The ongoing flap over private “vacation” cabins transformed into permanent trophy homes along the shores of the Lake Roosevelt National Recreation Area is another reason to pause and reassess the value of public lands.
Allowing private cabins on public land isn’t necessarily a bad idea.
An outfitter’s facilities, for example, can generate jobs and tax receipts from leased sites while giving more people access to natural resources by offering services such as accommodations, food, boat rentals and guides.
However, cabins owned by individuals on state or federal land tend to stray from the public interest. In some cases, they destroy wildlife habitat and block out the public entirely.
Following a 2007 Inspector General’s directive, National Park Service officials have been working to rein in the loose interpretation of rules that allowed 26 “vacation” cabin lots to be overdeveloped on the agency’s lands near Kettle Falls.
Over the years, the Lake Roosevelt National Recreation Area already had phased out private party special uses ranging from sawmills to boat docks.
An environmental assessment completed in 2011 focused on 10 cabins on the western shore (Ferry County) near Sherman Creek and 16 cabins on the eastern shore (Stevens County) by Rickey Point.
The properties, landscaped down to the beach areas in quiet coves, create a permanent privatized look on public shoreline.
Many of the sites date to the early 1950s, when the Park Service was looking for ways to promote recreational uses of the largely undeveloped reservoir stretching 130 miles behind Grand Coulee Dam.
The leases stipulate the sites are for cabins, not year-round homes.
Cabin lease fees have increased from about $35 a year in the late 1970s to about $4,500 a year, but in some cases, the cabins have become year-round residences – starter castles by northeastern Washington standards.
Leaseholders have cut trees, cleared brush and planted lawns on the shoreline. Twenty-one cabins had failing or inadequate septic systems, the assessment found.
Some of the cabin lot lessees felt so entitled to their privileges, they apparently thought they should be immune from county building codes and rules that apply to all shoreline properties in the state. They sought support from county commissioners – and for some reason they got it.
Some of the lessees publically stated the Park Service should abandon the lease program and sell them the land to solve everyone’s heartburn.
Several lessees were able to schedule meetings with Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers staffers from Spokane and Colville. It’s not clear what influence they expected McMorris Rodgers to exert.
The public finally won a match last year after the Park Service denied permit renewals for two lessees whose septic systems did not meet code, but not until their appeals were denied by a court.
While other cabin owners were granted five-year permit extensions, Park Service officials emphasized their policy mandate to monitor and determine if there’s a “greater public need” for the vacation cabin areas.
On that point, the cabin site lessees appear to have scored at least a short-term victory.
Park Service officials contracted with the University of Idaho to conduct a study and establish tools and guidelines for determining if the public could put those cabin sites to better use than the private lessees.
The initial findings from the independent review suggest there is no greater public need, said Jon Edwards, environmental protection specialist for the Lake Roosevelt NRA.
Details of the surveys will be presented by UI professor Troy Hall tonight, 6 p.m. at the Community Colleges Campus in Colville.
The public should not write this off as a done deal.
The lessees argue that they occupy only a sliver of the recreation area, leaving the bulk of it wide open to the public.
But while the Park Service manages about 60 percent of Lake Roosevelt’s 500-plus miles of shoreline, most of it is accessible only by boat.
The private cabins occupy some of the last good public beaches that are accessible by road. Rickey Point in particular has the last developable real estate parcels in that area.
If times change – they always do – and a greater public need is demonstrated, the Park Service must stay in position to resume management of those coveted niches of shoreline. The option must remain open for a new launch, campground or, at the least, for conveniently accessible public space along an ever-more-valuable national recreation area.
This is not a radical idea. It’s required by federal law.
Contact Rich Landers at (509) 459-5508 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.