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Fees Soar for People with Cabins on Federal Land

More than 40 years ago, David Allen's parents bought an 800-square-foot log cabin on a piney slope overlooking the Little Colorado River in Arizona's Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests.

Under a U.S. Forest Service permit program, the Allens paid about $130 per year to have their small summer retreat on public land. As decades passed, that price didn't go up much. By the 1990s, they were still paying just $300 annually for a half-acre of real estate. As recently as 2008, he says, the fee was $1,677.

Now, because a new Forest Service appraisal values Allen's half-acre lot at $200,000 - cabin owners pay annual fees set at 5% of each lot's appraised value - he faces a yearly charge of $10,000 for a place that can't be used much of the year.

"They've dealt with us very unjustly," says Allen, a 65-year-old retiree.

From North Carolina's Croatan National Forest to Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest in Washington state, more than 14,000 recreational cabin owners on federal lands will see dramatic fee increases this year - nearly all of them more than doubling, according to the National Forest Homeowners advocacy group.

Many say they'll have to sell or abandon their properties.

"It's highway robbery," says Edmund Loew, a retired minister in Globe, Ariz., who says his summer cabin fees in Tonto National Forest, near Phoenix, will quadruple over the next few years.

Jay Butler, director of the Arizona Real Estate Center at Arizona State University's W.P. Carey School of Business says cabin owners are finally getting charged market-value lease rates for land they've used on the cheap for decades.

"It doesn't benefit me that you have this cabin, so why should the federal government subsidize your recreation?" Butler asks.

How it works

According to a Forest Service online report, the program dates to 1915, when the U.S. government invited Americans to build summer homes on federal land to encourage public recreation.

The cabins range from primitive bungalows to beautiful log homes, says Judy Yondah, recreation and special-use manager for the Forest Service's Southwest Region. Most are in the West, with California, Washington, Oregon and Arizona having the largest numbers, she said.

Permit contracts do not allow owners to live in the cabins fulltime or to rent them out. Rangers enforce rules that dictate paint colors, prohibit fences and ban outdoor improvements.

By the 1960s, America's forests no longer lacked for public use, so the government stopped issuing permits, but the program continued as families handed down or sold their cabins.

As land values soared during the 1990s, appraisals began to escalate so rapidly that cabin owners protested to Congress. Fee increases, still based on appraisals a decade earlier, were suspended in 1998, says Yondah, except for modest inflationary adjustments.

In 2000, Congress adopted the Cabin User Fee Fairness Act to establish an equitable system with gradual payment upgrades. It was not fully implemented until this year.

"It's not working as a system," says Mary Clarke Ver Hoef, executive director of the National Forest Homeowners advocacy group. "It's a nightmare."

No sympathy

Yondah offers no sympathy to those suffering from fee shock and says her agency is just carrying out a federal law.

If the sites had been leased privately, Butler contends, there would have been routine rental hikes reflecting rising land values.

Ver Hoef argues such comparisons miss the point. Summer-home sites are not comparable to private lands: Many cabins have no electricity or running water, some are snowed in much of the year, and owners must allow public access to their lots.

Cabin-owner groups have formed a lobbying organization, Coalition 2, which is pushing for a new five-tier system, with payments ranging from $500 to $4,000 per year.

Pete Bailey of Tacoma, Wash., legislative coordinator for Coalition 2 and owner of a cabin on Lake Quinalt in Olympia National Forest in Washington, says fees are now so steep that some cabins can't be sold. He predicts 15% of owners may abandon their cabins in the next few years.

The Coalition 2 proposal has no congressional sponsor so far, Ver Hoef says.

John Murray, 81, of Houston, says he "courted" his wife more than 50 years ago at her family's cabin in the Chippewa National Forest in Minnesota. The couple still owns their 900-square-foot place on Cass Lake, and paid $740 in 2008. Next year, the price will be $2,140.

"I'm able to pay that amount," he adds. "But, for some, they can't handle it."

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