Cabin Fee Act of 2010

Thursday Feb. 25th, 2010

When driving up the Gallatin Canyon, one can’t help but notice the nicely appointed homes and luxury estates which dot the banks of the pristine Gallatin river. Among those properties are a few humble cabins, which were built on leased Forest Service land. Our family leases the land of such a place, we refer to as, ‘The Portal Creek Cabin’. To many passing by on the road to Hidden Lakes, the cabin sits nestled among the trees, small and quiet. To a stranger, it would appear as a vestige to a bygone era. But for our family, friends, acquaintances, neighbors and more it is a special place where precious memories are made. Under the Organic Administrative Act of 1897 land was set aside for recreational use by the public. Our cabin was originally built in the early 1950’s and then sold to my husband’s grandparents. For the last 50 years, the Portal Creek Cabin has been passed down to successive generations and enjoyed by countless visitors. However, recent legislation in Congress has threatened to eliminate the existence of these treasured places.

The C.U.F.F.A (Cabin User Fee Fairness Act) of 1999 was established as a directive to the Forest Service for  implementing a consistent fee structure for cabin users. However, the method it uses to assess the fees is inconsistent and fundamentally flawed. The 5% tax charged to cabin users is based on subjective appraisals of the site where the cabin resides. Unlike residential real estate, these cabin properties are as unique as their wilderness surroundings which create difficulty in preparing a fair appraisal. Cabin users are also subject to intense regulations. For instance, cabin users may not permanently reside on the property, rent the property without permission or restrict access of the property to the general public. Other limitations apply as well: The number and type of improvements are restricted. Direct transfers are not allowed and there are no services such as fire protection or road maintenance. Additionally,  water or sanitary services are not offered.

Over the last century, the Gallatin Canyon has played host to myriad peoples. For some it was their native home. For others, prospecting and lettuce farming created a lure. But as the industrial revolution progressed  and more people had time to recreate, the Gallatin Canyon became a path unto the forest for fun: fishing, hunting, skiing and the holy grail of wilderness recreation – Yellowstone National Park. With time came more people, a greater demand for land, and therefore a higher price for living in exclusivity. Gallatin Valley residents saw the pinnacle in luxury Rocky Mountain living when the forest service swapped land with Tim Blixseth on which he built the “millionaires only” Yellowstone Club. Where many privately owned land holders have erected  fences, gates, security guards with outposts, and signs that read “Keep Out,” forest service cabin sites are places where all may come to fish, hike or enjoy a picnic. In the instance of Portal Creek, it is where I fell in love with my husband, and later where we were married.

For the private home owner in the Gallatin Canyon property values have increased to their benefit, but for the owner of a modest cabin on leased land, the result is an exorbitant increase in fees. In the case of Portal Creek, the increase is threefold, but according to an article in USA Today, some cabin owners have reported fee hikes as high as 1000%. If a cabin owner is unable to pay the new fees, only three options remain: sell, remove or dismantle the cabin and walk away. In today’s market, selling  a cabin on forest service lands is difficult. Many would-be investors are leery of buying into a current program where fees are unpredictable. For cabin owner’s, destroying or abandoning their cabin and in many instances-five generations of memories, is unbearable.

It is ironic, that in the March of 2000 hearing before the subcommittee on Forest and Forest Health, Representative Chenowith-Hage was quoted as saying, “But the truth of the matter is that the majority of cabin owners are either retired or middle-class working families. The incomes of these citizens do not allow for the excessive fee increases that the Forest Service is proposing. The result of the substantially higher fees will be to force out many middle-class cabin owners, allowing only the wealthiest of Americans to enjoy these recreational opportunities. I do not think that is what any of us want.” Yet, that is exactly what the current C.U.F.F.A Act threatens to do.
There is hope!  Recently, Representative Doc Hastings (R-WA) has introduced legislation titled, “The Cabin Fee Act of 2010.” This new legislation would replace the current C.U.F.F.A. Act and  fulfill the original intent of the bill. In Representative Hastings’ bill, provisions are made to create a “simple, fair and predictable tiered fee structure” in addition to a new transfer fee when the cabin permit changes hands. We believe this is a reasonable solution for recreational cabin users, the taxpayer who is reimbursed for the use of public lands, and the Federal Government which administers the program.

Ultimately, Congress and the American public must decide what a fair fee is to continue allowing recreational use of public lands. Will Forest Service Cabins remain accessible to middle-income wage earners, retirees living on a fixed income, their children and their families? Or will these special places become another victim of the auction block for the highest bidder? You can show your support for recreational cabin use, by contacting Senator Tester and Senator Baucus and urge them to support  the signing of Rep. Hastings bill into law. Help us to preserve access to these treasured relics, for now and for future generations.

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Jaime Saunders contributed this article in 2010.