KETTLE FALLS, Wash. – On misty mornings, Eric Weatherman watches river otters frolick in Lake Roosevelt from his front deck.
“They look just like dolphins,” says the 45-year-old tugboat operator.
Weatherman and his wife, Kelly, own a cabin at Sherman Creek, a tranquil cove on the Columbia River reservoir. Their cabin site is a legacy of an earlier, pro-development policy at the National Park Service.
In 1952, in an effort to attract tourists to the newly formed Lake Roosevelt National Recreation Area, the agency sold rights to build vacation cabins at Sherman Creek and nearby Rickey Point. Twenty-six cabins sprang up on land leased from the Park Service.
Now the agency is reviewing whether the privately owned cabins are a compatible use in the national recreation area. The review follows a 2007 Department of Interior audit that sharply criticized private in-holdings on public lands.
Debbie Bird, superintendent of the Lake Roosevelt National Recreation Area, has ordered an environmental assessment of the cabins. Results are expected next year.
Bird said the assessment isn’t a final verdict on whether the cabins stay or go. “It will inform me and the regional director what the impacts of issuing those permits are,” she said. At some point, the agency will decide if the public needs the land underneath the cabins for other uses.
About 1.4 million people visit Lake Roosevelt National Recreation Area each year.
“What we’re trying to do is make sure that all of the American public has equal access to enjoy this great reservoir created by Grand Coulee Dam,” Bird said.
The controversy is reminiscent of one surrounding Priest Lake, where the state of Idaho leases cabin sites as part of the state’s school endowment. At Priest Lake, however, the dispute has been about rapidly escalating lease rates.
At Lake Roosevelt, the uncertainty of the cabins’ future dismays Weatherman and other owners. When the cabins’ five-year leases expired last year, Bird renewed them for one year. At the end of 2008, she said, she expects to issue a two-year lease.
“It makes everyone a little nervous,” said Denny Blair, a Colville Realtor who bought his Rickey Point cabin in 1979, when the lease was $35 a year.
“It’s a consternation to the cabin owners,” added Gary Douvia, a Spokane resident who has owned a cabin at Sherman Creek since 1978. “These cabins are not bought for investment. These are bought by people who really want to be outdoors to recreate.”
Cabin owners pay about $4,500 in annual lease fees to the Park Service. The cabins at Sherman Creek and Rickey Point, they said, occupy a tiny slice of Lake Roosevelt’s relatively undeveloped shoreline, which stretches from Grand Coulee Dam north to Canada.
“If you’re cruising at 40 mph in a boat, it will take you 52 seconds to go past the cabins,” Weatherman said. “It will take you another nine hours and 48 minutes to cruise the rest of the shoreline.”
Local county commissioners support the cabin owners.
The cabins are part of the area’s culture and heritage, Mike Blankenship, a Ferry County commissioner, wrote in a letter to the Park Service last year. “The image of recreational activities and living is precisely why people move here.”
“It’s a recreation area,” said Stevens County commissioner Merrill Ott. “It’s not a national park.”
Weatherman grew up in Kettle Falls. The cabins caught his eye when he was a youngster, helping his dad with Columbia Navigation, the family’s Lake Roosevelt tug business. “I loved those places,” he said.
In late 2001 Weatherman and his wife paid about $85,000 for a rustic two-story cabin. When a lightning fire destroyed the structure, they replaced it with a modern one.
The cabin was part of the couple’s strategy to provide their two sons – now 18 and 19 – with positive activities as they navigated the potentially troublesome teen years, according to Weatherman. It worked, he said. Many weekends, the couple hosted a crowd of local kids for boating and waterskiing.
“You could stop about any kid on the street and ask, ‘When were you last down at the Weathermans?’ It wouldn’t be that long ago,” said Eric Weatherman.
The couple’s sons are in college now. Eric and Kelly Weatherman live at the cabin full time.
That’s part of the problem, according to the Park Service’s Bird. Lease documents clearly indicate that the sites are for vacation cabins, she said, yet some have become year-round residences. The developments also look private, she said.
“If you approached Rickey Point or Sherman Creek from the water, it would certainly look like it is private land,” Bird said. “The cabin owners do not have any special rights to that beach front.”
The cabins are time-consuming for administrators, added Ray Dashiell, Park Service facility manager in Coulee Dam.
“We have 600 public assets to manage for the public here at Lake Roosevelt,” Dashiell said. “Last year, cabins were 10 percent of my effort and 50 percent of my heartburn.”
Suspicion between the cabin owners and Bird runs high.
In May, the Park Service held a meeting to elicit public input about the cabins’ environmental assessment. The meeting was initially scheduled at REI in Spokane. When cabin owners complained, the venue was changed to a public library.
“REI has a meeting room available to the public at no charge. … I was taken aback that cabin owners viewed that as a hidden attempt to bring in environmentalists,” Bird said. “These are public lands. Every member of the public has a right to engage in the scoping process.”
The Park Service manages about 60 percent of Lake Roosevelt’s 500-plus miles of shoreline. It’s an irregular swath of land, stretching from a narrow band along the water to a half-mile of ground in some spots. The contours change as the reservoir level rises and falls.
Farming, sawmills and log yards were allowed in Lake Roosevelt National Recreation Area in its early years, according to an administrative history. Over time, however, the Park Service has phased out many of the special uses by private parties.
The removal of private docks to protect a “scenic shoreline” was a particularly contentious fight. It spanned more than a decade, ending in a courtroom in 2000, when the last dock owner lost his legal battle with the Park Service.
Local residents have chaffed under some of the changes. Weatherman recalls the free-wheeling days of his youth. “They used to have stock car races in this bay,” he said.
Mudflats are exposed when the water drops. He rode his motorcycle across them to spend the night at Lion’s Island, once a rite of passage for adolescent boys. In the spring, local kids set up night-fishing camps for sturgeon.
“Lake Roosevelt is a unit of the National Park Service. It’s not a local park,” Bird said. “Some of the early management permitted uses that they never really had the authority to permit.”
Driving in the mudflats was prohibited to protect archeological sites, she said. The state of Washington halted sturgeon fishing because sturgeon aren’t reproducing in the reservoir, Bird said.
This fall the Park Service will launch a shoreline management planning process for Lake Roosevelt. The plan will study issues such as recreational demand, water quality and uses along the shore, including problems with human waste and garbage at some of Lake Roosevelt’s most popular boat-in campsites.
The cabins aren’t part of the shoreline management plan, Bird said. “It’s its own issue and sensitive enough to warrant its own review.”
As the Park Service reviews demand for recreational opportunities, cabin owner Denny said he’d be surprised if the agency found an overwhelming public need for the 26 cabin sites.
On many areas of the lake boats are scarce and campgrounds have relatively few takers, he said.
“I don’t think there will be a greater public need for this land,” Denny said. “Just sell us the lots, and we’ll be out of your hair.”