There are no shortage of important issues facing the Stanislaus National Forest.
Timber harvests, fire prevention, habitat protection, road maintenance, off-highway vehicles, campgrounds, tree planting, erosion control and long-term planning are all on its very crowded plate.
Yet forest staff members have found time not only to make almost microscopic inspections of hundreds of cabins at Pinecrest and in summer home tracts, but to offend, irritate and frustrate numerous cabin owners in the process.
At issue are U.S. Forest Service permits for 745 cabins, most on the forest's Summit Ranger District. The 20-year permits expire at the end of 2008, and a forest team for more than two years has been inspecting the cabins in minute, almost excruciating detail and documenting its findings with photos.
Then the other shoe falls: Cabin owners are sent "compliance letters" detailing changes that must be made if the permits are to be renewed.
This is what has steamed the owners, often members of families that have enjoyed the cabins for generations: The letters, they say, typically tick off a series of changes that are illogical, inconsistent, expensive or all three.
Owners have been asked to replace screen doors, line driveways with rock, plow under flowerbeds, paint metal stovepipes, remove handicapped ramps, reduce the size of fire rings, repaint walls and more.
Some of the changes, certainly, make sense: Forest officials are right to insist permittee cabins blend in with their surroundings. Garish colors, junk cars or boats, disintegrating rock work and collapsing decks should not be tolerated.
But not only has the Stanislaus Forest gone beyond that, but changes asked vary from cabin to cabin. One owner might be required to remove his outhouse while a neighbor's can stay.
What's most frustrating for permittees, however, is a complete lack of communication on the Forest Service's part: Calls go unanswered, explanations are not given and dialogue is nonexistent. The agency's compliance letters instead stand as non-negotiable edicts.
From a public relations standpoint, the effort has been a disaster. It's as if some rogue design review committee with limitless powers has imposed its will on cabin owners over a swath of thousands of acres. "Fear and frustration" are the words one Dardanelles cabin owner used to describe the process.
What should have been a cooperative process has turned into a bitter, adversarial ordeal.
To be fair, Stanislaus National Forest officials are not entirely to blame: The Forest Service's Washington office established the permit renewal procedure and all 18 California national forests are going through the process. Because the Stanislaus has more cabins than all but a couple of these forests and because no extra hiring was authorized to do the job, some difficulties are understandable.
But forest staffers here should have realized long ago that problems with the permittees were becoming unmanageable. Waiting until complaints to a congressman become so numerous and strident that his staff calls a mediation session is not an acceptable solution.
At this point the Forest Service must open and maintain communication with the cabin owners, address concerns, explain reasoning and logic, and be open to suggestion and common sense. The permit renewal process, ideally, should be simple and understandable even in the often arcane, bureaucratic world of federal government.
Union Democrat editorial positions are formed through regular meetings of the newspaper's editorial board Publisher Geoff White, Managing Editor Patty Fuller and senior reporter-columnist Chris Bateman.