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Michaux State Forest a haven for vacationers

June 19, 1999|By RICHARD F. BELISLE

FAYETTEVILLE, Pa. - Before her husband died in 1991, Nancy Hollister said they spent much of the summer at their cabin in Michaux State Forest.

Now, Hollister said, she only comes up for three or four days at a time from her home near Philadelphia and then not nearly as often.

Hollister is the perfect cabin owner, the kind that the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources wants in the 86,000-acre state forest that runs through three counties.

The department also looks for owners who break the rules by living in their cabins year-round, said Michael Kusko, the chief forester in Michaux's headquarters in Fayetteville. Kusko said about 25 owners are breaking the rule, but the department is too short-handed to enforce it. Only one forester is assigned to patrol the 450 cabins in the forest.

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Hollister said her cabin was built in 1935. She and her husband bought it in 1968. "It used to be busy around here, when we first bought it. There used to be a lot of families with children, but you hardly see anyone anymore," she said.

The state bought the forest land early in this century. At that time it was little more than vast stretches of land that had been denuded of trees several times over in the 18th and early 19th centuries by the region's iron-making industries. Iron furnaces were fueled by charcoal which came from the trees. "People come to the forest today and they think they're seeing old-growth wilderness," Kusko said. "They don't realize that it had all been cut over about four times."

He said a decision was made around 1920 to lease 100- by 100-foot building lots for cabins. People could own the cabins they built, but not the land under them. The state limited the size of the cabins to 1,000 square feet and specified building materials, Kusko said.

Leases run for 10 years and are renewable. Ground rent is $150 a year. Cabins may be sold but only to other Pennsylvania residents.

The state can cancel a lease and force the owner to remove the cabin if the rules are violated but Kusko said that hasn't happened in the 16 years he has worked for the forest.

He said cabins are inspected when leases are renewed , whenever one is sold or whenever the department has reason to believe there is a violation. "We try to make sure every cabin owner is a state resident and that they don't live in them year-round, but it's hard with just one man on enforcement. Mostly we just take things on faith," he said.

Kusko said there are some families living in cabins year-round who were given permission to do so by a long-since-departed department secretary. Only about a dozen are left, he said.

Most cabins have electricity. Some have running water and a few have septic systems that were put in before the rules were tightened. Most cabins have outhouses sitting over temporary holding tanks. They do well since most cabins are used only as weekend retreats, Kusko said.

Michaux is the most visited state forest of the 20 in the state, Kusko said. There are about 4,000 cabins in all of the forests, mostly used as occasional hunting camps, he said.

"The cabins here are used for recreation," he said. "Most are clustered in two areas - around Caledonia State Park and in Pine Grove Park in Cumberland County."

The demand for cabins was growing in the 1960s and foresters realized it was time to end the leasing program. The old leases were allowed to continue, but no new ones have been issued since 1970, Kusko said.

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