Priest Lake Cabin Fees Rise But Lease Hikes Are Not As Dramatic As Feared
They were fearing the worst.
First came a government report that said leases for U.S. Forest Service cabin sites should increase by 300 percent or more.
Then came the grim news from the Sawtooth National Forest, where some cabin owners saw their fees increase by 1,900 percent. One cabin owner’s fee increased to $67,500 from $4,385.
So when the federal lease holders on Priest Lake got the results of a new appraisal of their lots, many sighed with relief.
“The general feeling was that they didn’t go as high as they might go,” explained Craig Austin, president of the Priest Lake Leaseholders Association.
But, he cautioned, “we’re not tickled to death. …Some people think the fee is reasonable and others think the fee is going to be real hard on them.”
Outcry over cabin lease rates in the Sawtooths already had caught the attention of the Idaho congressional delegation, which is planning two field hearings in Idaho this month to examine the leases, which are being revised nationwide.
Rep. Helen Chenoweth has scheduled a hearing Feb. 21 in Coeur d’Alene. Sen. Larry Craig is holding a hearing Feb. 16 in Twin Falls.
“My personal, bottom-line concern is to make sure that a fair market value has been established and the taxpayers are being treated fairly,” Chenoweth said.
The average increase in fees for the 121 cabin sites at Priest Lake is 59 percent. Only a handful of cabin owners will see an increase of more than 100 percent.
The annual lease rates will range from $600 on the low end to $4,300 on the high end.
“This rent is not a bad deal to them,” said Steve Johnson of the Panhandle Forest.
Even a 100 percent increase appears reasonable, considering that the U.S. Forest Service has proposed fee increases of 400 percent at Seeley Lake in Montana and 2,000 percent at Petit Lake in the Sawtooth National Forest.
To longtime lease holders, like Dorothy Luby of Spokane, it’s still a fright.
“A lot of us will be having to move out,” Luby predicted. “You can rent a place (at a resort) much cheaper than paying the lease.”
She resigned herself to accepting the recent appraisal, however.
“There’s no sense to challenge it,” she said. “We don’t seem to have any luck with that. It’s the federal government.”
Luby’s father-in-law built his cabin in Luby Bay in 1911. The original cabin, now used as a shed, still stands on the beach with the date burned in its logs.
Back in those days, getting to your summer cabin was no trifling matter. Cabin owners used to take a stagecoach to Coolin, spend the night, then hop a boat over to Luby Bay.
The Department of Interior enticed people to build cabins with low lease rates in the early part of the century to encourage use of the national forests.
That need has long since passed, and the Forest Service hasn’t created new recreation lots since 1976. In the meantime, property values have been climbing at most recreation areas.
Forest Service regulations require that fees be based on the fair market value of the land, and land values have skyrocketed in some areas - particularly in the Sawtooths - since they last were appraised in the late ‘70s.
“We have instances of people spending hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars for a cabin to tear it down and build a nicer one,” said Paul Ries, ranger of the Sawtooth National Recreation Area. “That speaks to the value of the permit itself and the land.”
Not all permit holders are rich. The concern is that such astronomical increases in lease rates will drive middle-income people away.
“We don’t want the Sawtooth Recreation Area to be a playground for the rich,” said David Mead, whose Sawtooth lease is increasing 541 percent, from $390 to $2,500.
Mead also argues that the Sawtooth recreation area has created a false market. Because the Forest Service has bought up so much property and scenic easements, there’s not much private property to use for purposes of price comparison.
So far, 86 of 181 cabin owners in the Sawtooth National Forest have challenged their appraisals.
One of the most oft-heard complaints is that the appraisals don’t take into account the differences between government lots and private property.
The Forest Service leases come with restrictions and lack the rights of private property. Many of the lots at Priest Lake have a public trail running across them, between the cabins and the lakeshore.
The Forest Service says it takes into account the limitations in the permit by charging only 5 percent of the lot’s appraised value. Similar leases in the private sector go for 8 to 15 percent of the value, said Bill Cottee of the Sawtooth National Forest.
The Forest Service did take into account some differences, such as seasonal access, public access to the property and whether cabin owners paid their own development costs for roads and utilities.
Austin, of the Priest Lake Leaseholder’s Association, said his group was satisfied that the appraiser looked at some of the key differences.
“The appraisal took into consideration many of the things we asked them to look at,” he said.
Austin’s group was involved in the appraisals from the beginning. The association helped choose a private appraiser hired by the Forest Service. Cabin owners helped pick out the representative cabin sites that the appraiser used to compare with private property.
In contrast, the Sawtooth cabin owners were less organized and the agency chose to use its own appraiser for the job. While agency officials say the rules the appraisers follow are the same, cabin owners feel that a private appraiser is less likely to be biased, Austin said.
As of October, about 12 percent of the 15,200 cabin sites nationwide had been reappraised. Lease rates on four out of 10 cabins will more than double.
“What’s been proving to be the case, as more and more appraisals are getting done, is that the Sawtooth NRA (National Recreation Area) was a real anomaly,” said Randy Karstaedt, the agency’s special uses group leader in Washington, D.C. “It’s unfortunate we did it when we did. As a result of all the press, it’s created a lot of fear in people’s hearts.”
It also prompted Congress to slow the process.
The Sawtooth fees initially were to go into effect this year, but Craig sponsored an amendment to the Interior Appropriations bill in October that postponed all fee increases for one year after completion of an appraisal.
The amendment also required the Forest Service to phase in fee increases greater than 100 percent over three years.
After the upcoming field hearings, more legislation may be proposed. Chenoweth said she has nothing specific in mind at this point, and is holding her Subcommittee on Forests and Forest Health hearing simply to hear from Idahoans and gather information.
Rep. George Nethercutt, R-Wash., a permit holder at Priest Lake, also may attend the hearing.
It was only three years ago that the Government Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, took the Forest Service to task for charging too little for its recreation leases.
Forest Service officials say they don’t want to drive people out of their cabins.
“It’s a valid concern,” said Dave O’Brien, Panhandle National Forest spokesman. “The history of the cabins is that common people were able to afford them. How you deal with that is a dilemma for us. Fortunately, at Priest Lake, I think we’re still in the affordable range.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Graphic: Priest Lake cabin lease rates
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: FIELD HEARINGS U.S. Rep. Helen Chenoweth, R-Idaho, has scheduled a congressional field hearing on new cabin lease fees for 1 p.m. Feb. 21 in Todd Hall on the North Idaho College campus in Coeur d’Alene. Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, scheduled a field hearing on the issue from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. (MST) Feb. 16 in the Fine Arts Auditorium at the College of Southern Idaho in Twin Falls.
This sidebar appeared with the story: FIELD HEARINGS U.S. Rep. Helen Chenoweth, R-Idaho, has scheduled a congressional field hearing on new cabin lease fees for 1 p.m. Feb. 21 in Todd Hall on the North Idaho College campus in Coeur d’Alene. Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, scheduled a field hearing on the issue from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. (MST) Feb. 16 in the Fine Arts Auditorium at the College of Southern Idaho in Twin Falls.