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Representative Steve Daines meets with area residents in December who own cabins on National Forest land as they describe the importance of the passage of the Cabin Fee Act that will help stabilize fees they pay for the cabin leases. The Cabin Fee Act was included in the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act which recently passed Congress and is awaiting President Obama's signature.

Owners of cabins on national forest lands throughout Montana celebrated on Thursday after passage of the bipartisan Cabin Fee Act.

“I think this has restored my belief and confidence in government for the average citizen,” Donald Gillespie told Rep. Steve Daines, R-Mont., during a gathering at the Missoula Parks and Recreation office. “It’s taken a long time, but the system works.”

Gillespie’s cabin on Georgetown Lake was one of about 700 that Montanans have built on land leased from the U.S. Forest Service over the past 100 years.

In the past four years, a federal reassessment of the lease rates forced many to increase from around $2,000 or $3,000 a year to $20,000 or more. The sudden jump left many cabin owners thinking they’d lose places they had enjoyed for decades.

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., introduced the bill in July 2010. Daines added a House version, and the bipartisan proposal got attached to the National Defense Authorization Act along with about 70 other public lands bills. The Senate gave final passage to the NDAA on Tuesday, and President Barack Obama is expected to sign it later this week.

“Many of these cabins pass from generation to generation,” Tester said on the floor of the Senate on Tuesday. “This bill makes sure that family cabins can be enjoyed by those who cherish them.”

At the Missoula gathering, Daines said the bill won committee passage in both chambers, but looked unlikely to pass on its own. Attaching it to the must-pass defense bill was a way for Congress to move forward.

“We won as a team,” Daines said of the Montana delegation’s work getting the Cabin Fee Act in the package of eight public lands bills benefiting the state. “It required a team effort to figure out (Senate Democratic Majority Leader) Harry Reid, (Republican Speaker of the House) John Boehner and President Barack Obama in the Oval Office.”

Seeley Lake cabin owner Lori Smithwick-Hann said her family had been visiting their cabin for 92 years. The oldest bill she could find was $20. The current one would be $19,784.

“These last five years were just – whoa,” Smithwick-Hann said. “We didn’t want to be the ones who had to give up, but we couldn’t see passing that debt on to our children.”

The bill requires the Forest Service to reassess the cabin lease fees and charge the lesser of the new formula or $5,600 a year.

Retired Seeley Lake District Ranger Tim Love said the deal worked for the Forest Service because people wouldn’t have to abandon their cabins, leaving them for the agency to clean up.

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Natural Resources & Environment Reporter

Natural Resources Reporter for The Missoulian.