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.

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