By Michael Howell
Members of the Bitterroot Cross-Country Ski Club are feeling irate and betrayed by the U.S. Forest Service’s recent decision to start charging fees for use of the Gordon Reese Cabin, located at the Chief Joseph Cross Country Ski Area at Chief Joseph Pass. Club members, who were instrumental in creating and maintaining the ski trails in the area in the mid-1980s, also raised the funds and built the cabin in 2000-2001 with the understanding that use of the trails and cabin by the public would be free. They believe that the Forest Service’s recent decision to place the cabin on the National Recreation Reservation System and charge a $9 administration fee and $20 a night is going against the agency’s promise when the cabin was built.
The first sign of a change in the ski club’s relationship with the Forest Service emerged last February when the organization was notified that it could not offer a night at the cabin as the prize in the club’s annual fundraising raffle. Club President Michael Hoyt said that although members were dismayed at the short notice, only two weeks before the drawing, it was not something the group was that concerned about as there are other ways to raise funds. But discussions about the future management of the area, especially charging fees for the cabin use, raised several concerns for the group.
On August 8, 2012, Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest Supervisor David Meyers responded to those concerns in a letter. The letter dealt with four other issues besides the cabin fee proposal and the use of the National Recreation Reservation System. It also addressed potential cabin rental during the hunting season, the need for an official document allowing club members to prepare and groom ski trails in the area, and a long term agreement governing volunteer activities as well as the potential need for special use permits for some of the club’s recreational events in the area.
The Forest Supervisor did acquiesce to the club members’ concerns about extending the cabin rental season into September and October during the hunting season and dropped that proposal from the plan. Club members had expressed the concern that it would be a dangerous conflict with the uses that many of the renters might be hoping to take advantage of, such as hiking and mountain bike riding, and Meyers agreed.
Meyers also told club members that he was willing to continue to authorize the club’s grooming and trail maintenance activities. Under a “Volunteer Agreement” the club members would be considered government employees and be covered under the workers compensation policy in the event of injury. He was also fully in support of the group’s involvement in the construction and maintenance of new trails.
The Club was also notified that it must obtain Special Use Permits for club-sponsored recreational events in the area such as ski lessons and moonlight skiing, if the event draws more than 75 people or if fees are charged for the event.
Hoyt said that club members were happy that the cabin rental season would not be extended into the hunting season. He said club members were also still interested in grooming trails and constructing new ones and they see no problem having to comply with permitting requirements for activities. But they find the idea of charging a fee for the cabin use “unacceptable.”
Regarding the cabin rental, Meyers stated in his letter, “NRRS is the only system the Forest Service can use for recreation reservations. It is a proven system that is used for the other 24 cabins available for public recreational rent on the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest. It is important for the Club to understand that the rental of a government-owned facility located on National Forest System land is inherently a government function and that our previous method of reservations and allocation of cancelled winter days was not viewed as being equitably distributed to the general public.”
Meyers was prompted to reconsider the agency’s relationship with the ski club following an e-mail in February from an attorney in the USDA Office of Ethics claiming that the relationship was a breach of ethics. The issue of charging for use of the cabin was not addressed, but concern was expressed about the lack of any formal agreement and the possible appearance of favoritism.
Attorney George Corn, a Bitterroot Cross-Country Ski Club board member, responded to that memo with a lengthy critique. Corn argues that the ethical rules are designed to prevent Forest Service employees from benefiting personally from decisions and actions by enriching themselves.
“It is hard to imagine, or take seriously, the claim that a Forest Service employee could be disciplined, much less prosecuted, for working with the Ski Club at Chief Joseph Pass,” wrote Corn. He states that it is the Forest Service as an agency that is making out like a bandit by charging fees for something that volunteers designed, constructed and maintain despite the initial promise to provide free use.
“For 23 years the Club’s arrangement with the Forest Service—which essentially allowed the Club’s members to donate their labor, money, and time to support the trails and Cabin—has not been questioned, approved by numerous Forest Service Supervisors, and rewarded with National Forest Service awards. Ours is one of the few instances in the United States where a group composed exclusively of volunteers successfully operated facilities on public land on a long-term basis for the free use and benefit of the public,” wrote Corn.
Hoyt agrees that introduction of a rental fee for the Gordon Reese Cabin during the ski season is contrary to the agreement reached between the Bitterroot Cross-Country Ski Club and the then Ranger of the Wisdom District, Dennis Havig, during the planning stages for building it. Although he can find no documentation memorializing that agreement, he did find a newspaper article, published at the time of the cabin’s construction, quoting Havig as stating that part of the agreement to accept the donation of the cabin from the Ski Club was that there would be no charge to the public for its use.
Hoyt called the decision to go back on that commitment “a slap in the face to the volunteers, the community, and the businesses that contributed to building the cabin and to the public in general.” He said the club had contributed well over $50,000 in cash and materials and thousands of hours of volunteer labor.
“There are people in our club that helped build that cabin,” said Hoyt. “They feel a sense of ownership and take care of it as though it was their own.” He doesn’t believe the Forest Service is capable of caring for the cabin in the same fashion, especially considering the cost and the man hours involved. He doesn’t believe, with those costs considered, that the Forest Service will make any money on the “pay to play” program. He said placing the cabin in the agency’s fee system was based on “a false sense of profit.”
The Forest Service was, in the past, reserving half the nights at the cabin for use by club members who would also do maintenance duties during their stay. Meyers stated in his letter to the group that the agency would still be willing to set aside 30 days for the club in exchange for maintenance work.
Hoyt said that club members were not thrilled about the reduction in the number of days for club use, but the bottom line, he said, is that the majority of club members are “almost unanimously” in opposition to the charging of fees at any rate for use of the cabin.
“Because we feel attempts by the Forest Service and yourself to convert free-use public lands to income producing assets is an ethical issue important to every American, our Club will use whatever methods are available to continue fighting your verdict. We will persist in appealing your arbitrary decisions related to cabin rental and allotment of nights for cabin operations and maintenance and, by copy, are asking to have the matter reviewed by the Chief of the Forest Service,” Hoyt concluded in the club’s letter to Meyers.
“In the meantime and because of your decision to place any rental fee (no matter the size) on the winter use of the Reese Cabin, our Club has little choice but to immediately cease providing volunteer services to operate and maintain the cabin,” wrote Hoyt.
Hoyt said that his club would seek a reversal of this decision by higher agency officials and seek congressional intervention on the matter as a last resort.