Near the end of an 11-mile-long dirt road that winds into the highest elevations of the Pinal Mountains south of Globe, there’s a rambling cluster of thirteen historic cabins. Each of them is privately owned and perfectly situated in an enviable montane forest setting not far below Pinal Peak.
At an elevation close to 7,800 feet, they are predominantly summer-use cabins, where cool temperatures tempt owners like Steve Anderson to regularly flee the heat from his home in Mesa. “Where else in the state can I drive two hours and have 30 degree cooler weather?” he asks, rhetorically.
Anderson is the current president of the Pinal Mountain Cabin Owners Association, and his cabin is the oldest one on the mountain, passed down through several generations of his wife’s family.
He and his dozen neighbors join nearly 14,000 cabin owners dispersed within 114 national forests throughout the U.S. Though all the cabins are privately owned, each owner is also a federal government permittee, because the U.S. Forest Service owns and manages the land on which they’re built.
All of these cabins are part of the Recreation Residence Program, established by Congress in 1915 to promote family recreation in national forests.
The cabins in the Pinals aren’t the fancy second homes you might find tucked into the forested hillsides around Lake Tahoe. “Our cabins are like old hunters’ cabins,” Anderson says. “Pretty basic.”
Nothing illustrates this point better than the image of a frosty 3 AM visit to the ubiquitous outhouse that’s found within a few hundred feet of every owner’s cabin. Some of the cabins have been retrofitted with indoor toilets, but the outdoor privies will always hold the most vivid memories. And they’re always on standby if needed.
Globe resident Jerry Fountain is a former president of the Cabin Owners Association, with his own snug cabin on the mountain top. He bought it 35 years ago, and like the other owners, appreciates the solitude it affords him and his family. “It’s the kind of a place that not many people are aware of, so that makes it pretty nice. Pretty private.”
Even though the cabins are built close to the road, they’re easy to miss because they look like they belong there. The exterior colors are woodsy and neutral, and the surrounding forest appears to envelope them in a camouflaged timelessness.
But life in a cabin in the woods is more than pickin’ the banjo on your front porch while the wind whistles through the Ponderosa pines overhead. There is a price to be paid to the Forest Service for the privilege of enjoying this life—and it’s not cheap.
Every cabin owner is also a U.S. Forest Service permittee and is required to abide by the rules of a Term Special Use Permit that is refreshed every twenty years. With the permit comes an annual fee that is not based on the value of the cabin, but on the appraised value of the land on which the cabin sits.
In the past, each permittee’s yearly fee was based on 5% of the property’s appraised valuation. In the late 2000s, Forest Service property values were going through the roof, so to speak. An Arizona Republic story from 2009 reported that some cabin owners were bracing for a fourfold to tenfold increase in their annual fee.
Fast forward to 2014 with the passing of the Cabin Fee Act that permanently places each permittee within a tier of a fixed fee structure. For 2018, the range of the yearly fee could be as low as $666 to an eye-popping $5809. For three-quarters of the cabin owners, though, it will cost them between $1182 and $2725 per year.
This is still more than cabin owners have paid in the past, but it comes with the welcome stability and predictability of a fixed fee that will only increase with inflation. And if they ever decide to sell their cabin, a new owner will know exactly what to expect his annual fee to be.
“With the new one we do pay more but it’s a lot more just system,” says Fountain. “It’s not going to skyrocket.”
Should any owner decide to sell, there is also a one-time $1200 transfer fee that the Forest Service charges when a cabin changes ownership and a new permit is issued.
Other out of pocket costs to cabin ownership are local taxes that are based solely on the value of the cabin itself. In Gila County, the assessor taxes the Pinal Mountain cabins as personal property, not as real estate. So rather than holding a deed, an owner simply has a bill of sale for his cabin, but he still receives a yearly tax bill.
Because the cabins are part of the Recreation Residence Program, there are aesthetic regulations that limit an owner’s creative impulses to modify his cabin.
The overarching requirement is to maintain the external character of the building, particularly if the cabin is historic (over 50 years old). These standards can also apply to newer structures, too, if the forest neighborhood itself is historically significant.
The Pinal cabins fall squarely into the historic category, so minor changes (like repainting), or major changes, (like building a deck), all require prior approval from the ranger at the Globe Ranger District who issues the required permit.
These regulations don’t apply to interior, non-structural changes because those changes are hidden from view. So if an owner wants to paint his inside walls the color of his dog’s tongue—with carpet to match—he can start today.
Retired pastor Ed Loew has owned his 750 square foot cabin since 1976, so he has one of the longest mountain memories. “I’m the history, the artifact,” he says, with a wry smile. Loew is also a multi-term past president of the Cabin Owners Association and has been a tireless advocate for all the Pinal Mountain cabin owners throughout the years.
Loew says that electricity didn’t make it to the cabins until the mid 1950s when Arizona Public Service ran a power line up to Pinal Peak for one of the first microwave installations. Today, there are 32 individual electronic communication sites at the top, mostly on the higher, exposed ridges above the cabins.
The cabin owners maintain their own water system which they source from nearby Ferndell Spring. A pump moves the water up to a concrete holding tank built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s that sits above the highest cabin. Gravity distributes the water downhill to each individual building, including two strategically placed fire hydrants.
One of the more determined and capable cabin owners starts up the water system up every year in April, keeps it running all summer, then winterizes it each fall. Money for repairs comes from the yearly dues that all owners pay to the Cabin Owners Association. Labor often comes from the members’ own sweat equity.
“We work hard to collect reasonable dues and save up a little nest egg to make sure that when we do have surprises we have the money to do it,” says Steve Anderson. Their next project is to do some repairs on the 80-year-old concrete holding tank.
There have been break-ins, but none of the owners considered it enough of a potential liability to mention. As one cabin owner intimated, “There’s more security up there than you realize.”
Both cellular service and Wi-Fi is available, and the cabins all have 911 addressing. These modern technological perks are courtesy of nearly three dozen communication towers that coexist on the mountain.
They share the Pinals with plenty of deer and javelina, too, but owners have also seen bobcats and the occasional bear. Ed Loew tells the story of his wife, Joyce, who came face-to-face with a mountain lion during an early morning dog walk. And Steve Anderson remembers the massive group of 30 coatimundis, a not-so-common relative of raccoons, that once ran alongside him near his cabin. Several owners keep hummingbird feeders filled whenever they’re on site.
About half of the owners live in Globe, and the other half live in the east valley of the Phoenix metro area or in far north Tucson. That means that all of them are within relatively easy striking distance of a substantial respite from the summer heat.
The Cabin Owners Association meets once a year for an annual meeting and cookout. “The good thing is that the cabin owners are all on the same page,” Anderson says. “We love the mountain and we’ll do whatever it takes to keep everything functioning and keep it moving forward.”