Advisory committee approves USFS fee increases on Rock Creek, Monture

Cabin rentals in some parts of western Montana are set to increase. Photo shows bridge over the North Fork of the Blackfoot River in route to the North Fork Cabin. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current file photo)

User fees are set to increase for U.S. Forest Service sites along Rock Creek, but the cost of two cabins may be lower than the agency asked for.

The Tri-County Resource Advisory Committee this week debated the Lolo National Forest’s proposed increases to fees for eight campgrounds along Rock Creek and three cabins in Powell and Granite counties.

In the end, they approved increases for all sites but not everything the Forest Service wanted.

For the past 25 or 30 years, most Forest Service fees in the northern Rocky Mountains remained unchanged. Now, over the past few years, US Forest Service Region 1 has worked its way through the region’s national forests proposing fee increases, and some have been noticeably large.

Jeff Ward, USFS Region 1 Recreation Business program manager, told the committee the process to determine whether fees should be increased had started up three times during that period, only to be dropped for various reasons. Forest Service rates got left in the dust as the rest of the US economy ramped up.

“We’ve heard from a lot of RAC’s that they don’t want us to do this again,” Ward said. “We already have plans that we won’t be doing this every 10 to 20 years. It’s going to be part of our process that, every few years, we’re doing a better in-depth look at our fees across the region. Not necessarily proposing changes but just looking at them.”

The committee had no issue with the campground proposals, agreeing to up the fees to $15 a night from $6 for five campgrounds – Bitterroot Flat, Dalles, Grizzly, Harry’s Flat and Norton – and creating a fee of $10 a night where none existed for three campgrounds – Big Nelson, Bighorn and Siria.

Ward said the three lower priced campgrounds have fewer amenities or are farther from the river compared to the other five, which offer more, including water.

“That seems to be a pretty big deal to some folks,” Ward said.

In addition, all campgrounds will add an extra-vehicle fee of $5 per campsite. That’s in keeping with a policy being put in place region-wide, although each Resource Advisory Committee has to vote to approve it.

However, the committee struggled when it came to approving fee increases for three Forest Service cabins: Monture Guard Station north of the Blackfoot River near Ovando, and Morgan Case and Hogback Homestead cabins along Rock Creek. Monture cabin is available for rental only during the winter.

The Forest Service proposed raising the rate for Monture cabin, which can house eight people, to $75 a night, an increase of $15. The Resource Advisory Council agreed to that, although member Steve Flynn of Sun Mountain Lumber gave it a thumbs-down, saying the increase wasn’t justified because Forest Service crews use the cabin in the summer so the agency should pay for it.

When it came to increasing the rental rate of Hogback and Morgan Case homesteads to $100 a night from about $65, that created heartburn for more committee members.

Ward said both cabins get a lot of use – both have an occupancy rate of about 95% – being along Rock Creek with easy access being so close to Missoula. They’re both historic structures, which is a big draw but it means maintenance costs more to recreate the historic look. Josh Lattin of the Lincoln Forest District said the cabins have outstanding maintenance that will be expensive such as replacing the water system because of the water quality.

“By using these places as much as we do, the maintenance will increase,” Lattin said.

But committee member and retired Lolo National Forest archeologist Milo McLeod said the fees shouldn’t be that high because the Forest Service wasn’t required to do much maintenance on the two cabins.

In 1995, McLeod helped restore the Hogback Homestead and then Morgan Case a decade later. He created Friends of Upper Rock Creek, a nonprofit group that has continued to do two weeks of maintenance on the cabins every year and cleans the cabins once a month. Ten years ago, the group attracted a benefactor and has spent close to $200,000 on new stoves, electrical work and weed spraying.

McLeod proposed that the Forest Service charge $70 for the Hogback and $75 for Morgan Case.

“We knew it would be a winner and would generate a lot of money. But the philosophy was we were restoring a historic resource, and we wanted to set the fee so it would be available for all income levels yet generate enough money for preservation of the structure in the future,” McLeod said. “We think $100 a night is way to high to make it accessible for all members of the public.”

A few committee members echoed McLeod’s concern about the rate going too high too quickly, but some questioned whether McLeod’s aging group could continue to do the maintenance forever.

“There’s so much demand, you could ask any price you wanted to for Morgan Case, and I bet it would still fill up,” said committee member Ed Brunsvold. “All we’re doing by raising prices too much is just excluding people of lower income. I think there’s a medium place here. Just going on market demand isn’t quite what we’re up to on public lands.”

Committee member Karen Porter suggested the committee could recommend setting a lower fee if the Forest Service could assure them they would reevaluate in a few years. Ward said that’s the plan, but other things could come up so he couldn’t make promises.

Brunsvold made a motion to make the rate $75 a night at both cabins, which the committee passed. He also suggested that the Forest Service petition Montana’s Congressional delegation to appropriate more maintenance funding “so we don’t have to put this on the backs of the public.”

The Tri-County Resource Advisory Committee reviews Forest Service activities in Powell, Granite and Deer Lodge counties. Its recommendation will go to Region 1 Forester Leanne Martin who will make the final decision. It’s uncertain whether the increases will be put in place for the 2021 season. However, fee increases have already been approved and will apply to this season for campground and cabins in Sanders, Mineral and Missoula counties.

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com