by Suzanne Vernon
For the Pathfinder
June 4, 1998
The Forest Service is raising the rent and people who own cabins located on federal land at Seeley Lake, are not happy with the numbers.
Forest Service leaseholders with lakefront lots will see an increase from the current base rent of about $2000 per year to more than $7000 annually.
"They expected it to double but they never expected it to triple," Karen Linford, recreation technician at the Seeley Lake Ranger District, said recently.
In December 1999, approximately 15,300 federal leaseholders nationwide will receive bills based on the new appraisals. Locally, about 70 leaseholders with Forest Service lots on or near Seeley Lake, Holland Lake, Pierce Lake and Swan Lake will be affected. Local cabin owners met in Seeley Lake on Memorial Day to discuss the new appraisals.
Leaseholders are charged rent for the Forest Service land that they lease, Linford explained. In addition, they pay state property taxes on any improvements such as cabins.
Leaseholders at other area lakes are also seeing rents more than triple. According to Dan Hall, Missoula resident whose family owns a cabin at Holland Lake, rents there will go from about $750 a year to $2500 with the new appraisals. According to leaseholders, increases are similar at Pierce Lake, located south of Holland. However, base rents at Seeley Lake will be the highest in the area.
Forest Service appraisers determined that the fair market value of lots at Seeley Lake is $140,000 each, Linford explained, adding that the Forest Service is required by federal directives to charge rent based on 5% of the fair market value of the land.
"Whoever thought that a lot on Seeley Lake would go to $140,000 in value?" Lindford asked. "People really don't argue with the processuntil you get to that $7000 figurethen they say it is unreasonable," Linford explained.
For leaseholders with guest cabins, rent will go up an additional 25%, which means that some cabin owners at Seeley Lake will be asked to pay more than $10,000 annually for their "lot" on the lake.
Linford pointed out that the situation is not unique to Forest Service leaseholders. She explained that state leaseholders went through a similar process in recent years, and landowners in Montana have also seen property taxes increase as a result of new appraisals based on fair market value.
"It's not just the Forest Service," she said. "It all starts with the price of real estate in Montana. It's indicative of more widespread trends."
Carter Williams, whose family has owned a cabin at Seeley Lake since 1958, organized the Memorial Day gathering of leaseholders.
"The value of lakefront property keeps going up and up and up," Williams said. ""People who live in Montana and have these leases are either retired or working people. They can't afford $7000 in rent. . . So they will be selling their property, and the rich people from California, Texas and the East Coast will be taking our rentals on Montana lakes."
Linford confirmed that most of the Forest Service leaseholders at Seeley Lake are Montana families, and more than half of them live in Missoula. According to leaseholders near Condon, the situation is similar at Holland Lake and Pierce Lake.
Williams said that one leaseholder who attended the recent meeting "went directly from the meeting to list his cabin with a realtor."
Linford, too, is concerned about the impact of the new appraisals, both from a community standpoint and from a management view.
"Locals may be displaced by people with a lot of money. . . and people with money aren't going to be happy in a 1,000-foot cabin with no insulation," she said. "If somebody has enough money to pay $7000 rent for a vacation cabin they've probably got enough money to bulldoze that cabin and build a new one," she said. That could leave the Forest Service with a whole new array of management concerns, she said.
Forest Service leases come with dozens of rules of regulations.
"We've got more covenants that Double Arrow," Linford explained, referring to the covenants imposed on Seeley Lake's largest subdivision. "There's a ton of restrictions," she said.
Those restrictions, she said, have benefitted conservation values at Seeley Lake. Linford described the "typical" cabin on a Forest Service lease at Seeley Lake as "old and simple."
Most of the cabins on Forest Service lots here were built in the 1920s and 1930s, she explained, adding that a few were probably built right after World War II. Most of the cabins are log construction, uninsulated, and heated with wood stoves or fireplaces. Many still draw their water from the lake.
Linford also said she fears that if local families are displaced by wealthy people with no ties to the community, recreation managers will also see an increase in bigger boats and more jet skis at Seeley Lake.
When the Forest Service first began leasing lots at Seeley Lake "they probably did it to get public support. They were probably out to get public use," Linford explained. "It was the exact opposite of now," she said. Today, she said, the Forest Service is in the business of trying to lessen the impacts of use. "The line's been drawn. We have enough. We're not shopping for any more use," she explained.
Dan Hall pointed out that although situations vary from lake to lake, the Forest Service should look at the economic impact to the local communities if longtime Montana families are forced to sell their cabins.
"People here have had these cabins for generations," he said, adding that Montana families probably use their cabins more than those who live out of state.
"We tend to spend more time at the lake, and what happens when the money we pump into the economy is gone? What does that do to the local economy?" he asked. "I think the entire community has a stake in this," he said.
According to Williams, leaseholders have met with Montana's legislative delegation and are currently supporting legislation that would stall the increases. Rep. Bob Smith from Oregon has introduced legislation that would keep rental fees at the current rate unless leases are sold outside existing families.
Three local leaseholders' organizations (Seeley Lake, Holland Lake, and Pierce-Swan Lake) have formed the Seeley Swan Leaseholders Association. The Association will meet on July 4, 8:30 a.m. in Seeley Lake to discuss strategies for challenging the new appraisals.