Cabins in the Ottawa National Forest are being torn down and burned, leaving occupants no choice but to leave.
Since the 1950s, a local power company leased little plots of land it owned to 155 locals for a very cheap price. The people leasing the land built small cabins along the Ontonagon River in Michigan. In 1992, the federal government acquired the land and told the cabin owners that they had to abandon their spots once their 25 year lease expired. Any structures left after that deadline would be demolished, and the trails leading to them would be blocked.
Twenty five years ended on New Year’s Day, the cabin dwellers were given an extra 90 days to clear everything out and that ended on the last day of March.
The cabins were quaint hunting structures made for families to get out into nature and relax with one another. If you didn’t know where you were going, you would never find them because none of the cabins had main roads that led to them. Owners usually had hidden trails that would lead down obscure paths to their cabins.
Even though the cabins do not leave much of a footprint, the U.S. Forest Service insists that the land should be open for everyone, and that it is against private property on public land. Yet while everyone knew this day was coming, it doesn’t make leaving any easier for them.
In the Upper Peninsula, a cabin is called a camp. The term describes not so much a location, but rather a lifestyle. It’s a place where families are able to spend quality time together, enjoying the bare essentials of life in nature — fresh water, hunted food, candles and flashlights, and brisk fresh air. Families pass these camps down through generations and they are integral to living in the Upper Peninsula.
For those families that have lost their camps, this isn’t just property, it’s the end of a big part of their lives.
When cabin owners were told that they had 25 years to stay, it seemed far away. They thought that they would surely work something out by then and find a way to stay.
Nothing changed, and the 25 years came and went.
As the deadline approached, efforts by local politicians to sway the Forest Service failed. A resolution was passed last year in the state Senate calling on the agency to grant exemptions to the families, partly based on the roughly $45,000 in total taxes and fees that cash-strapped local municipalities stood to lose from all the camp owners each year, and partly based on the 15,570 single-family cabins currently permitted on National Forest System lands throughout the country under the Recreation Residence Program. Why not add these 155 people to that number?
None of it worked.
One cabin owner argued that the trails leading into the woods were provided and maintained by camp owners, and that when those trails are gone, no one will ever be able to make it into those parts of the woods, defeating the Forest Service’s stated purpose of opening the land for everyone.
The Recreation Residence Program, which started in 1915 to persuade people into America’s newly designated national forests, ended nearly 50 years ago, and while cabins that were already on forest land at the time were grandfathered in, no new private structures have been allowed on federal property since the program ended.
The cabin owners have helped lost canoers who were once stranded, they have sheltered a Boy Scout troop during a rough storm, and most of their camps remain unlocked throughout the year. They would always encourage people to use them if they were facing trouble or they were lost. In that sense, the land they were on was essentially public and the work they put into their trails along with the help they provided outdoor enthusiasts came without a salary from the state, unlike forest rangers.
Having to say good bye to decades of memories enjoying the forest and river was sad. The end of an era most aren’t ready to end.