Friday, August 2, 2013

Keeping fair access to federal lands


    I have long been a proponent of fair access to our public lands. Americans pay for the upkeep of our federal land assets and should not be shut out of benefitting from these resources through unnecessary restrictions and steep fees. This includes ensuring that cabin user fees on federal lands are administered fairly and reasonably. That is why I joined a bipartisan group of my colleagues in reintroducing legislation to help ensure the continuation of equitable access to our federal lands by addressing the rising cost of annual cabin user fees.  
    Almost a century ago, Congress enacted legislation enabling Americans to build recreational cabins on certain lots on federal land in exchange for an annual fee for use of the sites. Since that time, families have built cabins and passed on the tradition of recreating in our forests through generations. Nationwide, approximately 14,000 cabins are located on fee-based federal lots. This includes cabins in the Sawtooth National Forest, Caribou-Targhee National Forest and the Idaho Panhandle National Forest.
    These cabins add to the recreation opportunities on our federal lands that include hiking, camping, hunting, fishing, horseback riding, skiing, boating, using off-road vehicles and more. Unfortunately, massive increases in cabin user fees, due to problematic appraisals, have threatened the ability of families to keep their cabins.   
    In 2000, the Cabin User Fee Fairness Act (CUFFA) was enacted to implement a fair and consistent process for determining cabin user fees that takes into account the restrictions placed upon cabin owners and construct fees that reflect the market value of the residential lots. I was a part of the group in Congress that worked on these reforms, and have pressed the U.S. Forest Service to administer the fees according to congressional intent. However, cabin users continue to face rising fees due to challenges with appraisals accounting for the unique restrictions placed on cabin users in national forests.
    That is why I joined Sens. Jon Tester (D-Montana), Max Baucus (D-Montana), John Barrasso (R-Wyoming), Dianne Feinstein (D-California), Mike Enzi (R-Wyoming) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) in introducing the bipartisan Cabin Fee Act of 2013 that would establish an uncomplicated, equitable and predictable fee system and require new land appraisals to be completed within two years. The Cabin Fee Act would assign annual user fees according to an eleven-tier “cabin value” system ranging from $500 to $5,500. This system will provide greater certainty to cabin owners, but will not reduce the U.S. Forest Service’s revenue from cabin leasing. Similar legislation, introduced by Rep. Doc Hastings (R-Washington) and co-sponsored by Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho), has advanced in the U.S. House of Representatives.
    The stated purpose of CUFFA is “to ensure, to the maximum extent praacticable, that the National Forest System recreation residence program is managed to preserve the opportunity for individual and family-oriented recreation.” Multiple use of public lands remains the most effective utilization of our natural resources, and families who utilize federal lands offer a valuable perspective on the effective management of our federal lands. There is no doubt that we have considerable challenges with federal land management. The more Americans who utilize our resources and understand their values create a greater understanding of the needs. To best ensure that Americans can benefit from our federal lands, we must maintain fair access to these public resources.

Mike Crapo, a Republican, is the senior U.S. senator from Idaho.

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