Ghost Menu

Exploring the world of trails, huts and other shelter systems (e.g. inns, B&B's, hostels, cabins, yurts, tents, pods, tree houses, caves, etc.) supporting long distance walkers & skiers → how they operate around the world → honoring & learning from the people who start & operate them → building international community and conversation → towards a sustainable, environmentally sensitive outdoor accommodations & education infrastructure for USA → all in service to cultivating environmental education and a broad-based ethos of biophilia through immersive experiences in the natural world.

Asbestos Hut, mining hut, 1914, for 36 years the home of two lovers who exiled themselves here to escape unhappy marriages.
Sutherlands Hut, built 1860's - a former boundary keepers hut
Sutherlands Hut, interior
Blue Range Hut built by Masterton Tramping Club in 1958
Broome Hut In Summer - D Maddox photo
Red Hut, built by Rodolf Wigley, tourism pioneer and entrepreneur, c. 1916
Frew Saddle Bivouac, two bunk bivvy built for NZ Forest Service deer cullers
Roaring Stag Lodge II, originally built by a club, NZ Deerstalkers Association, over a period of four years.  Rebuilt by DOC in 2005.
Sign of the Packhorse Hut, government built (1916) tourism and climbing hut, originally built as one of four backcountry teahouses.
Tarn Ridge Hut, 16 bunk replacement high mountain built by DOC
Ivory Lake Hut, a science hut constructed to support a team of glaciologists and hydrologists studying this retreating glacier.
Dolent Hut, Swiss Alpine Club. Photo courtesy Marcon Volken.
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Mount Tahoma Trails Association – Operational Profile

Mt Rainier, viewed from High Hut, photo courtesy Leyton Jump

Mt Rainier, viewed from High Hut, photo courtesy Leyton Jump

Mount Tahoma Trails Association, Ashford, WA – Operational Profile

  1. Overview:

The non-profit Mount Tahoma Trails Association (MTTA) was founded in 1990 in Ashford, WA. Built mostly on WA Department of Natural Resources (DNR) land (and some private land), the 25 miles of trails largely follow existing forest roads. MTTA operates the trail and hut system under a WA state charter. During the first two years of operation they built 4 huts, the same number they have today. The system was built with skiing in mind, but also accommodates hikers and bikers.

The MTTA mission:

The Mount Tahoma Trails Association operates, and manages for public use a year round hut-to-hut system adjacent to the slopes of Mount Ranier, offering trail users of differing skill levels and economic backgrounds a safe and inspirational backcountry experience. MTTA leadership maintains a functional working partnership with all stakeholders (MTTA members, trail users, volunteers, and our host landowners) based on mutual trust and honesty. Volunteers provide the labor to achieve this mission.

MTTA Principles:

  • Respectful relationships
  • Long term vision
  • Promote volunteerism
  • Inclusive membership
  • Societal benefit

MTTA is unique among American hut system in two ways:

  1. It has no paid staff, i.e. it is an entirely volunteer-driven operation. The 50-70 volunteers contribute 8,000 hours per year in staffing the office,, patrolling and grooming the trails, maintaining the huts, and whatever else needs to be done. It is financially stable and has the lowest overnight rates ($15 per berth per night) of any U.S. hut system. MTTA bills itself as “North America’s largest no-fee Hut to Hut Trail”, referring to the lack of a day use fee for skiing and hiking (a WA state Sno Park Permit is needed to park a vehicle at the trailhead).
  1. The hut system is cooperatively managed by MTTA and DNR with an unusually high and successful degree of cooperation between the state DNR and private, non-profit MTTA. The idea for a hut system was the brainchild of a (now retired) DNR Unit Forester, Bob Brown, who also is the liaison between the MTTA and the DNR. As an insider, this hut system founder thoroughly understands the land management and commercial forestry perspectives and methods of operation, and is able to successfully guide the development of a hut system with good cooperation from both.

MTTA is about 90 miles from Seattle and is popular among the residents of the Puget Sound region. The trailhead is 7 miles from the entrance to Mt. Rainier National Park. Most of the huts have fabulous views of Mt. Rainier and surrounding mountains. Located on forested mountains on the Western slope of the Cascades, the area has an annual snowfall of about 141”. Douglas fir is the dominant forest species below 4,000’, and Silver fir and Noble fir are dominant above that elevation. Historically, the region was heavily logged, particularly in the 1870’s – 1920’s and logging continues on much of the land under DNR contracts. Occupancy rates are very high all winter long, and summer use by hikers and bikers is growing.

MTTA is a labor of love by a group of highly dedicated volunteers.

See MTTA Photo Gallery for pictures of three of the four huts.

  1. Huts and shelters:
    • Description, location, capacity, ownership

MTTA has four huts: 3 on the South side and one on the North side. With a total capacity of 42 guests and 12 Snow Patrol staff:

High Hut – sleeps 8 plus 2 Snow Patrol staff

Bruni’s Snow Bowl – sleeps 14, plus 4 Snow Patrol staff

Yurt – Sleeps 6, plus 2 Snow Patrol Staff

Copper Creek – sleeps 14, plus 4 Snow Patrol staff

They were all initially built in 1990-92, but Snow Bowl burned down and was rebuilt in 2011. See Featured Hut article for more detail on High Hut and Snow Bowl. They are elevations ranging from 4,100 to 4,760 feet.

Each hut has its hut manager and its own hut personality. The three huts of wood construction are each different in design and construction, and in look and feel.

The DNR owns the land that all the huts sit on. In the case of Copper Creek Hut, the building site is surrounded by land owned by the Nisqually Land Trust. A land transfer between the DNR will result in Nisqually Land Trust ownership of the site of Copper Creek Hut in 2017.

MTTA owns the Snow Bowl Hut building, but not the land. Ownership of other three hut structures is a topic still under discussion between DNR and MTTA. Ownership matters for insurance reasons: if DNR own the huts the structure is covered under WA state self-insurance. For example, when Snow Bowl burned down there were no funds to rebuild the hut. Any huts owned by MTTA can be insured. MTTA now owns the new Snow Bowl Hut, which sits on state land, and MTTA has insurance on this building.

  • Amenities

All huts are equipped with solar electric lights, propane fireplaces and stoves, full kitchen facilities including utensils and dishes, and sleeping accommodations. On winter weekends there are always volunteers staying in each hut.

Volunteers operate a paid gear shuttle service. The DNR permit does not allow use of motorized vehicles for gear transport, so the volunteers ski the gear loads up (and down) the mountain by pulling sleds attached to long poles.

  • Policies and hut ethics

The key operating rules followed by volunteers are:

  • No gear shuttle by machines.
  • Don’t overfill the huts.
  • No one can stay overnight without a reservation.
  • No dogs and no smoking in the huts.
  • Land-owner rules are non-negotiable: they own the land and we are privileged to use it.

The huts are open to the general public free of charge for day use from 7AM – 7PM daily and are frequently used as a destination for day use. It is not unusual for 75-100 people to go through the huts on a sunny winter day, stopping for lunch or to rest and enjoy the views.

There is a problem with walkers making holes in the groomed trails. People are supposed to walk on the side of the trail, but they “forget”.

MTTA has not locked the doors since after the first year of operation and has not had very may incidents of vandalism. Bob Brown believes that vandalism is not a big problem due to the fact that there is no motorized access to the huts and they are sufficiently far from the trailhead to discourage most vandals. As a general rule, Bob Brown observes that there is an inverse relationship between vandalism and the distance travelled to get to the huts and the availability of motorized access (which increases vandalism).

Dogs are not allowed on the North side because it is a Nisqually wildlife corridor protection zone. This does result in some lost business for Copper Creek hut.

  • Water

During the winter season guests melt snow for water supply. During the summer rainwater is captured from hut roofs. Guest are responsible for filtering water in all seasons, using fairly large capacity (3-4 gallons) filter systems provided in the kitchens.

  • Waste management

The DNR provides outhouses at each hut (they were all recently upgraded) and pumps the waste as needed and transports it to local waste treatment facilities for processing.  DNR requires use of outhouses designed to their specifications, but pays for installation when they deem that upgrades are required.

Guests are responsible for packing their litter out.

  • Heat

In the old days guests brought their own fuel for cooking and lights. Today each hut is equipped with propane heaters and cooking stoves that are easy to operate. Some stoves and heaters are equipped with timer valves, which adds another layer of safety in case someone forgets to turn off the burner. MTTA started with 100-gallon portable propane tanks, but soon switched to 1000 gallon tanks as consumption rose. They then installed propane lamps in place of Coleman lanterns. The tank is buried at Snow Bowl, an arrangement they would like to extend to the other huts.

The switch from wood heat to propane heaters in the year 2000 was made because:

  • Cutting and hauling wood increases the likelihood of injury of volunteers, which could also endanger relationship with DNR if there were too many injuries;
  • Eliminated the need for hundreds of hours of volunteer labor in cutting and hauling wood;
  • Some years the wood was very wet, which caused problems in starting and maintain fires in the woodstoves;
  • Reduced carbon and pollutant emissions;
  • Handling wood is dirty in huts.
  • Electricity

Each hut is equipped with solar panels to generate limited electrical power. The huts have gasoline generators for backup battery charging if needed.

  • Cooking and eating

Each huts is fully equipped with propane stoves, and a full supply of pots and pans, eating and cooking utensils, and dishes, etc. Guests often donate cooking utensils. Guests bring their own food. Some of the huts do maintain limited supply of staples such as oatmeal, flour, spices, pancake mix, etc. for guest use. There is one dining room in each hut and unrelated parties of guests frequently eat and cook together.

  • Sleeping

Where space permits, sleeping quarters are separate from the dining/commons areas, but there is overlap in some huts. Most huts have plastic-covered mattresses on the floor, but some also have bunk beds and/or futons that people have donated.

  • Maintenance

Maintenance of huts is performed by volunteers in work parties (see 4.3 below). This includes painting, weather-proofing, renovations and repairs, clearing brush from around the structures to facilitate snow removal, etc. Winter snow removal from around the huts is very important due to heavy snow loads and the potential for a hut to be engulfed and ultimately crushed or structurally compromised by the pressure of surrounding snow. Snowmobiles and snowcats are maintained by volunteers with specialized skills, or by contract if needed.

  • Capital projects and repairs

Major capital projects are funded through fundraising or targeted grants. Larger jobs requiring specialized expertise are contracted out locally; smaller, generalist jobs are done by volunteers in work parties.

  • Hut design

See photo gallery for pictures. While Snow Bowl and High Hut were originally both shed style construction with steeply sloped roofs to shed snow, since the fire each hut is different in design. See Featured Hut article for discussion of Snow Bowl and High Hut, the largest and smallest, newest and oldest huts. Outhouses are located outside the hut. A corridor of clear space is maintained around each hut to facilitate snow removal by snow cat in winter. This is essential due to the heavy snows. The yurt collapsed one year when the snow cat was broken, and Snow Bowl hut collapsed and burned when the bridge washed away and no one could get in to remove snow from the perimeter.

All huts are designed for heavy snow load and carefully weather-proofed with insulation and caulking to retain heat and prevent drafts.   The original buildings were more loosely built and somewhat drafty, but over the years volunteers have tightened them all up to stay nice and warm.

Copper Creek is more high-tech than most of the huts. It is especially well insulated with solid foam, and has pressurized hot and cold water, on demand hot water, lots of lights, curtains, and nicer furniture.

There are entry rooms for removing boots and outer layers of clothing. Each hut has a common room with heater for socializing, reading, playing games, etc. This always is adjacent to the kitchen and dining area. Several huts have comfortable couches in the social areas, sometimes they fold out into futon beds.

  • Permitting process

As mentioned, the DNR owns the land the huts sit on and most of the surrounding land. The huts operate under agreements with the state and land owners. DNR does its own environmental analysis on the huts at its own expense. MTTA had to pay for a county-level environmental analysis.

  1. Trails:

MTTA maintains approximately 25 miles of trails, largely following DNR forest roads used for logging.

  • Connectivity among huts

The three huts on the South side are accessible by a 6 – 8 mile hike/ski from a single, gated trail-head, 7 miles from the entrance to Mt. Rainier National Park.

While it is possible to ski or hike hut-to-hut, anecdotally, most people (75-80%) come and stay in one hut for 2-3 days. However, people stay in one hut and visit the others on day hikes/skis. With the exception of Copper Creek, which stands alone on the North Side (which is closed in summer), the huts are quite close together (1.5 to 3.5 miles from each other).

  • Trail building and maintenance

All trails are maintained by MTTA volunteers.   Trails built to connect some forest roads, or as alternate routes, are built and maintained by MTTA volunteers. Snow Patrol volunteers groom the trails with snow cats, usually at night so they won’t disturb skiers. It is not unusual to see cougars and bears in the summer. Trimming trees above the trails requires use of loppers while standing on a truck because with up to 10 feet of snow the trail is much higher in winter than in summer.

Snow Patrol pays attention to the potential for danger from “snow-wells”, where a skier may run into a tree, fall into the “well” that surrounds the trunk of the tree and suffocate when the snow is dislodged from the branches and covers the unsuspecting skier.

The trails are well marked at every junction. MTTA uses blue and white, routed signs at major junctions. Trail signs are often paid for by competitive Washington State Recreation and Conservation Office grants.

Snowplowing of roads is contracted by DNR to MTTA and paid for with Washington State Sno Park Permit system. MTTA subsidizes the snowplowing allocation form the state.

  • Equipment and vehicles owned

MTTA owns and maintains 2 pickup trucks. It runs three snow cats for grooming (one owned by DNR, one old one owned by MTTA, and a new one purchased at a cost of $175,000 by MTTA,). And it owns 1 Alpina ( a dual track snowmobile with a Prosche car engine), and seven 4 cylinder snow mobiles, which are preferred because they reduce noise and emissions compared with 2 cylinder.

  1. Governance, Staff and Management:

When I asked about staff and governance, Bob Brown gave me a copy of a poster outlining the three components of how MTTA operates: “The Organizational Structure of the Mount Tahoma Trails System”, “Key MTTA Position Descriptions”, and “Our Mission”. It is a remarkably clear and succinct description of how this unique all-volunteer system operates and is quoted extensively below. Pictures of the chart are included in the photo gallery so one can read the entire text. In my experience this is a unique document for a U.S. hut system, providing a large group of volunteers with a single, simple view of how their organization operates and how their work fits into a larger structure. Names indicated in Bold Print below are the key elements of the poster.

On the surface MTTA is apparently a highly informal organization. However in studying this poster, perusing the operations manuals in each hut, talking to volunteers, and learning about the volunteer training program it soon becomes very clear that the exterior informality is undergirded by: a well-defined and widely understood structure, rigorous adherence to articulated protocols, and a system of training and accountability that ensures safety and an overall highly professional level of operations. The poster is undated, but Bob says the structure it portrays has been in place for a long time and seems to work well.

Governance

MTTA Organizational Chart Overview - Courtesy Bob Brown

MTTA Organizational Chart Overview – Courtesy Bob Brown

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

At the top of the organizational poster is a box labeled “Host Landowners: DNR and Hancock Natural Resources Group. How Landowners have pre-eminence regarding all activities on their lands.” This philosophy undergirds MTTA operations at every level. Under that box is one for “DNR Liaison”, which has arrows connecting to WA State Parks Winter Recreation Program, Snow Plow Grant Funding and Snow Plow Contractor, Trails Oversight Group, and the MTTA Board of Directors.

MTTAOrgChart5 MTTAOrgChart4

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

MTTAOrgChart2 MTTAOrgChart1

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

MTTAOrgChart3

The Trails Oversight Group reports to the DNR Liaison – [it] “sets and/or approves all trail rules and season dates. Meets once each year in May or June and reviews the past 12 months of trail operations. Sets all trail rules and policies.” This group is comprised of: Office Manager, Hut Manager representative, Ski Patrol Director, MTTA Board Representative, Grooming Coordinator, DNR (State Lands), DNR (Recreation), and Private Landowner Representative. Note that this group is distinct from the Trails Operations Committee (see below), which manages day-to-day operations.

Through this top layer of the structure the DNR, as landowner, is in pivotal positions in relation to oversight of MTTA operations. However it is not responsible for day-to-day operations, which are the responsibility of the MTTA Board of Directors.

The five member MTTA Board of Directors “has complete authority to manage the MTTA, appoints all key personnel, approves budgets, raises funds, develops long term plans, delegates day-to-day operation of the trails system to the Trail Operations Committee, and performs all other duties associated with a managing Board of Directors”. Board members serve staggered terms and are elected by the membership at the annual Gala. The MTTA Board President “serves at the pleasure of MTTA’s Board as the non-voting chair of the Board. Serves as MTTA liaison to the MTTA Advisory Board, and chairs the Trails Operation Committee.”

  • The “MTTA Advisory Board consists of five past or present MTTA Members appointed by the MTTA Board to serve for life on the Advisory Board. Advisory Board provides input to the MTTA President and Board on matters related to improving trail funding and operation.”
  • The Trails Operations Committee “manages the day-to-day operations of the trail system, develops budgets, proposes trail rules and policy changes, etc.” This group consists of 16 people, whose positions are described in the section below. This is clearly the coordinating group for MTTA’s hands-on operations as a whole.
  • Staff

There is no paid staff at MTTA, which is an all-volunteer operation.

  • Volunteers

There are between 50 – 70 Ski Patrol members most years and other volunteers who do not take the required training for Ski Patrol. A few volunteers live close to MTTA, but nearly all are within a 90 mile radius, which encompasses the N. Seattle suburbs. Bob Brown’s unpaid position is that of Trail Operations Coordinator. He serves as the overall manager/coordinator of MTTA Trail Operations, which is described as:

Trails Operations Coordinator – “Maintains a current knowledge base related to the condition of the trails (snow, etc.), huts/yurt, MTTA Office, signs/trail post, and equipment. Collects and distributes MTTA mail and deposits funds in the MTTA general account. Helps coordinate work parties, insures DNR waivers are signed, and records volunteer hours. Identified local funding and other resources that might be useful to MTTA. Informs Key MTTA personnel, officers, and board of issues related to safety. Notifies Key MTTA personnel, officers, and board of issues related to landowner and community relations. Assists Key MTTA personnel [see list below] with issues needing prompt action, when they are unavailable. Provides Continuity and Coordination between MTTA volunteers, host landowners, and the local community.   The Trail Operations Coordinator is a member of the Trails Operations Committee, has no supervisory role, and reports directly to the MTTA Board.”

The other volunteer positions listed on the organizational poster are listed below (see photograph of poster for job descriptions):

  • Ski Patrol Director
  • Hut Managers
  • MTTA Treasurer
  • MTTA Secretary
  • Office Manager
  • Volunteer Coordinator
  • MTTA President
  • Reservation Coordinator
  • Web Page Manager
  • Grooming Coordinator
  • Electrical Systems Manager

As a volunteer-run operation MTTA has between 50 and 70 Ski Patrol members who do most of the work of the Association. Volunteers keep careful track of their time, which is a key asset in leveraging grant funding. Altogether volunteers contribute 8000 hours per year to the organization.

Members of the Ski Patrol undergo required annual training, which is not as extensive as is required for most Alpine Ski Patrollers, but includes:

  • Certification in First Aid and CPR
  • Radio etiquette for use of DNR radio system
  • Hut utilization rules
  • Land owner rules

The following description of Ski Patrol is quoted form the MTTA website:

“Do you love winter in the mountains?   Snowshoeing or skiing adventures?   Helping others have a fun and safe time in the backcountry?

Join our Ski Patrol to oversee our backcountry, groom trails, and help others enjoy the system.   Volunteers patrol at least one day a month during the winter season and spend one weekend day staffing MTTA’s office in Ashford.

What we do:

  • Patrol the ski trails using two-way radios
  • Perform trail maintenance (most of our patrollers learn to operate snowmobiles and groom trails)
  • Serve as a goodwill ambassadors to all trail users
  • Oversee hut utilization and stay in the huts overnight
  • Staff the MTTA office in Ashford on weekends during ski season
  • Act as First Aid emergency response team in a wilderness setting

Requirements:

  • Be 18 years old (none of our patrollers feel a day over 18)
  • Be or become an MTTA member
  • Have winter wilderness experience
  • Attend MTTA patrol training offered every summer
  • Have current First Aid/CPR and Avalanche Awareness training”

In addition to the requirements listed above, Ski Patrol members are encouraged to take avalanche training, and are screened to ensure they have sufficient outdoor skills to be comfortable in the backcountry, skills to travel and navigate in the backcountry, and use of basic backcountry equipment.

Volunteers participate in at least one work party each summer. Ski Patrollers can sign up to stay in a hut on the weekends when they are patrolling the slopes. There are sufficient Ski Patrollers on weekends that they are a significant factor in maintaining a very good safety record for MTTA.

The Ski Patrollers who participate in grooming of trails receive separate training on the relevant equipment.

Quite a few of the volunteers started out as contractors and later became volunteers, e.g. the person who repaired the new snow cat when it was under warranty later became an MTTA volunteer and helps repair and maintain equipment.   And the couple that manages Snow Bowl started out as coordinators of the rebuilding of Snow Bowl and decided to apply to manage the hut they helped build.

There is a volunteer hut manager for each hut. The hut manager is always guaranteed a bed for the night and has a locker for storing personal gear. Every four years volunteers are invited to express interest in managing specific huts, and the MTTA Board selects the managers. It is not unusual for hut managers to serve two or more terms. Hut managers help create the personality of a hut in how they operate and furnish it. It is not unusual for hut managers to purchase things for the huts with their own funds. The hut manager for Snow Bowl is the man (and his wife) who helped coordinate design and construction of the new hut, and then volunteered to manage it.

One volunteer usually volunteers to handle reservations and finances, which is a 10-20 hour per week job.

The volunteers are the heart and soul of MTTA and a good deal of attention is paid to their training, to communication, and to encouraging camaraderie and good will. Work parties always include dinners and revelry after work.

All volunteers are covered in case of injury by DNR’s insurance policy for unpaid employees.  Medical Insurance Only!

  • Summer interns

None used.

  1. Reservations, Marketing, Memberships:
    • Reservations

Reservations for winter are handled differently (see below) from those in summer. Summer reservations (i.e. outside the ski season) are made by filling out an approved Hut Reservations Form (available on the MTTA web site and mailing it to the MTTA office in Ashford with a payment check. Because of the high demand, those reserving are required to indicate first and second choice dates.

Reservations for winter season are not opened up until after the Fall Gala. Winter reservations are handled two ways:

  • Those attending the fall fundraising Gala participate in a lottery by purchasing as many lottery tickets as they wish. When their number is called they can make their winter reservations and pay on the spot with credit or debit card only. By the end of the afternoon of the November Gala nearly all the hut is fully booked for winter season.
  • After the Gala, one can go to the MTTA web site to check availability and fill out a hut reservation form (see above) to reserve.
  • Rates

The cost is $15 per night per person. Booking the entire hut is not an option. This appears to be the lowest cost hut system in the USA.

  • Marketing

MTTA does very little marketing beyond its web site and leaving flyers at a few outfitters in Ashford and Seattle. Word of mouth is the best advertising for them and there is not a perceived need for additional marketing.

  • Membership

There are currently about 94 paid MTTA members. Half are volunteers.

There are a number of social events and volunteer activities during the year to build and maintain camaraderie among the members/volunteers. These include “Taste of Tahoma” and “Moonlight Dinner” nights at the huts featuring great meals, a family friendly “Tour de Huts” event complete with passports to mark arrival of each hut, and of course the annual Fundraising Gala, which is typically held in Seattle (in the upstairs meeting room of the Seattle REI in Nov. 2015).

Occasional Newsletters are used to build and maintain a sense of community. They are filled with pictures of volunteers at work, guests, work party celebrations, and logistical and event updates.

  1. Transportation:
    • To the trailheads

People are expected to provide their own transportation to the trailhead, were parking is available by permit.

  • Catered trips

There are no outside guide/concessionaire services authorized to support MTTA trips.

  • Gear shuttle service

The gear shuttle service is operated by volunteers. Because DNR does not permit use of motorized transport for gear, volunteers pull loads up to the huts on skis.

  • Guiding services: none
  • Snowmobiles: not allowed on the trails except by Ski Patrol for approved uses concerned with safety, trail maintenance, and hut supply.
  • Car access to huts: not allowed on the trails except by Ski Patrol for approved uses concerned with safety, trail maintenance, and hut supply.
  1. Safety:

While the area routinely gets some of the biggest snowfalls in USA, the MTTA has an excellent safety record. With over 65,000 overnight stays since 1990, the worst accidents/medical emergencies have been: 1 heart attack, 2-3 broken arms, a few dislocated joints, and one lost person who spent the night on the trail. Frequent patrolling by the Ski Patrol, asking how people are doing and generally paying attention to what is happening is a key safety strategy. Paying careful attention to and communicating about who is signed up for overnight use, who is using the trail, and the cars in the parking lot is part of the Ski Patrol’s responsibility. Another key part of the safety program is monitoring who is supposed to be in the huts and where they are. Volunteers make use of the DNR’s professional two-way radio system as needed, which has repeaters if needed. See also volunteer training above.

There tend to be 1 or 2 minor incidents each year, nearly all of which can be handled by Ski Patrollers. MTTA has a very good relationship with the Fire Department, which they call for injuries beyond their capability to handle. They have never had to call the sheriff for help with lost persons.

  1. Insurance

As mentioned, the DNR owns 3 of the 4 huts and is self-insured. When building Snow Bowl MTTA and DNR agreed that MTTA would retain ownership of the new building and pay for insurance. It was initially hard to find an affordable insurance agency for the hut, but a DNR official put MTTA in touch with a company that insures rural fire departments, which provided insurance at a reasonable price. In case of injury volunteers are covered by DNR’s insurance for unpaid employees.

  1. Use of hut system: capacity, demographics, trends, etc.:

Most users of the hut system are from the Puget Sound region. There have been about 65,000 overnight users of the system since 1990. Currently there are about 4,000-5,000 overnight users per year. Day use is about the same. Both are expected to increase due to increased summer use of the system.

Typical user groups include:

  • Families and groups of families
  • Groups of women
  • Couples
  1. Economics:

Do not have detailed budget information for MTTA, but here is what I know. The MTTA budget is about $100,000 per year. Budget categories and revenues include:

  • Trail maintenance account: Funds received through the WA Recreation and Conservation Office, that distributes federal and state recreation funds. This is a competitive grants program in which levels of volunteer effort is a key criterion in the process.
  • Reservation account: Used to maintain the Huts
  • General fund: revenue includes donations and porter services (gear shuttle)
  • Snow plowing (access roads): State funds allocated through DNR (generated by selling Snopark Parking Permits) to cover contracted plowing costs. This revenue is often insufficient to cover plow costs.
  • Judy fund: donation in honor of Judy Scavone to be used for special projects “to do nice things”.

MTTA appears to have a balanced budget and is not experiencing any severe financial stresses.

  1. Partnerships and educational programs:

The key partnership is with the land-owners: DNR, Hancock Timer, and the Nisqually Land Trust. The MTTA governance structure gives DNR a primary role in oversight and MTTA is extremely sensitive to the importance of maintaining a good working relationship. As Bob Brown says, “If the land owners say, ‘Jump!’, we ask, ‘How high?’. These partnerships are viewed by all parties as mutually beneficial, i.e. win-win relationships. Landowners feel they get good public relations value for having their land used for well-managed recreational purposes.

Besides oversight as outlined in the governance structure, the roles of the DNR in this partnership include:

  • Permission to use the land.
  • Working with commercial forest product contractors to manage the land for forestry and with MTTA to manage it for recreational use. In Washington state forestry on state lands provides revenue to operate WA public schools.
  • Approves new buildings and renovations.
  • Provides outhouses for the huts that meet DNR specifications, and pumps waste and delivers to sewage treatment as needed.
  • Provides a snowcat for trail maintenance.
  • Writes citations for people parking without a permit.
  • Provides insurance coverage for volunteers.

MTTA’s mission includes “offering trail users of differing skill levels and economic backgrounds a safe and inspirational backcountry experience. “. They take this responsibility seriously and are interested in ways to ensure that young people and families are indoctrinated to the outdoors and learn basic skills. MTTA partners with a range of educational programs, including school groups, at risk youth, and youth program such as Boy Scouts.

  1. Founding/origin stories:

The related profile of Bob Brown and Judy Scavone provides a summary of the founding story. Leyton Jump has kindly compiled writings on the history of MTTA and of High Hut and Snow Bowl.  Another facet of the founding story is the camaraderie among a group of early volunteers. The “old timers” wanted a place to stay for back-country skiing and did not necessarily envision a hut and trail system that would become a popular regional destination. For them it was a small, clubby operation and they liked it that way. However, as the popularity of MTTA grew the workload grew and threatened to become overwhelming. But they rose to the challenge of growth.  People like Judy Scavone stepped up and helped to modernize and streamline back-office operations, advocated for new methods and standards, and rolled up their sleeves to help out as needed along with long time volunteers.   Thus MTTA has gradually evolved its volunteer force and its methods of operation over a period of 25 years, apparently with a minimum of the kind of political turmoil that often characterizes small, volunteer-based non-profits.

  1. Some important lessons learned by the managers of the system:

Bob Brown’s list:

  • Propane is a better heat option than wood, and its best to bury the tanks so they don’t get accidently knocked around during winter snow clearing.
  • The snow is wet, heavy and deep and clearing the snow from around the buildings is essential.
  • Yurts are not sufficiently robust for this climate.
  • Installing bulk water receptacles to catch rainwater is a good idea. 200 gallon bladders under each hut is advisable. Planning to put a 600 gallon water storage in at Snow Bowl. A larger supply is less likely to freeze.
  • Not impressed by composting toilets; better to haul out the waste and have it processed by local sewage treatment plant if that’s an option.
  1. Observations by Sam:

MTTA provides a fascinating model and is unique in USA in the following ways:

  1. It is a volunteer operated hut and trail system that operates as a labor of love, and is also in a strong position financially – able to meet all its financial obligations, maintain the system effectively, and charge the lowest rates in the nation for overnight hut use.
  2. It receives strong support from a state Department of Natural Resources.
  3. It was founded as a separate non-profit entity by a state land management official who understood how to work with the DNR and other land owners to accomplish mutually beneficial aims.

This is an operational model that future founders of hut systems should study carefully. It depends on a strong core of highly trained volunteers and the cultivation of strong relationships with state land management agency, both of which are clearly achievable goals in the right state and locality. MTTA’s story seems to suggest that the development of at least some future hut systems may occur on state lands, and may be initiated by motivated state land management personnel.  Organizations started by strong, inspirational leaders often get into some difficulty over time (aka founders syndrome), so the leadership transition from Bob Brown to the next generation will be an important one for MTTA. My strong sense is that MTTA is a mature, resilient organization and will survive this transition.   Given the amount of work involved in running such an operation, it will be interesting to see how long it can keep going without paid employees.

  1. Challenges and opportunities:
    • Challenges:

Bob Brown’s list:

  • How to make the system sustainable. In good shape now, but finding the funding to keep things going is a constant challenge. Granting programs could go away someday (e.g. DNR/ROC and Forest Foundation).
  • Changes in landowners could result in changed attitudes. Don’t get into trouble with landowners.
    • Could lose access to a trail for some reason.
  • Dependency on volunteers puts MTTA in a precarious position, for example if there is a slump in volunteer activity during a downturn in the economy.
  • Tough to get volunteers to step up for the major responsibilities, e.g. Treasurer, Hut Managers, Board Members, Ski Patrol.
  • Climate change. Last year there was little snow. This year there is a drought. System is currently very dependent on ski reservations.
  • Opportunities:

Bob Brown’s list:

  • Increased hiking in summer; it has taken 6-8 years to build it up, but use is increasing and potential is there for more.
  • Recruiting/converting more trail users to become volunteers; “bring more people into the fold”.
  1. Additional Resources:
  2. Document written by: Sam Demas, with generous advice and comment by Bob Brown. 8 November 2015.
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