Why Do Rehberg, Baucus and Tester Want to Subsidize USFS Cabin Lessees?

by jhwygirl

Correction: Doug, of The Montana Misanthrope, notes in a post of his own that both Tester and Baucus also signed the letter referred to in the post below. I don’t know where he got that letter but it doesn’t change my view. As I said in the comments – until someone wants to cut me a check to subsidize my primary residence (at the very least), I say “No” to subsidizing second homes for anyone, irregardless of their income.

Representative Dennis Rehberg thinks that it is unfair for holders of cabin lessees on federal lands to have to pay rental fees based on fair appraised values of their cabin sites.

Now, why would an anti-tax guy like Rehberg feel that 2nd home owners on federal lands should be given a discounted subsidized-by-the-taxpayers free ride on federal lands? Seriously?

The Cabin User Fee Fairness Act of 2000, to which Rehberg refers in his letter to USFS undersecretary Mark Rey, was passed by the House on June 16, 2000 with an overwhelmingly nonpartisan vote. Even his predecessor Rick Hill voted for it. Both of Montana’s Senators – Burns and Baucus – voted for it too. The Cabin User Fee Fairness Act was part of the 2000 Department of the Interior appropriations bill.

The feds charge a rental fee based on the value of the lands – and the local forest offices have been gradually bringing these rental fees – for all types of uses – up to par with the going market prices on similarly situated property values. Are cabin lessees going to see increases in prices? In places where property values are going up, you bet. Should they? Why not? Why should vacation home owners – no matter how humble their abodes – get a free ride? A subsidized ride on the back of all federal taxpayers?

The USFS has to maintain the roads to these places – and they have to provide fire protection. Tyvek wrap isn’t cheap, nor are those retardant drops. There’s inspections and staffing and paperwork. That stuff isn’t cheap either. Then there’s the increased fire danger merely by having these things around. While many of these are off the grid, a whole bunch of them have electricity wired to them – older wooden structures with even older utility poles carrying electricity through miles of national forest. Lovely.

Apparently Rehberg and some others feel that the intent of the legislation is different from the printed word. They have a problem, it seems with “a fair appraisal process,” which is part of the legislation.

At a time when the USFS is strapped for operating monies, why would Denny call on the USFS to be reducing rental fees on vacation homes located in public national forests?

I mean, how many votes is that gonna get him? Does he really need to pander that far down the pole?

We probably don’t have to worry about Mark Rey caving on this one, though – cabin lessees, I doubt, reach the influence level of large corporations.


  1. JC

    Oh, I’m sure Denny has some buddies that are squatting on some of these leased lands. Raise their rates, and his campaign donations will decrease.

    Supply and demand.

  2. I guess I’ll have to be the only liberal in the room on this one. Do you think only the wealthy should have access to these leases?

  3. JC

    Doug, the problem is that the wealthy pretty much the only people who have access to these lands now. Most of these leased parcels have houses/cabins built upon them. Ever try to get a bank loan to build a house on leased land? You have to have a first or second home as collateral to do so.

    So the leases come with some longevity, so as to provide banks with some guarantee that the owner will stick around.

    But I think another goal of the Rehberg’s of the USFS leasing industry is that if they can depress the lease prices long enough, then at some point they can pressure the USFS/Congress into selling the land to the lease holders.

    I know some lease holders up Seeley Lake way who would just love for this to happen.

    But if the leases were priced up into the market rate, then the USFS could enter into competition with the general market for leasing recreational land. Which fits nicely with things like recreation permits for hiking on trails in the wilderness, entrance fees to access points, and parking fees for a slot at the trailhead.

    I don’t know, maybe I’m a cynic about these leases, and the USFS’s role in them, but maybe the USFS should just sell them off and be done with it. At least the land value will enter the local tax base at comparative rates. Or retire the leases, and rent out the land like it does its back country cabins in a lotto system.

    Maybe if we had a good accounting by the USFS about the scope of their leasing program, we could make some educated judgements about where it should go.

    But in the meantime, Rehberg’s buddies are a pretty elite group, with sweet deals on some of the most sought-after and prime real estate in western Montana. You should see some of the cabin sites on the lakeshores. Worth a ton of money. Most of these leases are tied up in some pretty entrenched long time, monied and corporate families.

  4. Boy, unless I’ve been kicked out of the club……

    I have a slightly different view than JC’s….a lot of these cabins are pretty meager ones – in other words, not all of them are castles.

    That being said, I don’t care how much the structure is worth, or the income level of the inhabitants.

    Until the government wants to cut me a subsidy check for my primary home, and help me and my neighbors keep the road up to grade and provide me with free fire protection, I say cut the government subsidy out.

    Get a tent. That’s what I do when I want to hang out in the forest. Sometimes I pay $8, sometimes I pay $24.

    Here’s another thing – many of these cabin sites are locked up by families for decades. They’re passed on generation to generation. There’s no “fair” lottery system putting them out periodically for the general public to bid on.

    I’m shocked that you would advocate, Doug, for subsidizing of vacation homes – for anyone.

    PS – I don’t know where you got the letter you link to at your post – you’ll notice that the link I had, which I pulled from Rehberg’s site, didn’t have signatures. Doesn’t change my view, and I’ve corrected the post accordingly.


    • Kevin

      we have had .26 acre leased since 1952, this fair value act recently came in and appraised a chunk of land that is 106′ x 106′ square. The appraisal for a lot full of beetle killed trees comes in at 72,000 which translates to 276,000 per acre…….Fair price my ass.

  5. Apologies aren’t necessary, accuracy is. I’ve fumbled myself enough to know. The signed press release was CC’d to those families I refer to in my post. I don’t know why Rehburg’s release didn’t include them, but I would suspect a certain desire for exclusivity had a role in the matter.

    Anyway, and as anecdotal as it is, in my experience the subsidy you refer to just isn’t there, at least to the extent that you argue that it is. If a fire comes through, it is my understanding that no extraordinary measures are to be taken, aside from standard forest fire management practices. For one lease in particular, I’ve been told that if a cabin burns the leases are effectively over.

    Additionally, as far as the road maintenance goes, the Forest Service insisted on paving an access road to another of these lease areas over the strenuous objections of the lease holders. They said they had to “use some money or lose it”. Now that’s a wise use of taxpayer money.

    I also relate to the point of view that government regulation certainly does reduce the effective value of these plots. The same area that had to be paved must also have an approved archaeologist on site, paid for by the lessee, if any hole is dug in the ground. There are regulations for the size of forest debris which are allowed on each lot (anything under six inches long must be left on the ground), if a tree falls through natural processes, it must be left where it fell, one is limited as to the amount of time one can actually use the property. The list is as long as it is ridiculous, but it is their land.

    As for the “fair” lottery system, it is fair; anyone with the means can buy a lease on the open market, and I don’t see a way around that unless you expect the government to regulate who sells what to whom and for how much.

    This too is problematic, especially for those who have passed these down through the generations. In many cases, that is the only way anyone of more modest income will ever be able to afford such a place. But if the answer to that is to put each place out to bid every so often, then I can’t imagine a scenario in which anyone of modest means would ever be able to afford them. This is one reason I’m not wild about the conversion of these lands into private hands. Sure, they could auction them off, but again, those who can’t afford it will be forced out. Besides, the federal government makes way more through the leases than they ever would by selling off the land.

    Finally, as sticky as the situation is, it’s probably obvious that I really am not interested in these places becoming playgrounds for those with the fattest wallet because I’ve seen firsthand what the results would be, the land and the resource suffer, and there’s been way too much of that already.

  6. Thanks Doug. I think you know I’m a free-opportunity ranter. I obviously have my leanings, but no one side is immune.

    Have I said I hate coal lately?

    I understand what you are saying about subsidy in the truest sense but allowing land to be used at less-than-fair-appraised value means that people aren’t paying what the USFS should be collecting.

    Put another way – if a landlord were to start renting his property at less than what it costs him to pay the mortgage and taxes and other necessary services, who is picking up the remainder? Except in this case the landlord is the federal government and there’s a value to that land and they are the stewards of it for all of us citizens. Those leases – btw – do pay taxes on those improvements.

    I still disagree with you on the fairness of the leases – I suggest that the way these cabins work isn’t really fair. They stay in one family for generations. Leases are for either 20 or 30 years (I don’t know which – I know road easements are 30 years) – and at the end of those leases they automatically roll to the same family unless they don’t want it – and only then do they go out on lottery. So they can be tied up for generations. That doesn’t seem fair to me.

    I don’t think I would be an advocate for selling them off either – in the long term, I’d want to think that they make more off of them than a one time case payment but BUT, that supposes that they are getting the fair value of it.

    When you factor in the staffing and inspections and paperwork and annual billing – that stuff adds up. You say that the fire protection isn’t anything out of the ordinary – but ordinary fire protection is to keep the fire away from structures and to wrap them and to retardant drop. The forest service, while they are currently in a let-it-burn-for-wildland-management mode, still factors structure protection in. Sometimes you’re going to lose a structure, irregardless – referring to the situation you cite – but they are going to be more than just a tree-fighting fire protection mode when it comes to having cabins in the way.

    I’m guessing that cabin you refer to wouldn’t be rebuilt because of NEPA requirements?

    And when these people are talking about limitations – ever see the restrictive covenants (dare I say?) on the Rehberg Estates? Or any old subdivision in, say, Whitefish? I have. And being that I read you regularly, I’ll go out here on a limb and say that I’m pretty sure you wouldn’t like them.

    I have to say, I’m a bit at a loss on your point of view regarding the “fattest wallet” – but let me lay this out there as a comparison, and maybe you can explain: When politicians suggest that oil corporations should be subject to a windfall profits tax, do you think that’s fair?

    We should do something to ensure that these leases don’t fall to the super rich merely because they’re rich and the current lease holders are less-than-rich, but we shouldn’t tax the windfall profits of big oil because they have every right to make fat cash? It’s the American Way?

    That “fattest wallet” would probably end up putting more tax revenue into the community, if only merely based on the higher value of their improvements. They can only do what the USFS and NEPA is going to allow.

    I don’t like it any more than you do, but I find it more consistent to say either “yes” to both or “no” to both…I don’t think that you can say OK to one and not the other.

    It may be slightly skewed logic, it might be really skewed logic – that’s all in the eye of the beholder…but as I said – and I’m a big affordable housing ranter – until someone starts picking up the tab on my market-based monthly housing costs, summer-home cabin leases should be paying the going rate.

  7. Well, I can see how my fattest wallet comment can seem confusing, or at least irrational, it might be. I’m not arguing that people with money should have to share these places with people who don’t just because of the size of their wallets, I’m saying that I’m a misanthrope, and that I’ve seen all too many cases wherein those with the big money clips treat the things they own differently than those who don’t, especially as it pertains to real estate. Yes, the government can turn the screws on the CC&R’s, but there will always be a high priced lawyer who will find a way around them.

    In the instance of the cabin that has been in the family for generations, there are very specific building requirements; max. square footage, type of building materials, the color of paint, land rehabilitation during and after construction, etc. In the last 20 years I’ve seen many places go up that, in my opinion, don’t meet the intent or the letter of the law or regulation. Hell, one place had landscaping bark spread throughout the lot, while the owner of the little place got grief for raking their lot too cleanly.

    To put it another way, it’s not the money I’m opposed to, it’s the entitlement that many if not most feel that money provides for them. Yes, the tax base and the the tax payer could both get a boost were these places rented at fair market value, but I also think we all lose something when the small, unobtrusive place is replaced with a palace that, because of political connections or crafty lawyering, takes the land one step farther from what it originally was.

    The obvious irony with my position here is that this is happening anyway; the eyesores are multiplying. But there are a few areas left (especially here in Montana) that haven’t gotten there yet, and I’d like to keep it that way as long as possible. If that means keeping the lease payments artificially low, then by God let’s do it. Because of that, save from eliminating the leases entirely (the easiest but also least likely solution), I appreciate the approach our delegation has taken.

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