Taxpayers subsidize cheap vacations

  • Personal Property: On public land

    C. J. Karamargin
  In one of the most beautiful - and affluent - parts of central Idaho, 182 cabins on the Sawtooth National Forest have for decades been the best real estate bargain around.


Many of the cabins are in stunning locations like Petit Lake, a remote body of water at the northern tier of the 2.1 million-acre forest, on the Sawtooth National Recreation Area. All are a short drive from the Sun Valley ski resort and neighboring Ketchum.


The cabin sites lease for a song - about $200 per year. Actor Bruce Willis pays $1,700 per year for a three-building compound at Petit Lake that he could probably sell for close to $1 million.


The leaseholders benefit from a vacation-home program that dates back to the 1930s, when the Forest Service platted cabin sites in many of its forests. The sites were then leased to individuals who agreed to build and maintain cabins. The lessors paid an annual rent of 5 percent of the land's appraised value, and owned the cabin but not the real estate.


Last December, the General Accounting Office harshly criticized the Forest Service for failing to get "fair market value" for its cabin sites. In response, the agency began to reappraise all cabin sites.


Based on the new appraisals, lease rates in the Sawtooth National Forest should soar. In Willis's case, the Forest Service wants more than $20,000 annually. Most leases climbed from about $200 to about $2,000. When the appraisals are done nationwide, more than 15,600 cabin owners will pay more to the federal government.


But the new leases won't take effect on the Sawtooth on Jan. 1, 1998, as intended. Cabin leaseholders in the Sawtooth protested and Idaho Republican Sen. Larry Craig attached a rider to an appropriations bill, delaying the new rates until at least Jan. 1, 1999. There has also been some local fallout. Willis owns three businesses in Haley, and he yanked his advertising out of the Wood River Journal after it ran a photo of his compound in connection with the GAO report.


*C.J. Karamargin





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