and a requirement to allow public access across their land.
“We can’t cut down trees around our property. … We can’t have all the kind of toys we want on the beach,” said cabin owner Pete Glass.
Permit holders also believe that values are inflated around the lake simply because the supply of private waterfront property is short and demand is high.
Glass pays an annual fee of about $2,000 for his lot. The GAO suggested that one waterfront lot lease at Priest Lake that now goes for $1,910 a year should actually be $8,750.
“When you say $8,000, I say ‘Wow,”’ Glass said. “That’s a lot of money to pay to go up there in July and August. That’s when most people utilize it.”
Recreation residences on Forest Service land have been around since the turn of the century, when they were managed by the Department of the Interior.
When the Forest Service was created, the lots were leased at very low rates to encourage public use. The Forest Service hasn’t created any new recreation lots since 1976.
Permit holders fear the modern emphasis on the bottom line will displace middle-class cabin owners.
“When those costs get so high that only an elite group can afford to be there, it kind of goes against the original language,” Austin said.
Local Forest Service officials promise to work closely with cabin owners during the appraisal process this summer.
“It’s hitting their pocketbook,” said Kent Dunstan, Priest Lake district ranger. “There’s always potential for discussion on the actual value of appraisal. … I remain optimistic that there won’t be a lot of controversy.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Graphic: Proposed Forest Service fees