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For many years, the cabins remained quite primitive. Until the 1960s and 1970s, electricity and running water were rare. Even today, automobile access is often along rutted, unpaved roads. In Pine Creek, some owners must traverse a rocky streambed that runs through the tract to get to their cabins, a streambed that is home for part of the year to what Fescina calls "our friendly, lovely little toad."

In recent years, many cabin owners installed electricity and indoor plumbing, extensively remodeled the interiors, and added other modern conveniences. As a result, the prices the cabins fetch when they change hands has risen. Today, cabins on Mt. Laguna can cost as much as $125,000, says Louise Van Dusen, a real estate agent who specializes in property on the mountain, though some are still available for just $70,000.

"For $70,000," says Van Dusen, "you're probably going to get 600 square feet and, hopefully, a private bedroom."

Down in Pine Creek, things are more reasonable. Cabins range from about $50,000 to $75,000, says Jack Jones, an agent at Glenn D. Mitchel in Pine Valley, who says he sells one or two in the tract each year. Most pass between friends or family members or are sold by word of mouth. Conventional financing isn't available, so purchasers either pay cash or get the current owner to finance.

The reward for those who manage to scrape up the cash is simple, says one of Fescina's neighbors, who asked not to be identified.

"I'll tell you what the attraction is," the neighbor said. "You drive out of San Diego and all of the traffic and get up to the cabin and when you get there, an attitude overwhelms you: To hell with the rest of the world."

* * *

UNFORTUNATELY, ESCAPE ISN'T AS EASY as it used to be at Pine Creek. The outside world is beginning to intrude on the cabin owners' forest idyll with increasing regularity.

In 1996, the General Accounting Office (GAO) released a report blasting the Forest Service's cabin permit policies. The title said it all: "U.S. Forest Service: Fees for Recreation Special Use Permits Do Not Reflect Fair Market Value."

In it, the GAO reported that fee increases had failed to keep pace with rising land values and that many permit holders were paying rates based on appraisals made in the late 1970s. The Forest Service reacted to the report (as well as a 1997 story on the subject that ran as a "Fleecing of America" segment of the NBC Nightly News) with a five-year initiative to reappraise the country's 15,200 recreation residence lots. Properties were to be assessed on the value of the land, not on any improvements.

To date, almost 50 percent of the cabins have been reassessed, and few permit holders are smiling. According to Senate testimony last year from a top Forest Service official, only 12 percent of permit holders have seen their fees fall as a result of the new system. Some 44 percent have seen their fees increase by as much as 100 percent; 38 percent saw them jump between 100 to 500 percent; and 6 percent saw their fees surge more than 500 percent.

The National Forest Homeowners Association, a Portland-based group that represents about 5000 cabin owners, including Fescina, isn't happy with the new system.

"Generally speaking, the sites for cabins are about the same size, between a quarter and a half an acre," says Bob Ervin, the executive director of the NFH. "Some have water views and sit on the waterfront. Others don't. But the use of the same size of land shouldn't provide figures where some people are paying less than $200 a year and others are paying upwards of $30,000. There ought not to be that kind of swing."

Escalating permit fees are just the beginning of the problem. Critics also have begun to question the basic fairness of giving a handful of Americans special access to public land.

"These are sweetheart deals," says Peter Galvin, a conservation biologist at the Center for Biological Diversity, the Tucson group that sued the Forest Service last year over alleged Endangered Species Act violations in the Cleveland.

Galvin, whose group is in negotiations with the Forest Service to settle the suit through unspecified "corrective actions," insists that, for the most part, environmentalists have better things to worry about than the 245 cabins in San Diego County.

"In the larger scheme of things, are the recreational residences the thing that we would hold up as the biggest threat to wildlife?" he says. "Other than the Pine Creek tract, we'd say no. ...But [Pine Creek] was a poor choice for cabin sites that is coming back to haunt everybody because it's one of the few sites where arroyo toads occur."

* * *

THE ARROYO SOUTHWESTERN TOAD joined the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's list of endangered species in late 1994, about two years after Fescina finished rebuilding her fire-gutted cabin with $90,000 she raised with a second mortgage on her Clairemont home.

Like most toads, the arroyo isn't much to look at. According to the government order granting protection, the toad is only two to three inches long, "greenish gray or tan toad in color, with warty skin, dark spots, a buff-colored underside and light-colored stripe across its head and eyelids." It hops rather than walks, prefers shallow pools and sandy terraces, and, according to just about everybody, makes a perfect nighttime racket with its shrill mating calls during breeding season, which runs from late March until late June.

In the past, the toad's range extended from San Diego to San Luis Obispo. But urbanization of Southern California, and the dam construction that followed, destroyed about three-quarters of its habitat. Today, Fish and Wildlife says, "they survive primarily in the headwaters as small isolated populations." In 1990, "only seven pairs of arroyo toads were known to have bred anywhere within the toad's range," putting the species "at great risk of extinction."

The move to add the toad to the endangered species list was not without its critics or controversy. In fact, when the government sought public comment on the proposal, opponents of the listing outnumbered supporters 2-to-1, according to Fish and Wildlife.

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