Since the early 1900s, generations of families have been allowed to maintain the nearly 500 privately-owned cabins within the boundaries of the Chippewa and Superior National Forests in northern Minnesota in exchange for modest annual fees, but now those fees are set to go up dramatically, and cabin owners are balking at the increase.
Jean Kelley, 57, of Coon Rapids has been coming to her family's cabin on Pike Bay in the Chippewa National Forest since she was a little girl. Kelley's grandparents got a permit from the park and built the cabin in 1930.
"It's just a tiny little cottage, about 24-by-24," Kelley said. "We still have a pump, a little hand pump, and a little path to the outhouse, so it's a modest little cabin. But it's our place in the woods."
Kelley's family has been part of something called the Recreation Residence Program, an initiative that began in 1915 to encourage families to spend time in America's fledgling national forests. The federal government stopped granting the cabin permits in the 1950s. Cabins are typically passed from one generation to the next.
Kelley said the fee over the years has been affordable. For more than a decade her cost was less than $2,000 a year, but the National Forest Service recently reappraised the property. Beginning next year, her annual fee will more than triple to $6,300. Kelley said the increase may force her to give up the cabin.
"It's ending up being quite a big chunk of money that we're afraid we're not going to be able to afford, nor are most of the cottage owners on our beach on Pike Bay," she said. "We feel betrayed by the Forest Service."
Kelley and more than 30 other cabin owners in the Chippewa National Forest have joined a legal challenge. They hope cabin owners in the Superior National Forest will join them, and eventually, perhaps, some of the other 14,000 families with private cabins on national forest lands throughout the country.
A few years ago, Congress changed the fee structure and that pushed the cost up. In the past, cabin owners typically paid 3 percent of the appraised value of the property. Beginning next year, that will go up to 5 percent.
Rob Harper, supervisor of the Chippewa National Forest, said a bigger reason for the hike is that things have changed significantly since cabin properties were last appraised in 1997.
"Land values, not surprisingly, particularly valuable lakeshore, has increased dramatically, and so that's where the increases are coming from," Harper said.
Some cabin owners are suspicious of the Forest Service and speculate the fee increases are designed to force them out of national forests. Rob Harper said that's not the case.
"I understand the [permit owners'] concerns after so long, to now be looking at increases in fees; it's probably a startling and probably disconcerting process to have to be a part of," he said. "So I'm sympathetic to their concerns, but in no way are we wanting cabin owners to leave the national forest."
If you own a cabin in a national forest, you're under a lot of restrictions. First, you don't actually own the land, you're only allowed to stay in your cabin a few months out of the year and cabins are limited in size and color. No garages or decks are allowed, and even repairing a roof requires prior approval from the Forest Service.
The Minneapolis law firm representing cabin owners contends the latest appraisals of their properties aren't fair. Attorney Jeff Eckland said the appraisals use similar properties outside the national forest as comparisons. But he said the appraisals don't take into account all of the national forest restrictions.
A lawsuit against the government hasn't actually been filed yet, but Eckland said his clients are prepared to go to court.
"Our hope is that we can succeed in persuading the courts to tell the Forest Service to remain true to the deal that the U.S. government struck with cabin owners almost a century ago and keep the fees affordable and within the reach of the average American family," Eckland said.
Ecklund said a successful lawsuit would likely take two to four years.
Nationally, there's another group of cabin owners taking a different approach to the fee hikes. They're lobbying federal lawmakers to change the fee system and for Congress to reaffirm private cabins as an appropriate use of national forest lands.