Forest cabin rentals caught in process limbo

By Allen Thomas, Columbian outdoors reporter

Published:

 

Nestled in an aspen grove south of Mount Adams lies Gotchen Creek Guard Station. It’s the oldest building in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, built in 1909 at a cost of $332.

A survivor from the era of horseback rangers, the 12-by-26-foot cabin has two rooms, a kitchen and an everything-else room that contains bunk beds and a warming stove.

It would be a great addition to the U.S. Forest Service’s rental program, like the Government Mineral Springs Guard Station north of Carson. I’ve been writing that story over and over since at least 2005, always quoting Forest Service staff that they hope to make it available to the public.

Well, it looks like Gotchen Creek Guard Station joining the rental program will not happen any time soon.

At a meeting of winter recreation interests in Stevenson last month, Robin Rose, recreation program manager for the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, said a great deal of restoration work has been completed at the 104-year-old structure and it is about ready for the public.

But here’s the hang-up.

Before the Forest Service can charge a rental fee at Gotchen, the matter must come before the Pacific Northwest Recreation Resources Advisory Committee.

The citizen group makes recommendations on creating new, changing existing or eliminating recreation fees managed by the Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management in Washington or Oregon.

The Recreation RAC was authorized under legislation signed into law in December 2004 and extends through 2015. It is supposed to have 11 members representing a wide diversity of users including winter recreation, summer recreation, sportsmen, environmental groups, tourism and Indian tribes.

No members

However, there is no Pacific Northwest Recreation RAC. All positions are vacant, according the website for the Forest Service’s regional office.

Tom Knappenberger, public affairs officer for the Pacific Northwest region of the Forest Service, said the Recreation Resource Advisory Committee has not met since October of 2010.

“You’re the first media person to ask about it,’’ he said.

Jocelyn Biro, developed recreation program manager for the Forest Service’s regional office, said she needs a slate of 11 applicants and 11 alternates to submit to the agency’s Washington, D.C., office to begin the clearance process including background checks.

The process can take six to nine months to complete.

Biro said she has an applicant for every spot except tourism, but would be more comfortable with additional nominations to put forward in case there is a glitch in the background check.

The length of the review process is a drawback, she said.

“The longer it takes, the applications get stale,’’ Biro said. “People’s interests change or wane from what they agreed to nine months earlier.’’

Ray Thygesen of Trout Lake has applied to be on the committee — twice.

“I submitted an application two years ago, then resubmitted a year ago,’’ Thygesen said. “I’ve not heard a thing.’’

Biro said the applications need to be refreshed before the nominations are submitted to Washington, D.C.

There is an alternative to the committee process. If the governors of both Washington and Oregon ask to waive the RAC requirement, then fee changes will be reviewed by a committee of Forest Service staff and submitted to the regional forester.

Biro said there are four potential scenario for the future: 1) new legislation changing the committee requirement; 2) the governors waiving the RAC requirement; 3) the advisory committee slots are all filled and approved, and 4) the status quo.

Cabins, lookouts popular

While it is difficult to find applicants for the recreation resources committee, there is no shortage of interest in the rental facilities, Biro said.

“People love our rentals,’’ she said. “Most rentals are underpriced. Some are at a 98 percent occupancy rate Revenues generated from these rentals often do not cover the full cost of operating them even though every penny is reinvested into the rental.’’

Rick McClure, Gifford Pinchot National Forest archeologist and historic preservation officer, said Red Mountain Lookout, at almost 5,000 feet elevation just outside the southern end of Indian Heaven Wilderness, is close to being ready to rent.

A structure was first built on the summit of Red Mountain in 1913. The current lookout, built in 1959, was largely blown apart in a December 2006 windstorm, but has been restored.

Plans also call for moving the Willard Tool House to the site where the Peterson Prairie Guard Station stood before burning to the ground in September 2012. The interior will be remodeled for rental use and exterior restored to a 1940s appearance.

Once restored, the tool shed also will be added to the rental program to replace the Peterson Prairie Guard Station, which was in the rental program.

“We get calls almost weekly about when we will have more historic cabin rentals available,’’ McClure said. “The public demand is there.’’