Forest Service Cabin fees burn lessees; Tester honored for efforts

Billings Gazette

by Tom Lutey

Call it government-induced “cabin fee-ver.”

The fee for having a cabin on Forest Service land has shot up as much as $10,000 a year in parts of Montana and will jump again in six months.

The increase has cabin owners like Jane Van Dyk, of Billings, burning up.

“Cabin owners in Montana are being hit by excessive fees,” said Van Dyk, of National Forest Homeowners. “Seeley Lake cabin owners were hit with a $13,700 fee in July. They will pay another $20,100 in December.”

Forest Service fees for lessees with cabins in national forests have increased nationwide in the past five years under a new assessment policy that has the federal government rethinking what cabin sites are worth.

The issue is most controversial in the West where most Forest Service land is located.

The increases have been highest at Seeley Lake, said Van Dyk, who Tuesday presented an award to U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., for trying to turn back the fee hike.

Tester introduced a bill dubbed the “Cabin Fee Act” on July 23, which would cap the highest annual fee at $5,000 and set a minimum fee of $500 for sites valued the least, based on a sliding scale. He introduced a similar bill in late 2012 that was narrowly defeated. In 2009 and 2010, Tester sponsored moratoriums to limit fee increases to 25 percent.

Van Dyk’s cabin near Philipsburg is one of 1,000 or so in Montana facing fee increases. Bills were sent out in July for 2013 and will be sent out again in 2014. Once they’ve received a bill, cabin owners have 30 days to pay.

“We’re not cutting these guys a sweet deal,” Tester said. “What we’re doing is making it equitable and predictable.”

Parts of seven books have been written at Maclean cabin on Seeley Lake, including the Western classic “A River Runs Through It,” by Norman Maclean.

Maclean’s son, John, told The Gazette he’s seen the annual cabin fee increase from $4,841 in 2005 to $13,477 last month. Maclean’s December bill will be $18,400.

This isn’t the Maclean family’s first dust-up with the Forest Service over the cabin. A few decades back, the government was talking about not renewing the family’s lease, first signed in 1921 by the Rev. John Norman Maclean.

“The emotional damage has been long-standing and incalculable,” Maclean said. “My dad spent a lot of time at the cabin after he retired and started writing his books. I’ll tell you he was bedeviled by this. This is not something that is one little thing. Stuff like this has been going on for a long time.”

The most recent fee increases stem from a 2007 assessment that stunned cabin owners, Maclean said.

One former neighbor, Bob Haraden, received an assessment of $369,000. The subsequent fees were too much and Haraden put the cabin up for sale for $315,000. When he received no offers Haraden lowered the price several times before selling for $139,000.

Other cabin owners are holding on, Maclean said, but if the fee increases keep coming, sticking it out is going to be tough.

“We’re facing within six months bills for $30,000. We can’t come up with $30,000,” he said.

Tester said his bill would take care of current fees, as well as fees in the next 10-year appraisal. There may be some senators who object to the bill, but most just need to be informed about the issue, he said.