Preview: Yurts Rising on the Prairie!
American Prairie Reserve building their first two huts
By Sam Demas
The first two yurts of American Prairie Reserve planned 10 hut system are now subtly nestled in a remarkable prairie landscape in Montana. The interiors will be finished this fall, the interpretive program will be developed this winter, and the yurts will be open for adventurous environmental pilgrims in Spring 2018. The amazing American Prairie Reserve’s hut system will be:
- the first in the USA not located in the mountains;
- the first located on the threatened, sublimely beautiful great American prairie;
- the second largest in the USA (after the 10th Mountain Division Huts);
- the largest in the USA located on privately owned land;
- operated as part of a huge nature reserve as and integral part of a strong conservation and education mission;
- open to travel by hiking, biking and/or canoeing/kayaking; and
- offering spacious, comfortable quarters with excellent amenities, with minimal environmental impact in a remote and rugged environment.
What follows is a brief preview, based on a visit in early September 2017, of what is coming soon on the great American Prairie. I hope to visit again next year and present a more complete report, based on the experience of staying in the huts, on this innovative, distinctly American hut system. For now much of the content below is derived from the APR website, from visiting the huts under construction, and from stimulating discussions with Mike Quist Kautz, Visitation and Huts Manager, who is leading the APR hut system development.
Context: Mission of the American Prairie Reserve (APR)
Our mission is to create the largest nature reserve in the continental United States, a refuge for people and wildlife preserved forever as part of America’s heritage.
Operating since 2004 on the basis of an exemplary set of values, the APR is committed to a bioregional program of stitching together 3,000,000 acres of existing public lands (primarily BLM lands) using private land purchases. As their web site states, “When these fragmented public and private lands are connected, the Reserve will provide a continuous land area collaboratively managed for wildlife and recreation, the largest of its kind in the Lower 48 states.”
So far the non-profit APR has completed 25 land acquisitions transactions to build a habitat base of 353,104 acres:
- 86,586 acres are private lands owned by the Reserve
- 266,518 acres are public lands (federal and state) and leased by the Reserve
They operate on the basis of a rigorous scientific program and strive to foster strong working relationships with their neighbors — the current human occupants and users of large parts of this landscape.
This map gives a sense of the scale and nature of the challenge. The brown background is BLM land and the white is privately owned. The goal is to knit together 3,000,000 acres surrounding the Upper Missouri Breaks National Monument andCharles M. Russell National Wildlife Preserve to create the largest prairie reserve in the world. All this to help preserve and restore the land as close as possible to the landscape and wildlife Lewis and Clark encountered in this place in 1806.
The huts will be built on private lands owned by the APR. The purpose of the hut system is to advance the APR mission by providing affordable shelter and recreational opportunity for visitors interested in experiencing and learning about this unique ecosystem. Knowing a landscape engenders commitment to preserve it, and the hut system is being designed to aid in getting people to visit and come to appreciate the subtleties of the prairie.
Conceptual plan for the APR Hut System
The prairie ecosystem of Central Montana is a spare and subtle environment — most folks fly or drive over it as quickly as possible. It is a rugged steppe-like environment with weather extremes, including low rainfall, intensely slippery muds and dangerous roads, and is remote from gas, cell reception, and life safety services. It requires serious shelter and planning to visit, and a slow, thoughtful pace to truly appreciate.
The hut system is conceived as a means of giving a wide range of visitors the rare opportunity to safely, comfortably, and affordably experience one of America’s iconic — and disappearing — landscapes. How do you provide public access to a privately owned nature reserve? How do you direct people to he places you want them to visit and keep them away from ecologically fragile areas? These are the essential challenges of designing this kind of hut system.
The idea of a hut system grew from multiple stimuli: the experiences folks have had through APR’s amazing annual “Transect” program and its Kestrel Camp program of trips for board members and donors, from precedents including the Appalachian Mountain Club huts, New Zealand DOC huts and Great Walks, and from the vision of Mike Quist Kautz and others that huts are an ideal way to introduce people to this unique landscape.
Eventually 10 huts — ideally placed a days hike, bike or river trip apart — will provide a unique opportunity to immerse yourself in this rich ecosystem. Each hut will feature a different facet of the Reserve and have its own interpretive theme. In combination, the total experience of these 10 huts will cultivate appreciation of the the range of biodiversity, the threats, and special thrills of this subtle and vast landscape. At one time xx % of the America was dominated by prairie.
The map below presents the conceptual plan for a 10 hut system, and the following picture is an artist’s representation of the hut designs.
The first two yurts: design, amenities and operation
Viewed from a distance on this grassland system, these two structures evoke a Mongolian steppe settlement or, in some ways, a spaceship landing in the outback. The two yurts, designed and built by Shelter Designs (shelterdesigns.net) of Missoula, MT, are grand embodiments of the yurt/hut genre. They comprise three modules each: a 30′ diameter common area, a 30′ diameter sleeping yurt (with the space divided into four sleeping rooms, each accommodating two twin beds, and one also including a bunk bed), and a commodious bathroom yurt. These are unusually commodious spaces for a hut system.
One yurt is located by the rushing Judith River sheltered by a beautiful and increasingly scarce Cottonwood Gallery of majestic old trees. The other is higher in elevation and a nice hike away from the bench providing a dramatic Missouri River overlook (in the Missouri Breaks), featuring views of the historic confluence of the Missouri and Judith Rivers (see also featured photo for this post).
The entire yurt will be rented to a single party, on the model of the US Forest Service cabins common in the Western US. Prices are not yet set, but the intent is to make them affordable.
Yurts will have an unusually high level of amenities for a hut system. Full kitchen facilities will include propane stove, refrigerator, pots and pans and eating utensils, and sink. The huts will be available as self-serve (bring your own food and cook on site) or “catered” (food provided and you cook it yourself). Provision of guided trips is under consideration. Both huts are on ranch roads that allow for provisioning. Drinking water and food will be trucked in. Solar collectors will provide power for lights, heat, refrigerator, air conditioning (!), and charging of personal devices. Description from their website of toilets by Toilet Tech Solutions:
Toilet Tech offers a low-cost and low-hazard solution for waterless human waste management at high use sites. Toilet Tech’s urine diverting toilets are superior to: expensive barrel fly out toilets, hazardous and ineffective conventional composting toilets, and water polluting pit toilets. 100% of urine is diverted and treated onsite by native or engineered soil. Fecal matter and toilet paper are consumed by invertebrates (TTS-Decompose), or dried and burned onsite (TTS-Waste Away) leaving little residue. No bulking agent is required. Stabilized waste extraction is very infrequent. Odor is very low.
Graywater will be collected in buckets in the kitchen area and hauled to the septic system behind the bathroom for disposal.
Biking will be on existing ranch roads. Other recreational pathways are still under consideration. In addition to using existing trails (human and wildlife), walking routes will be created de novo by users in some areas as part of a grand vision with conservation, recreation and educational dimensions intertwined. APR promotes a form of walking they call “snorkeling” (making ones way slowly across the trackless landscape and becoming attuned to its subtle pleasures). Canoeing and kayaking routes are under consideration.
The initial target audience will be native Montanans who are familiar with the great plains environment, experienced in traveling rough terrain and harsh climate, and overall have the outdoor skill set for this adventure experience. Doubtless the demographic will evolve over time, and I predict many Europeans will eventually find and treasure this hut system.
This hut system is off to a fabulous start in developing infrastructure to give the user an experience of the larger meaning of prairies by recalling the American prairie as it existed when Lewis and Clark and Sacagawea came through in 1805 and 1806.
APR hopes to continue development of its hut system by opening one or two more huts in 2019. As the first American hut system not located in the mountains, they have an incredible opportunity to experiment with a wide range of hut designs appropriate to the weather and terrain. The inclusion of Indigenous architectural traditions, such as cabins and shelters dug into the hillsides (and perhaps some contemporary architectural riffs on these and other building traditions) might result in an architectural showcase of shelter types as well as demonstrating a high level of environmentally sustainable amenities. And the potential for the huts as infrastructure for innovative environmental education by APR is incredibly exciting!
Stay tuned and get ready to book a trip next year!
Sam Demas, September 2017