For a century, the Forest Service has allowed people to own recreation cabins on federal lands. Dismayed by a recent rise in annual use fees, recreation cabin owners from across the country have put forth a strong lobbying effort. In response, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Cabin Fee Act of 2012 (H.R. 3397) last month, which aims to increase affordability by imposing a tiered fee structure that ranges from $500 at the low end to a maximum yearly fee of $5000.
While the Cabin Fee Act is great news for recreation cabin owners, another very important group of cabin owners right here in Southeast is being left out. These rural residents own cabins on federal land that they use for harvesting and processing subsistence resources, like fish and game. Most of the cabins are Native-owned, and were built many decades ago by the same families who own and use them today.
In recent years, however, the Forest Service has substantially increased the annual fee it charges these cabin owners. Now around $900 per year, the fees threaten to put families living in relatively cash-poor subsistence economies in the impossible position of having to choose between certain basic necessities on the one hand, and access to food and culture on the other. Perhaps most upsetting, the fees are no less than what the Forest Service charges mining companies, outfitters, commercial fishermen, and academic institutions for use of similar shelters on federal land.
Southeast’s subsistence users deserve better. Unlike the recreation cabins at issue in the Cabin Fee Act, subsistence cabins are not simply a luxury. Rather, these structures provide an essential means of access to the wild foods that cabin-owners and their families depend on. In remote areas, harsh winters and exposed coastline render these permanent shelters a vital component of the year-round subsistence lifestyle for the families that use them. In short, to the handful of families who have them, the cabins are just as important a subsistence tool as the rifle, the seine, or the gaff.
Subsistence – or customary and traditional use, as many prefer to call it – plays an extremely important role for many Southeast Alaskans. For most rural families, much if not most of a family’s food comes from fish, game, and other wild sources. In smaller communities, subsistence is more than a lifestyle – it’s a necessity. And subsistence is of special value to Alaska Natives, who have harvested from these lands since time immemorial, and for many of whom customary and traditional use plays an integral cultural role. But customary and traditional use is also important from a conservation perspective: when people connect with subsistence resources in this way, they are more likely to be in favor of keeping our forests and oceans healthy enough to support those resources. Connection to the land fosters good policy. It is for all of these reasons that SEACC works in support of this time-honored way of life.
For the next year, I will be at SEACC focusing on customary and traditional use. My work will involve matters of resource management – like the cabin fees at issue here – as well as environmental threats to the subsistence resources themselves. As an attorney, I’m particularly interested in the legal side of things, but I am also eager to incorporate other disciplines and tools where they might be useful. I encourage members of the subsistence community to reach out and share their thoughts, concerns, and hopes for the future so that I and SEACC may do what we can to keep customary and traditional use alive and well in Southeast.
But at this moment, my focus is on the Cabin Fee Act. The bill is now before the Senate, and as the ranking Republican on Energy and Natural Resources, Sen. Murkowski has the opportunity to make sure that Southeast’s subsistence users aren’t left out. Families that depend on these cabins for their sustenance should not have to pay close to a thousand dollars per year, while some recreation cabin owners only have to pay half that. Sen. Murkowski, please amend the bill to ensure that families can afford to continue practicing subsistence the way their families have for generations.
• Sinaiko is the Arthur P. Liman Fellow at the Southeast Alaska Conservation.