An Idaho hearing could set the cost of forest cabins nationwide and balance the interests of taxpayers against those of cabin renters, from senior citizens on fixed incomes to actor Bruce Willis.
Members of Idaho’s congressional delegation have protested a plan by the U.S. Forest Service to charge rentals that are closer to market value for cabins on federal land, including the Sawtooth National Forest.
“The new fees could force many Idahoans to sell cabins they have used for generations, simply because they cannot afford the Forest Service fee,” U.S. Rep. Helen Chenoweth, R-Idaho, said in a written statement.
Chenoweth has scheduled a hearing on the issue next month in Coeur d’Alene.
The Forest Service says the fee increases reflect the true value of the federal land around Petit Lake, which is nestled deep in trees, has views of the towering Sawtooths and is only a short drive from Sun Valley’s ski slopes.
“Those sites are probably the best in the United States,” said Ed Waldapfel, a spokesman for the Sawtooth National Forest. “It doesn’t get any better than this.”
The state of Idaho also is grappling with how to raise lease rates for cabins on state land. One proposal favored by Attorney General Al Lance is to auction off cabin sites on Priest and Payette lakes.
More than 350 cabin sites at Priest Lake could be sold because they have little potential as an investment for the state. About 75 percent of the leaseholders in Bonner County are from Washington state.
Federal fees for the 182 cabin sites in the Sawtooth forest, now as low as $156 a year, would jump to as much as $28,125 a year.
The most dramatic increases would hit the 23 Petit Lake leaseholders, who would see their annual fee go from an average of $1,114 to anywhere between $22,000 and $28,125.
Waldapfel acknowledged that the new fees could be too steep for people on fixed incomes. “But, on the other hand,” he said, “they have gotten a tremendous bargain. Some of them have paid only $100 a year for the last 20 years for a very, very nice site on public land that they have been using exclusively with their families.”
The increases, based on new property value assessments, were scheduled to go into effect this year, but the Sawtooth cabin owners won a reprieve last fall when Congress passed a provision introduced by Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, that blocked the hikes from taking effect.
The provision also phases in, over a three-year period, any fee increase that is greater than 100 percent.
But the issue will not disappear. Craig’s measure blocking the hikes lasts only until January 1999, and the Sawtooth rent hikes are part of a wider U.S. Forest Service effort to reappraise the value of the 15,600 cabin sites leased on forest land around the country and adjust fees accordingly.
The General Accounting Office, Congress’ investigative arm, reported in 1996 that the undervaluation of federal lots, including cabin sites, was costing the government tens of millions of dollars a year.
The fees collected on the Sawtooth cabin sites are based on assessments made in 1976 and bring in about $100,000 a year, Waldapfel said.
Had the fees gone into effect in 1998, the Forest Service would have collected somewhere between $900,000 to $1 million, he said. Twenty-five percent of that money would have gone to Idaho counties. Remaining funds would have gone into the U.S. Treasury.
Chenoweth, who chairs a House panel on forests, said she wants taxpayers and cabin owners to get a fair shake, and argued that the Forest Service’s scheme is flawed.
“The Forest Service is assessing the new lease rates based on similar private property,” she said. “Yet, that’s a false comparison, since private property owners enjoy a great many more rights to use of their property than do forest land holders.”
She argues that leaseholders, forced off the land by the rent hikes, may have a hard time finding buyers because of high annual fees and restrictions imposed on cabin owners by the Forest Service.
Waldapfel disagrees. In the past three years, three cabins on federal forest land at Petit Lake have been sold to new owners, at prices ranging from $500,000 to $820,000, he said. “There’s a waiting list of people waiting to purchase summer homes,” he said.
“Every one that’s come up for sale has sold.”