by Sam Demas
Creating more opportunities for people to use huts to support long distance hiking, biking, skiing is a complex undertaking. If not done well, the potential for doing environmental harm is as great as the potential for doing educational and recreational good.
Part 1 of this article outlined the potential benefits. Part 2 outlines the challenges in thoughtfully regulating, siting, creating, and operating hut systems. Future posts will provide greater detail in many of these areas, and the operational profiles on this site provide information on how specific hut systems handle these challenges. The audience for this piece is young people planning or dreaming of starting a hut system; it may also interest recreation planners and land managers.
While the emphasis here is on identifying challenges and not on presenting solutions, a few lessons learned from existing hut systems and regulatory agencies are included. I also identify topics for additional research, and potential pitfalls in creating more hut systems.
The two U.S. guides to planning hut systems are out of print: High Country Huts: A Planning Guide by William Reifsnyder (Colordo Mountain Trails and US Forest Service, n.d.) and Backcountry Facilities: Design and Maintenance, by Leonard, Spencer and Plumley (Appalachian Mountain Club, 1980). In hopes of updated best practices publications for the USA someday, this outline is a small step in that direction.
The focus is on European style huts, i.e. those providing beds and cooking or food service facilities. Because there is an enormous body of literature and professional practice on building and maintaining trails, they are mentioned only as connectors in a hut system. The topics below highly inter-related. All must be considered before plans are made. To make this preliminary outline more complete and useful, please send your observations and suggestions.
DO NO HARM: ensuring environmental protection
Is hut development a good way to protect the environment in the face of increased human use of the backcountry? If we want to open parts of the backcountry to more people through hut systems, how do we identify ecosystems that can withstand the anticipated human impacts? How do we site, build and operate huts without spoiling the very wild areas we value and need?
We need to take stock of what we already know about environmental impacts, fill in the gaps, and update our regulations to ensure environmental protection as the number of huts grows. We know intuitively and anecdotally that controlling and concentrating backcountry travel and habitation in well managed hut systems and designated camping sites is far more protective of the environment than dispersed recreation — letting people camp, eat, and shit pretty much where they want, i.e. not in designated facilities, such as huts. There is a wealth of research on “recreational trampling” and how human activity can disturb wildlife and vegetation, affect species diversity, and degrade air, water and soil quality.
What we need is meta-analysis of this research that empirically demonstrates (or refutes) the value of concentrating shelter and eating activities in huts, and that can inform the updating of land management strategies and regulations in anticipation of more applications for permits for hut development. We could also benefit from rigorous, head-to-head research comparisons of the differing human impacts of car camping, backpacking, lodges that serve as base camps, and hut systems.
Land managers must strike the balance between conservation and recreational, educational, and/or extractive uses of public and private lands. Federal, state and local land managers have accumulated a great deal of experience in issuing permits for huts on pubic lands and in monitoring the results. We need to systematically harvest this accumulated knowledge and experience to inform a new generation of best practices in regulating hut systems.
REGULATORY ENVIRONMENT: local, state, and federal controls
What regulations must hut builders comply with and how do they do this? How can governance and regulatory schemes avoid impeding responsible hut system development while also ensuring environmental accountability?
The over-riding necessity of protection of the land will limit recreational opportunities in any given area. Government regulations are the primary tools for determining these limits.
Hut owners/managers almost unanimously cite navigating the regulatory environment as the major challenge in developing new hut systems. Systems spanning a combination of federal, state and private land require compliance with multiple sets of regulations. In addition to regulations concerning environmental impacts, one must comply with regulations in areas such as health and safety, building codes, and employment.
The most important lesson learned by hut managers is to cultivate good working relationships with government officials and to communicate early and often with all potential stakeholders. These include environmental and recreational clubs and organizations, land management agencies, county and local government, local businesses, and community organizations.
The primary tool for ensuring environmental protection is the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). For actions “significantly affecting the quality of the human environment” NEPA requires an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). In cases with less significant impact other, less detailed processes, such as an “Environmental Assessment”, are used. Huts generally involve an EIS, which requires a statement of the purpose of and need for the proposed action, and detailed documentation of the environmental impacts on flora and fauna (especially threatened or endangered species); soil, air, and water quality; and historic and cultural sites. It also requires an assessment of social and economic impacts on local communities and a cost analysis for alternatives presented. This is a costly and time-consuming process, which can be contracted out to companies or can be managed in-house by hiring contractors to conduct specific analyses and compiling the document oneself.
How does this work? In a nutshell: the hut proposer meets with officials from the relevant agency (e.g. US Forest Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management, or state natural resources agency) to discuss the process and “scope” the process. The agency may help identify experts to conduct aspects of the EIS analysis. A public notice of the Draft EIS is made and public comment is solicited. A Final EIS is reviewed and eventually a Record of Decision is issued. Documents produced through the entire process are publicly accessible and it is helpful to review successful EIS’. Huts are generally permitted on federal lands under “Special Use Permits”, often for a ten-year period.
Commercial ventures are treated somewhat differently than non-profits in this process, and some claim the government makes it difficult for small business operators. This issue has implications for future hut development in a capitalist nation built in large part on small business enterprise. Colorado is a national leader in privately operated hut systems; collectively their hut owners have the most experience with for-profit hut development.
Building permits are generally issued at the county level and the hut developer must comply with county regulations and go through a public review process. Counties are variously motivated to approve hut construction, depending on their interest in outdoor recreational tourism, public opinion, and a range of other factors.
Other categories of regulation include: employment, communications, insurance coverage, fire codes, accessibility, building codes, water, and food service.
When dealing with regulatory authorities, hut developers need to: a. understand the rules of engagement before they make application for permits, b. realize that busy agency officials want to deal with people who don’t need a lot of education on the process and issues, and c. that organizations with an established track record have an advantage over new, small startups.
All this regulation may sound daunting, but it is clearly doable if there is a clear need for the services, public support, and extensive, good communication all around.
Determining exactly where to locate a hut system and the individual huts, and how to configure the trails that connect them, requires in-depth knowledge of the terrain, ecology, and social and economic realities.
Siting the hut system as a whole involves factors such as relationship to transportation networks and to population centers, relationship to other recreation centers, existing land uses (e.g. camping, logging, hunting, farming, grazing, snowmobiling, mining) and land use plans, regulatory environment, existing trail systems, and resupply logistics. Siting of individual huts involves how the hut sits on the slope, soils and drainage, vegetation and wildlife patterns, water supply and view-scape.
See separate blog post for more detail.
DESIGN AND CONSTRUCTION
For full service huts architectural and engineering services will be needed. Costs will vary greatly depending on conditions and on the level of services and amenities the huts will provide. Some key functional, aesthetic and cost, considerations include: spatial arrangement and traffic patterns, size and capacity, services provided, food service spaces, fire safety, energy systems, materials and techniques appropriate to the climate, and design that is harmonious with the landscape.
See separate blog post for more detail on siting.
A central administrative capacity is needed to monitor and coordinate the complex logistics required for smooth operations. In a full service hut, hutmasters manage day-to-day operations. The elements of hut operations include:
- Administration – management and coordination of:
- Permitting, insurance, community/public relations, setting up and maintaining search and rescue protocols with local authorities, etc.;
- Purchasing and distributing hut supplies;
- Accounting, payroll, and economic analysis (see below);
- Coordinating workflows and schedules, staff training;
- Reservations and waivers, marketing and web site;
- Navigation and information services – handling phone and web queries, developing FAQ’s/information packets, providing maps and directions for guests.
- Transportation and baggage shuttle services if provided.
- Maintenance of water, waste management, and heat and energy systems.
- Food service operations, including food storage and rodent control, menu planning, cooking, food service and sanitation.
- Hut supply (seasonal and weekly or more often for perishables) and carrying out waste as needed.
- Safety – preparedness for injuries, illnesses, emergencies; communication with headquarters and relevant agencies.
- Hospitality – check-in, providing information about the trails and region, and enforcing policies.
Hutmasters usually live in special quarters in the huts for shifts of several days to a week at a time. They need many skills to keep the hut running smoothly, notably:
- the grace required to work in the hospitality industry,
- ability to maintain and repair water, waste, and energy systems; plus the practical know-how necessary to fix things on-the-spot,
- extensive backcountry experience,
- the ability to juggle multiple tasks and priorities,
- working long days and carrying heavy loads,
- great cooking skills,
- the ability to enforce policies firmly but politely, and
- the patience and ability to educate unskilled guests.
Where do we get such multi-faceted, hardworking Hutmasters, and how do we keep them in low-paid seasonal jobs? How many staff are needed and what kind of training and support do we give them? Do we use volunteers and interns, if so, how? These are some of the personnel challenges inherent in making a hut operate well.
ECONOMICS AND AFFORDABILITY
What business models work for both the operators and land managers/owners? How do we make use of huts affordable to kids and families? What is the impact of huts on the local economy? How will economic realities shape the future of huts in the USA?
A well-researched, realistic business plan is essential. It should identify the need and market, as well as the mission. In my opinion, a key aim should be to keep the cost affordable for kids and families. The price point is related to the level of rusticity. The Colorado huts and yurts are tuned into this issue. We should beware of giving in completely to the temptations of glamping, and thereby wasting a critical opportunity to educate the next generation of stewards of the earth.
Successful business models in USA include:
- Non-profits (run as free-standing entities (e.g. 10th Mountain Division Huts and Mt. Tahoma Trails Association), or as part of larger organizations (e.g. Appalachian Mountain Club).
- Umbrella organizations providing business services to a group of independent huts, e.g. 10th Mountain Division and the nascent Adirondack Community-based Trails and Lodging System (ACTLS).
- For-profit huts such as San Juan Huts, Rendevous Huts, and many of the huts and yurts in Colorado and elsewhere.
Experience has shown both for-profit and non-profit hut systems can be financially sustainable in USA. In other nations government operated (e.g. New Zealand) or subsidized hut systems (e.g. in many European nations) are common, but this is probably not likely in USA. The Chilean government operates its Torres del Paine Hut system through concessionaires, a model that must include provision for long-term maintenance of facilities by the operator. This concessionaire model may be seen as an easy fix by some US land management agencies (as is done with management of parks); but it should, in my opinion, be approached warily, if at all, in relation to huts.
Whatever the business model, consideration of how to partner with local governments, communities, and businesses is critical. Local investment and keeping the dollars generated in the local economy are part of the sustainability mission of hut enterprises. There is a great need for research resulting in economic impact studies that are easy to use and adapt for hut systems.
Operators of hut systems conduct ongoing analysis of operations and markets, including study of trends in: occupancy rates, user demographics, use in shoulder seasons, regional tourism patterns, and experimenting with different mixes of services and offerings by season.
Of course, ongoing monitoring key revenue sources (e.g. user fees, memberships, and retail) and expense categories (e.g. personnel, repairs and maintenance, vehicles, provisions, insurance, and credit card fees) is also essential.
To what extend will a hut system want to rely on fundraising and memberships? Is it feasible to build up an endowment? 10th Mountain Division Huts requires donors of capital costs for hut construction to donate an equivalent amount to a hut maintenance fund.
Finally, for sustainable development, when using public land, it helps to have federal and state partners who help to manage land and trails; again, working towards formal cooperative management plans with the agencies is essential. And the price point for the hut experience needs to include stewardship revenues to maintain land, trails, and buildings.
Backcountry hospitality engenders a host of policy questions, such as: whether to allow dogs in the huts, cell phone and screen usage and recharging, use of guide and baggage delivery services, alcohol use, conflicting trail uses (e.g. snowmobiles, bikes, horses, etc.), and hut ethics/etiquette.
EDUCATIONAL PROGRAMMING AND COMMUNITY PARTNERSHIPS
How will the huts contribute to national efforts to prepare the next generation of environmental stewards, teach backcountry skills, and address a range of social challenges that can be ameliorated with contact with nature? How does the hut system relate to the local community and help advance its social, educational and economic goals?
Making sure users of hut systems understand and are up to the challenges is essential. This requires development and constant updating of informational packets, and of workshops on backcountry skills needed for safety and enjoyment of the hut experience.
Hut are experimenting with a range of educational, therapeutic, and outdoor skills programs, often in partnership with other organizations. This kind of activity presents challenges in learning how to work in common cause with groups with differing but overlapping goals and approaches. Working with local schools and organizations is particularly beneficial in terms of public relations. Hiring people from the local community is an important way of keeping in touch with local needs. Assigning someone to coordinate and generate community outreach is helpful. However, educational programming can be a stretch with limited staffing.
What can go wrong if more hut systems are developed in the USA? In my opinion, not much if the development thoughtfully addresses the challenges outlined above. But lets be frank: of course there are risks and potential pitfalls in any new venture. Poorly planned and operated systems could give huts a bad reputation just as huts are beginning reach the consciousness of Americans. Playing devil’s advocate, here are the some potential outcomes of huts developed without careful planning and appropriate expertise:
- Poorly operated systems could offer sub-par service, experience failure of waste or water systems, cause overflowing parking lots at trail heads, or create unsafe trail conditions;
- Financial failures could occur due to lack of solid business and operational plans;
- Despoiling what we should be preserving: causing environmental damage that results in revoking permits or gives huts a bad name;
- Inexperienced guests having serious accidents in the backcountry;
- Disasters such as a helicopter crash when delivering supplies or a wildfire.
- Failure to plan for the cost of ongoing maintenance could result in shoddy and unsafe facilities;
- Opposition from environmental purists/elitists who don’t want other people in the back country;
- Land management agencies could change directions and policies for a variety of political or other reasons.
- Developing an elitist/glamping approach to huts, making the experience unaffordable to the average hiker, skier, or biker.
Personally, I am not worried that these things will occur to an extent that the retard the development of well planned hut systems. From what I have learned the track record of hut systems in the USA is very good so far.
COOPERATION AMONG HUT SYSTEMS & LAND MANAGERS
Finally, we can ensure that hut development is done well by studying and building on the experience of the existing hut community. Some obvious directions include:
- Exchange of professional expertise. Currently there is little contact among hut managers/owners, except in Colorado, where the Colorado Hut and Yurt Alliance’s mission includes to exchange ideas, act as a common voice for land use issues, and generally and collectively work to improve the experience available to the public. We will probably want a national forum for such exchange.
- Research and publishing in areas cited above.
- Exchange of information among land management agencies that have gained significant experience in permitting hut systems. It appears little has been done to harvest the experience of government personnel who have experience with hut systems. It appears their experience has been very positive overall, and the agencies should study the situation more broadly and get beyond thinking of huts as “one-off” odd-ball enterprises.
As always, comments and suggestions are welcome!
Sam Demas, Editor, hut2hut.info