We got a phone call the other day from Spokane, Wash., but the caller sounded a lot like the Montgomery County resident we used to hear from every time the property tax assessment came in the mail. It's the same issue, folks, with a federal twist. Our Spokane caller has a summer cabin on Priest Lake, Idaho, on property owned by the Agriculture Department's Forest Service. The property is leased for an annual fee, which is going to jump from $2,700 to $4,500 next year. Outrage, our caller said, doubtless part of a plot.

Ralph Wheeler, the forest ranger out at Priest Lake, said the fee is the result of a reappraisal mandated by Congress, required by regulation and conducted by a private appraiser. "Land values, especially on the lakefront," he said, "have gone up dramatically." Back here in Washington, Jim Bossey, of the Forest Service's recreation management staff, explained the annual fee is supposed to be 5 percent of the fair market value of the land, but that the Forest Service's emphasis on new assessments has increased substantially in recent years, with nudges from both the GAO and Agriculture's junkyard dog. To formally appeal an assessment, Bossey said, an unhappy renter should start with his local forest ranger.

The annual fee is for the property only; the cabins belong to private owners; there are about 16,000 of them in the national forests and owners pay $4 million annually to the Treasury's general fund.