Author Archives: sdemas@carleton.edu

American Alpine Club

American Alpine Club Hut System

The American Alpine Club’s “Hut System”

While staying at the American Alpine Club’s (AAC) Grand Teton Climbers Ranch I was intrigued by a sign indicating that it is part of the AAC Hut System.

It turns out the AAC has borrowed the term “hut system” (see my article What is a Hut? Towards a definition)  for a more common definition) to describe its system of five lodging camps in USA.  I talked with Jesse Billingham, Lodging Director of AAC, to learn more about this accommodations network.  It turns out that AAC has developed four of these five properties in the past five years or so and is considering opening more in future.   As with the original Climbers Ranch in the Grand Tetonsthe other four lodgings are small non-profit operations. Some operate in the black and others in the red; it varies from year to year.  The AAC does not view them as a revenue stream, but hopes they don’t lose money.  

The mission of all these lodging enterprises includes:

  • providing affordable accommodations for climbers at iconic climbing locations,
  • community building through creation of a cultural hub for climbers,
  • education, and
  • environmental conservation.

To these ends each one provides lodging, a central dining pavilion, one (or two) communal fire pit (rather than many dispersed gathering spots), and education and volunteer service programs, such as the AAC “Crag and Classics” series of weekend events and clinics.

I was so impressed by the mission and thoughtful design of the Grand Teton Climbers Ranch, established in 1970, that I decided to look online at the others.  These lodgings are open to AAC members and to non-members. Reservations can be made online at the link below.

These are good examples of an organization developing lodgings to build community for their members and support nature-based activities.  Following is a very brief listing of the other for AAC lodgings, each of which is described in more detail on their website.

  • Snowbird Hut (Alaska), sleeping 6-12, this is a single hut that can be linked with two huts of the Alaska Mountaineering Club to form the Bombers Traverse.  Open year-round, this remote shelter is for back country skiiers, climbers, and hikers.  There is a link to the history of the hut on the AAC website.
  • Hueco Rock Ranch (near El Paso, TX).  Established about 2012, this ranch includes a house with rooms for rent, campsites, and space for parking travel vehicles.
  • New River Gorge Campground (Lansing, WV) was established in 2014 and has 40 campsites, a shower house, and two communal fire rings.
  • Gunks Campground (officially: Samuel F. Pryor III Shawangunk Gateway Campground, New Paltz, NY) was established in partnership with Mohonk Preserve and the Palisades Interstate Park Commission.  It has 26 drive-in campsites and 24 walk-in sites.

American Alpine Club Grand Tetons Climbing Ranch

American Alpine Club Grand Teton Climbing Ranch

Overview:  Located in Grand Teton National Park in Moose, WY, the Grand Tetons Climbing Ranch (GTCR) is one of five AAC mountain huts, i.e. base camp accommodations centers for climbers operated by the American Alpine Club.  The cluster of 11 buildings comprises 9 cabins, a lodge, and a bath house.  It is located on the valley at the foot of the fabulous Grand Teton mountain range.  GTCR sleeps 64 and provides an array of amenities designed to support climbers as they prepare to go climb in the remarkable Grand Tetons.  About 85% of the users of GTCR climbers, and about 50% are members of the American Alpine Club (AAC).  The GTCR has a venerable history and a special place in the history of the AAC.

GTCR is more than an accommodations center.  It is an agent in education, conservation and community-building in the mountaineering community.  Its mission is:

….to provide inexpensive, extended-stay accommodations for mountaineers visiting Grand Teton National Park.  As a facility of the American Alpine Club the Climber’s Ranch also represents the interests and concerns of the American Climbing Community in the Park, cooperates with the NPS in conservation of the environment and preservation of the historic structures of the ranch, and provides a venue for the cultivation of mountain craft, the exchange of information about the Teton Range, and the promotion of good fellowship among climbers.

History:  The establishment of the GTCR in 1970 was a signal event in the modern history of the AAC, and an important step in its gradual shift from an Eastern elitist organization to an inclusive climbing club reflecting the democratization of climbing in America.  Two visionaries — AAC President Nick Clinch and former superintendent of Grand Teton National Park Horace Albright — combined forces to address a growing challenge: the rapid increase in the numbers of climbers in the USA.

The Tetons are a cross-roads and focal point of American climbing.  In the 1960’s increasing numbers of climbers began gathering at the Jenny Lake campground adjacent to prime climbing spots.   It became hard to reserve camp sites and there were conflicts between the culture of the young “dirtbag” climbers and families staying at the campground.  The NPS had to impose limitations on camping and campground activities.  Clinch and Albright, neighbors in Palo Alto, got together to find a solution to these symptoms of the growing pains of a new phase of mountaineering in America.  In 1969 there were three former dude ranches for sale in the Grand Teton National Park; one of these, the Double Diamond Dude Ranch (operated 1924-1964), was determined by Clinch, Albright, Leigh Ortenburger, and others (reportedly including Yvon Chouinard, who did the plumbing in the early days) to be the most appropriate of the three for purchase by AAC.

In an article in the January/February 1969 issue of Summit: a mountaineering magazine (of which Royal Robbins was contributing editor), AAC President Nick Clinch published an article “The New Climbers Ranch: Your Base Camp in the Tetons”.  He outlined plans to open the ranch in 1970 for the purpose of “providing accommodations for climbers at a very modest rate”.  Clinch outlined plans to raise $200,000 to make improvements to the property and to establish an operational endowment.

GTCR opened in 1970 and Dave Dornan (of the Dornan family in Moose) was the first manager.  Rick Liu was the second manager, and Ruth Balsin, who served for 12 years, was the third manager.   There have been others since.  Bob Baribeau, the current manager, showed up in 1973 as a guest and climber and began helping out.

The former dining room of the original dude ranch building currently serves as the headquarters/registration building and the library.  It is listed on the National Historic Register.  A 1985 forest fire destroyed about half of the structures.  Other period structures were moved to the site by NPS and AAC to replace the burned buildings.  The first of these was named after Leigh Ortenburger, author of A Climber’s Guide to the Teton Range.

Accommodation and amenities:  Each of the cabins has between 2-6 two-tier bunk beds, each wide enough for two people but usually used for one person.   Guests provide their own bedding (sleeping bags and pads).  The bunk rooms are spare but thoughtfully supplied with plenty of electrical outlets, string for drying clothes, showers (bath tubs in at least one cabin!), and pegs for hanging gear and clothing.  Some rooms have a closet for gear storage and some have a desk or table.

Reservations are necessary and the charge for overnight accommodation is $25 per night per person for non-members, and $16 per person per night for AAC members.

The bath house includes a sink room, wash room, climbing wall, and recycling center.  The very well stocked sink room is supplied with detergent and scrubbers.  It also houses an array of loaner pots and pans, BBQ grills, toasters, electric water kettles, hose, etc.  In addition to bathrooms (in most of the cabins) there are central men’s and women’s bathrooms with showers.  There is a well-equipped laundry room with washer and drier ($5 per load), and a great clothesline located nearby.    GTCR also loans coolers, bicycles, and locks and helmets.  And there is a left-over food box with items free for the taking.

There is no food service; guests bring and cook their own meals.  The magnificent outdoor dining pavilion has great views and is perfect for preparing meals.  Bear-proof lockers are provided for food and gear.  It is also the social hub of the GTCR, where people eat, drink and talk together.  Most of the conversation revolves around climbing.

GTCR operates a serious recycling program including nearly every kind of waste (including fuel canisters), includes a can crusher, and even goes through the trash to separate out material that should have been placed in recycling.

The library is a magnificent amenity.  Located in a separate, sacred space (paintings, no shoes allowed) that used to be the kitchen of the dude ranch.  The collection is fairly extensive (the online catalog has 685 entries) and is primarily focused on climbing in the West, but includes an international focus.  The library is curated by Prof. Alan Nagel of U of Iowa.  The library is used for presentations and discussions.

There is a “partners board” where folks can meet up to climb together, as well as get information about local guides.

Operations:  The GTCR operates June 1 – September 15 within the Grand Tetons National Park (NPS) on a concessionaire permit, renewable every ten years.  The staff consists of a manager, Bob Baribeau, and four young staffers.  All are climbers, and are unfailingly knowledgeable, competent and courteous.

The GTCR structures are owned by the NPS and operated and maintained by AAC.  No new construction is allowed and the buildings are all old, many moved onto the property from the area.  The buildings are well-maintained with obvious care and attention to detail.

A plentiful supply of excellent water flows underground from the mountains, through a vast underground cobble field, and is tapped at a wellhead/pump house at the GTCR.  Sewage and graywater drain into a septic system which is pumped out as needed at AAC expense.

NPS conducts and annual walk through with the manager and compiles a list of maintenance tasks to be completed during the year.  NPS is responsible for road maintenance and large infrastructure projects.

GTCR conducts an annual “work week” in which volunteers assist with maintenance tasks.

Business model: GTCR operates on a non-profit basis under the AAC.  AAC’s attitude towards the economics of its five accommodations centers is that they are not looked to as revenue centers.  Its considered good if they don’t lose money, but some do in some years.  GTCR consistently earns sufficient revenue to cover its operating costs and return some surplus to the AAC.  There is a small operating endowment.

by Sam Demas, August 2017

Public Access to Private Land: gratitude for the kindness of strangers

Public access to private land is taken for granted. For several days along the Superior Hiking Trail in Minnesota prompted a strong sensation of enjoying the kindness of strangers.  Trail signs reminded me to respect the property rights of those permitting the trail corridor to traverse their land, and other signs clearly marked the NO TRESPASSING boundaries. With one exception this permissive access was granted anonymously.  The land owners likely live nearby, but we walkers don’t know who the are.  The one exception was a tribute to landowner Sarah Ellen Jaeger, who not only granted permissive access, but put her land in a trust.

While we in the USA are blessed with lots of public lands for trails, we are also often dependent on the kindness of private land owners who grant rights of way for trails.  Musing on this, Thomas Jefferson’s metaphor came to mind:

He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me. 

As I reflected on our founding father’s notions about sharing intellectual property, I also realized the limits of the metaphor.  When a few hikers or bikers damage a trail, access to private land is compromised by their offensive footprints.

 

When landowners get fed up with ongoing disrespectful behaviors on the trail (e.g. littering, trespassing, camping, and lighting fires), they sometimes rescind the permissive access to the  trail corridor.

As a result, trails must be re-routed at great effort and expense.  Fortunately rescinding of access happens very infrequently.

In the USA under “permissive access” to private property: all the private land owner has to do to bar others is to post a NO TRESPASSING sign.  In some other nations traditional rights of way across private land are protected and “right to roam” legislation guarantees free trail access for the public.

It is easy to bemoan what we don’t have in terms of access rights to private land, and I agree with these arguments.  But as I walked the SHT I was overcome with gratitude for what we do have: thousands of anonymous land owners who willingly grant public access to their land because they believe in the importance of trails and in sharing their woods, rocks, trees and vistas.

It was a special pleasure to see one special land owner memorialized on the trail.  Thank you Sarah Ellen Jaeger and all the other generous owners of private land who allow us to walk.

 

Ray Zillmer: Ice Age Trail Founder

 

By Drew Hanson, http://pedestrianview.blogspot.com/

Ray Zillmer left for posterity Wisconsin’s greatest trail, the organization that promotes and protects it, the Badger State’s first and still only backcountry huts and a backpack full of conservation and exploration accomplishments.

Born in Milwaukee, WI in 1887, Zillmer attended Harvard Law School and received his PhD from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. From 1914-1960, he practiced law in Milwaukee.

Ray Zillmer in Canadian Rockies

During the 1930s–1940s, Zillmer became an accomplished and respected explorer and mountaineer. In 1934 Zillmer was part of a team of five mountaineers who completed the first ascent of Anchorite Peak, British Columbia, Canada. He would go on to summit many other peaks and describe previously uncharted lands.

In the summer of 1938, he and a companion retraced the steps of Alexander MacKenzie’s 1793 expedition between the Fraser and Bella Coola rivers, through part of what is today Tweedsmuir South Provincial Park. He described the adventure in detail in his first of four articles published in the Canadian Alpine Journal.

The American Alpine Journal also published several of his exploration and mountaineering articles, including:

“The Exploration of the Source of the Thompson River in British Columbia”, 1940;

“Exploration of the Northern Monashee Range”, 1942;

“The Location of Mt. Milton and the Restoration of the Names ‘Mt. Milton’ and ‘Mt.Cheadle'”, 1943;

“The Exploration of the Cariboo Range from the East”, 1944;

“The Exploration of the Sources of the McLennan River”, 1946.

In recognition of his accomplishments, Mount Zillmer, Zillmer Creek and Zillmer Glacier in British Columbia’s Cariboo Range were all named in his honor.

Back in his home state of Wisconsin, in addition to being an accomplished attorney at law, Zillmer had a keen interest in natural history. He was well aware of Wisconsin’s rich array of landforms created during the Pleistocene. Indeed, North American geologists refer to the last phase of the recent ice age as the Wisconsin Glaciation. During this by-gone epoch, vast oceans of ice that covered northern latitudes would make today’s disappearing alpine glaciers seem like mere creeks of ice.

One of the unique areas of Wisconsin is the Kettle Moraine, a belt of ridges and depressions created by the combined action of two lobes of a Pleistocene ice sheet. It is the place where geologists first determined that Pleistocene ice sheets had lobes and that interlobate regions had their own set of landforms. Through the Izaak Walton League, Ray Zillmer was a leading advocate for the acquisition of land for the Kettle Moraine State Forest, which today covers 55,000 acres within a hundred-mile corridor.

For many years Zillmer led weekend hikes to explore the Kettle Moraine during fall, winter and spring. The hikes were memorable for the miles covered as well as the lunch which consisted of various cans of soup brought by fellow hikers, all combined into a single pot.

In the 1950s he worked closely with the Wisconsin Conservation Department (precursor to the DNR) to design backcountry huts for hikers in the Kettle Moraine State Forest. He then donated thousands of dollars to their construction. These nine shelters remain the only set of backcountry huts in Wisconsin.

Ice Age Trail map

Ice Age Trail map

In 1958 he established the Ice Age National Park Citizens Committee and the Ice Age Park and Trail Foundation, later renamed the Ice Age Trail Alliance. His articles proposing an Ice Age National Park in Wisconsin were published in 1958 by the Milwaukee Public Museum and in 1959 by Wisconsin Alumnus magazine. The proposed park and a long-distance hiking trail through it would follow the Kettle Moraine of eastern Wisconsin and continue west along the terminal moraine to the state’s western boundary. Bills were introduced in Congress to create an Ice Age National Park in Wisconsin.

Zillmer’s insistence that long, narrow corridors of public land serve greater numbers of outdoor recreationists than the big national parks of his day and his proposal for a long-distance hiking trail in Wisconsin made an impression on Wisconsin Governor Gaylord Nelson. Armed with this appreciation and later as a U.S. Senator, Nelson introduced legislation to designate the Appalachian Trail the first National Scenic Trail and introduced the National Trails System Act of 1968. Congress finally designated the thousand-mile Ice Age Trail a National Scenic Trail in 1980.

In 1933 the Wisconsin Izaak Walton League named Zillmer “Man of the Year” for his work on the Kettle Moraine State Forest. In 1959 he was presented a plaque by the National Campers and Hikers Association for his efforts to preserve natural areas for public use. A trail system in the Northern Kettle Moraine State Forest is named the Zillmer Trails and a park in St. Croix Falls is named Ray Zillmer Park, both in his honor. He was inducted into the Wisconsin Conservation Hall of Fame in 1993. Today the highest award of achievement given by the Ice Age Trail Alliance is the Ray Zillmer Award.

Following his death in December, 1960 the Milwaukee Journal opined, “…the people of Milwaukee and of Wisconsin and the conservation movement nationally are deeply indebted to Mr. Zillmer. His vision, his boundless energy and his dogged determination in behalf of worthy causes to which he was devoted became legend . . . No community and no state ever has enough of men like Raymond T. Zillmer. And the loss of even one, inevitable as it may be, is cause for deep regret.”

 

————————————————

Sources:

“Our Greatest Trail”, Erik Ness, Wisconsin Trails magazine, April 2002, Vol. 43, No. 2

“Climb Anchorite Peak”, The Montreal Gazette, July 23, 1934.

Along Wisconsin’s Ice Age Trail, University of Wisconsin Press, 2008, page 8.

“Scorning A Glacial Gift”, The Milwaukee Journal, August 21, 1988.

“Origins of Wisconsin’s Ice Age Trail”, Sarah Mittlefeldht, Wisconsin Magazine of History: Volume 90, number 3, spring 2007, page 7.

These American Lands, Dyan Zaslowsky and T.H. Watkins, Island Press, 1994, pages 258-259.

Ice Age Trail Alliance, http://www.iceagetrail.org/iata/history/

“The Wisconsin Glacial Moraines”, Milwaukee Chapter of the Izaak Walton League, 1942.

“The Wisconsin Glacier National Forest Park”, Lore, Milwaukee Public Museum, vol 8, edition 2, 1958.

“Wisconsin’s Proposed Ice Age National Park”, Wisconsin Alumnus, March, 1959

American Alpine Club, http://publications.americanalpineclub.org/articles/12196134700/print

 

Drew Hanson blogs at pedestrianview.blogspot.com

 

Shelter system materials and techniques for design with minimal footprint

By Matt Reilly

[Editors note: the opinions are those of the author and he has taken responsibility for obtaining rights to the photographs used here.]

With the stress of daily routines, spending time in nature becomes an ultimate escape from the urban lifestyle. Being surrounded by peacefulness and stillness connects us to the environment and memorable experience of living according to it. The more time we spend in nature, the more we realize the significance of environmentally responsible behavior. Some people feel hostility about spending more than one afternoon without a comfortable couch and a TV. But does connecting with nature has to mean alienation from comfort? The answer is no: modern technology has the potential to bring comfortable camping to another level. However, how do we spend time in nature without harming it? We can decrease our impact on nature by using environmentally sensitive portable and non-portable shelters. This article represents helpful design ideas and shelter system materials for consideration by designers of overnight accommodations for  front-country environments.

Following are examples of accommodations which include convenience while leaving a minimal footprint. Suggested designs are not environmentally friendly solely for the material but for their functionality as well. They  can incorporate sustainable ways of water and power consumption through rain harvesting system,  portable shower systems, solar-powered technologies like portable solar panels and chargers, composting appliances (for instance outdoor composting bin), and promote modern waste reduction through practices like recycling, reusing waste material and utilizing biodegradable soaps and detergents.  This recommended set of ideas also takes into account positioning of accommodation which should be sited in such manner to capture enough sunlight in the winter and to lessen heat gain during summer.

The container shelter

The container shelter’s key features are that they are easy to transport and fix. This portable shelter solution is designed using burly shipping containers which can end up being commodious and useable living space simple to fabricate and transport anywhere. Standard shipping containers dimensions are W8m x L6m(20′) or 12m(40′) x H5.5m. This type of accommodation provides electricity, drinkable water, and sanitation. Those designing this shelter can also easily upgrade it with various green reinforcements such as with rainwater harvesting system, ceramic filtration system, and composting toilets.

Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/mikecogh/16002272638

The ekinoid shelter

The Ekinoid shelter is an innovative project that represents a self-sufficient and sustainable housing.  Spherical construction sits on stilts, and the elevation allows avoiding flood damage. Built strong enough to withstand intense storms and prefabricated, this ekinoid shelter also has incorporated the wind and solar power and rainwater harvesting model.

Source: http://inhabitat.com/spherical-ekinoid-house-is-an-off-grid-prefab-solution-for-global-housing/

The buBbLe House

The buBble House project developed a portable housing that is a blend of simplicity, amenity, and environmental care. It is easily transportable wherever you go, and it provides inhabitants with all essentials for comfort. Aluminum frame is slab-sided with extremely lightweight bubble skin material, and it opens with a metal locker. It includes a small kitchen and lightning as well as eco-friendly laundry facilities. It is powered with an insulating chamber.

Source:

Straw bale homes

For those looking for a non-portable shelter that performs highly eco-friendly and is functional, straw bale house might be the best solution.  Hay bales serve to build house’s walls inside of the frame that should also be of a natural material such as wood. Straw bales can efficiently replace conventional building materials like plaster and concrete. They contribute to the functionality of your eco-friendly home by providing high insulation levels in a sustainable manner.

Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Straw_Bale_House06.jpg

Bamboo Shelter

Bamboo is versatile. Its tensile strength and light weight make it the ultimate material for building both non-portable and transportable shelters.  The renewable character makes it even more desirable in an eco-friendly building.  Bamboo replaces bulky and costly materials and it perfect for constructing shelters for places hit by natural disaster since the building is fairly simple.

Source: https://pixabay.com/fr/tunnel-de-bambou-passerelle-arc-282547/

 

Tents made using natural and organic fabrics

Simplicity is never overrated. When terrain demands extremely easily transportable shelters so designers should take tents into account. The most environmentally sensitive tents are those made particularly from natural materials such as wool, hemp or cotton. Using these types of tents will leave minimal footprint behind in comparison to synthetic ones, however, they also require a significant financial investment.  Keep in mind that natural materials have to be additionally waterproofed in order to work well in wet weather conditions.

Source: https://www.touchofmodern.com/sales/nordisk/alfheim-19-6-organic-cotton-tent

 

Tents made of  recycled and recyclable materials

Synthetically made tents continue to attract more buyers than those made of natural fabrics and materials. There are two crucial reasons why that is the case. Firstly, synthetic tents promise quality protection in wet conditions which natural shelters can’t guarantee and secondly, even though natural tents are lightweight, synthetic ones are even lighter and easier to transport. However, certain manufacturers and designers in the eco-friendly sector are adjusted to the market and launched tents made from recycled and recyclable materials. Creating alternative tents from recycled polyester and adding a waterproof solvent-free coating could motivate campers to purchase the green option.  Eliminating harmful and toxic dyes could also strengthen the green factor of these tents and tent designers could come up with a way to paint them in an eco-friendly manner.

Source: https://www.backpacker.com/gear/gear-guide-2009-nemo-nano-oz-tent-review

Shelters using techniques  and materials like these, built in environmentally responsible manner, are more than just shelters. They contribute to raising awareness of green building as well as prove people that connecting to nature doesn’t have to be an unsafe or unpleasant experience.

 

Vermont Huts Association Logo

Vermont Huts Association News

The Vermont Huts Association is preparing to build its first hut as part of an emerging state-wide network linking existing huts.  They report that they are exploring viable sites in Green Mountain National Forest to host a year-round facility capable of serving various outdoor enthusiasts, including hikers, mountain bikers, backcountry skiers, and snowshoers.

They also note that the IRS just granted them their official status as a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization.

 

Betty Bear, 10th Mountain Division Huts, hut2hut

Huts on U.S. Forest Service Lands: a summary

by Sam Demas

Huts U.S. Forest Service Lands.  Recently I was asked what precedents exist for permitting huts on U.S. Forest Service (USFS) lands.  Digging through my publications and notes, I compiled this summary.   As a highly decentralized agency this information is hard to obtain.  So I am sharing this for the benefit of USFS personnel interested in how the agency handles hut permits, and for others.

USFS permits more huts than any other public land management agency.  Altogether 10 of the17 U.S. hut systems I have identified (see my definition of a hut system) currently have permits to operate on U.S Forest Service lands.

Following is a list of the hut systems permitted by USFS with brief notes about each.  Some are issued seasonal permits and the structures must be removed, while others are essentially permanent structures.  Some of these huts systems are wholly located on USFS lands and others only partly.  All are fairly rustic in their construction and are required to comply with environmental and other operational standards and regulations of the USFS, state, county and local governments.  More information on most of these hut systems is available in my post “Hut-to-Hut in the USA: Situation and Outlook” and and operational profiles.
1. Southwest Nordic Center (near Taos, NM).  Operates five yurts in ski season and one in summer.  Don’t know if they are allowed to keep the other four up all summer.
2. Sun Valley Trekking (ID). Operate two yurts year-round and four in ski season.  Don’t know if they are allowed to keep the other four up all summer.
3. Rendezvous Huts, (WA).  Began operations in 1982 and at first had to take huts down in summer.  At some point USFS issued permit allowing them to stay up year-round and they operate year-round.
4. Cascade Huts (OR).  Operates 5 huts in summer and three in winter.  They have to move the huts around seasonally.  They are up for permit renewal and are making a pitch for being able to leave huts in place.
5. Wallowa Alpine Huts.  I don’t know anything beyond what is on their web site.
6. Appalachian Mountain Club Hut System.  Eight huts, the first of which was built in 1888, are  located in a national forest in alpine zone, the AMC huts are permitted as permanent structures but most of them operate only in summer.
8. San Juan Huts (CO).  Their initial permits was for seasonal structures that were moved off the land each year; they are now allowed to keep their huts up year-round.
9. Summit Huts (CO).  They operate four huts on USFS land and I believe have been permitted to construct another.  I believe they operate year round.
10. Three Sisters Back Country (OR) . Operates two yurts for nordic ski traverse and is required to move their structures seasonally, and one yurt for winter skiing.

What has the experience of USFS been in issuing these permits over the past 35 years?  No one has systematically analyzed the results.  

When I have asked about this topic at USFS headquarters in Washington, DC, they say the data and experience resides in the regional districts and hasn’t been systematically reviewed across districts.  From what I can gather, no hut system permit has ever been revoked by USFS, but I can’t be certain about that.

It seems that an unofficial USFS practice is to sometimes initially issue permits for temporary, seasonal structures and operations.  The District then monitors the performance on a set of criteria laid out in the permitting document.  If there are no problems and if conditions are determined to be favorable, permits are later converted to allow for permanent location (within the duration of the permits, which generally range from 5 – 10 years) and/or for year-round operation.

When I talk with USFS District Rangers they say that the huts they permit are well designed and operated, and  that they are a useful amenity that does not cause them problems.

Mike Kenealy of the White River National Forest (CO) probably has more experience than anyone else in the USFS in permitting and monitoring huts and yurts.  He speaks frankly and knowledgeably about the issues around permitting huts and about working with hut operators.  In our phone conversation, his bottom line was essentially that huts and yurts are a useful amenity, that the operators are responsible and responsive, and huts and yurts are among the least of his problems in managing the many uses people want to make of Forest Service lands.

San Juan Huts (CO)

However, since the USFS has no policy on huts and does not formally recognize huts as a category in their Recreational Opportunity Spectrum, and because no research has been done on the environmental impact of huts, most Forest Service personnel are understandably reluctant to comment beyond their local experience.

When I talk with hut operators they say their USFS contacts are good folks who are very cooperative and understanding.  But they say the USFS Rangers they work with are over-worked and often uncertain — in the absence of any USFS hut-specific policy or practice guidelines — how far they can go in evolving their permitting restrictions based on their local experience and judgement.

May this summary of huts on USFS lands help start and inform an overdue conversation about what role huts are playing in protecting USFS service lands while making them accessible for environmentally responsible recreation.

What is the Environmental Impact of Huts? Lets find out!

by Sam Demas, July 2017

Dear readers,

I seek advice! How do we best advance research to assess the environmental impact of huts in comparison with other forms of overnight visitations in the front and back country?  This is the research gap we need to fill to help determine what, if any, environmental protection role huts might play in the nation’s recreational opportunity spectrum.  

The common wisdom is that huts/yurts limit the environmental impact of overnight visitations in the wild by concentrating use in a limited footprint and in a structure carefully sited and designed to minimize environmental impacts. Is this truism true?  Are huts effective in managing environmental impacts in areas of high density overnight use?  

Surprisingly, there is no recreational ecology research in USA to prove or disprove this assertion in relation to huts.   With the growth of hut systems in the USA and increasing pressure for overnight visitations, and with growth of hut systems in the USA, we need additional empirical data to guide us in conducting evidence-based evaluation of proposals for new hut systems.    

Appalachian Trail Shelter. It’s not uncommon for a shelter to have an area of disturbance in front of it that’s equivalent to a single medium to large campsite. Photo courtesy Dr. Jeff Marion

Research around the periphery of this fundamental question has  already been done.  In particular, Dr. Jeffrey Marion (USGS and Virginia Tech Field Station), a leading recreational ecologist, has studied the factors involved in designing and managing campsites to minimize environmental damage. He has also assessed the environmental impact of dispersed and designated camping by backpackers.  His findings show that a containment strategy effectively minimizes aggregate impact by restricting camping to a small number of designated expansion-resistant campsites.  Marion and his colleagues are currently gauging visitor impacts on the Appalachian Trail to enhance sustainability and improve visitor experiences.  This includes assessment of the condition of shelter and campground sites, many of which are heavily overused on the AT.  A prior study in Great Smoky Mountains National Park showed that camping shelters accommodated greater numbers of campers with substantially less resource impact than campers using traditional campsites.

Tent platform. The construction of tent platforms at many major alpine campsites in the Eastern Arthur Range in Tasmania has successfully focused camping pressure and so constrained or limited impacts – Photo Courtesy Dr. Grant Dixon, Tasmania

 The missing piece is research to extend this analysis to study the environmental impact of huts and yurts, and then to compare these with data from other options for overnight accommodations, e.g. dispersed and designated camping, and shelters.

To this end, I’ve written two grant proposals.  The first ($35,000) is with Dr. Marion and Dr. Robert Manning (Professor Emeritus, U of Vermont) to federal land management agencies for a two-year study. This would provide a comparative assessment of environmental impacts and user experience of back-country and front-country camping, shelters, and huts/yurts.   The methodology will include an international literature review, recreational ecology field studies, and assessing the experience of land managers and hut operators.  The second proposal ($4,000), submitted collaboratively with hut folks in the Northeast ,sought to identify best practices in environmental management for hut systems.

Neither proposal was funded.  The federal land management agencies are under siege, facing myriad challenges.  I need help identifying a foundation or other funding entity that might support this research.

Feeling stuck, but not discouraged, I appeal to you for assistance and/or suggestions:

  • who should we be partnering with?
  • what philanthropists, foundations and granting agencies should we approach?
  • should we undertake a crowdfunding campaign?  Anyone willing to help with this?
  • should we be taking a fundamentally different approach?

Please contact me or leave comments below.

With faith in science,

Sam Demas

July 2017