Porcupine Cabin, Forest Service Cabin

The moon rises behind Porcupine Cabin on Dec. 27, 2020.

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A proposal to raise fees at 13 Forest Service cabins, one lookout and 15 campgrounds across southern Montana was approved at a virtual meeting Tuesday, meaning the final decision is now in the hands of the regional forester.

Members of the Southern Montana Resource Advisory Committee voted to approve the set of fee hikes at cabins, lookouts and campgrounds dotted throughout the Custer Gallatin National Forest in southern Montana. The 15-person committee composed of volunteers meets a few times a year to discuss projects in counties that receive Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act funding.

The Forest Service recommended more than doubling prices at several campgrounds and nearly doubling prices for several cabins in Park, Sweet Grass, Stillwater, Carbon and Powder River Counties. Two members of the committee — Liz Stone and Craig Hash — voted against the agency’s recommendations. They were concerned about the magnitude of the price increases.

Raising the price for renting a cabin that costs more than $50 might box people who make less than $15 an hour out of the system, according to Stone.

“I would just like to see a larger percentage of (cabins) below $50,” she said.

Becky Grey, another member of the committee, said she realizes some people will have a harder time paying the fees, but the increases are necessary to meet the costs of maintenance. “If we do want to make some improvements, we need to provide the Forest Service with the ability to do that,” she said.

Before the fee adjustments can go into effect, they must be approved or altered by Leanne Marten, the northern regional forester for the Forest Service. A comment period for the proposal ran from July 2 to Aug. 23. Committee members said most of the comments were in opposition to the changes.

Fees at most of the sites haven’t been raised in decades, largely because of political opposition and program changes, according to Jeffrey Ward, recreation fee program manager for the Forest Service. The Federal Land and Recreation Enhancement Act (FLREA) authorizes fee changes once every decade.

“We’ve had countless hurdles that have held us up,” he said. “Certainly our goal is not to only look at these every 25 to 30 years.”

The Forest Service uses the money collected at recreation sites to fund deferred maintenance, trail work and cabin improvements. The agency must put 95% of the fee money back into projects in the forest.

The Forest Service charges people $0 to $9 per night to stay at 15 campgrounds across southern Montana. If the regional forester OKs the fee hikes approved by the committee, the prices will soon range from $10 to $20 per night.

The changes will apply to Falls Creek, Hells Canyon, Sage Creek, Canyon, Aspen, Chippy Park, Halfmoon, Hicks Park, West Boulder, Eagle Creek, East Rosebud Lake, Emerald Lake, Pine Grove, Colter and Soda Butte campgrounds. The Forest Service has never charged fees at two of the sites — Falls Creek Campground and Hells Canyon Campground.

It costs $25 to $50 to rent a Forest Service cabin or lookout at 12 sites in southern Montana, depending on amenities. Upon approval from the regional forester, those prices will range from $45 to $90. One of the sites — the Sage Creek Cabin — is new to the system and hasn’t had a fee established.

The new prices will apply to Deer Creek, Trail Creek, Crandall Creek, Ibex, Porcupine, White Tail, West Bridger, West Boulder, Fourmile, Mill Creek, Big Creek and Meyers Creek cabins. Renting the Diamond Butte Lookout will increase from $25 to $45.

At a virtual meeting in December, the Gallatin Resource Advisory Committee approved bumping pass prices at Rendezvous Ski Trails and prices at 14 Forest Service cabins, one lookout and three campgrounds in Gallatin County.

Rendezvous pass prices increased on Feb. 1, and the Forest Service anticipates the rest of the changes will go into effect this summer.

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Helena Dore can be reached at hdore@dailychronicle.com or at 582-2628.

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