Historic Summary of U.S.D.A. Forest Service Recreation Residence Program
By National Forest Homeowners
The Recreation Residence Program was arguably the first effort made by the USDA Forest Service to formally provide recreational opportunities for the public. Today, land set aside for this purpose is less than .002% of all National Forest lands. Over recreation visitor days occur each year on this small footprint, and fees paid by cabin owners-approximately $12.5 million each year -more than pay for the program’s administrative costs according to the Forest Service’s own accounting. Evidence of the tradition of summer homes for fishing and hunting dates to the early 1870s, pre-dating by at least two decades the establishment of federal forest reserves in 1891. The Organic Administration Act of 1897 opened the forest reserves to the public, making it possible for federal managers to permit additional use of these resources. However, the one-year permit that allowed cabin construction in these early years made investment risky and, as a consequence, only marginally popular. Congress eliminated this obstacle in 1915 with the passage of the Act of March 4, 1915 providing the authority to set aside land, not exceeding five acres, for construction of summer homes with multi-year occupancy permits. These permitted, privately owned cabins may be inherited - and, in some cases are now used by the fourth and fifth generations of their original builders -- or the improvements sold, however, in either case, the Forest Service continues to retain ownership of the underlying land.
In this early era, families traveled rather substantial distances in primitive vehicles over uncertain roads in order to build modest cabins on roughly quarter-acre forest lots. For many of these tracts, the means of access today continues to be primitive and may involve a final stretch on foot or by boat. Weather in some forests limits access to fewer than six months each year. As technology became available in some of these rural areas, cabin owners banded together to provide water systems, electricity, fire protection and road and trail maintenance. At its peak, the program authorized nearly cabins. Today, fewer than 15,000 cabins are administered by the agency, nearly 5,000 having been taken out of public land ownership through land exchanges or lost to natural disasters.
Nature of Permit Rights and Restrictions
The rights and responsibilities of cabin owners have evolved over nearly a century. Congressional concern about lack of consistent management in the program led in 1969 to issuance of 20-year term Special Use Permits and a system of appraisals to establish the undeveloped and restricted value of each cabin lot.
Annual cabin fees are 5% of the fair market value; this assumes a theoretical unencumbered ownership estate, even though what is actually granted in the permit is a restricted possessory interest. Permits began to be re-issued beginning in 2005 with 90% of the inventory reissuance by the end of 2008. The agency’s Recreation Residence Policy governs management of this program by the Forest Service, published June 2, 1994. Except for modifications in appraisal methodology enacted by Congress in 2000, few changes have been made in this Policy.
As might be expected in the use of federal lands by private individuals, restrictions on use of these cabins under the Policy are numerous. Year-round permanent residency is not allowed, nor is use as a rental property. Typical restrictions also include limitations on the square footage of the structure; types of vehicles that may be stored near the cabin (no recreational vehicles, boats or motor homes), outbuildings (generally forbidden), fencing (prohibited), garden cultivation and color of paint. Individual permits contain additional restrictions reflecting unique local circumstances and management needs. In addition, many of these cabins are now classified as historic and some tracts have been listed in the National Registry of Historic Places.
Further, the right to occupancy and use is not exclusive. An owner’s family has the right to security and privacy only within the walls of their cabin, not on the grounds. All land within a recreation residence tract is open to the general public, who may hike, camp or picnic on lands between the cabin structures. Many cabin associations welcome and encourage other forest visitors, sponsoring interpretive trails and information kiosks to foster responsible shared use of tract sites and the forest resources that surround the area.
Since passage of the Organic Administration Act in the late 1800’s, the Forest Service’s cabin program has been a consistent and successful provider of forest-based recreation. It’s not a flashy program, and neither are the families and friends that participate. Whatever the current economic obstacles and uncertainties, these will settle out in time. The cabins will continue to fulfill an important role in modern society: that every so often one has to go back to the basics, to reestablish a connection with the natural world. Cabins provide this rare setting, nurturing and inspiring people of all ages and all abilities.