American Prairie Reserve Huts

Hutmaster profile: Michael Quist Kautz, American Prairie Reserve

Hutmaster Profile: Michael Quist Kautz:

Founding hutmaster for American Prairie Reserve

[See Preview of the APR Hut System for background on this new hut system.]

The American Prairie Reserve’s (APR) hut system is a key part of the public access and education mission of this ambitious, privately-operated public land project that is gradually knitting 3,00,000 acres of public and private lands into a vast bioregional wildlife reserve. What kind of background and experience does one look for in hiring someone for such an undertaking?  This is the story Mike Kautz’s path to a leadership role in founding a ground-breaking hut system.

Mike’s journey to this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity began in Maine with schoolteacher parents, with whom he developed an early love of the Maine woods and all things out-of-doors.  While studying arts and humanities at Middlebury – a liberal arts college in Vermont — a friend recommended Mike to fill in for her for a summer job in the Appalachian Mountain Club’s (AMC) huts (she had decided to go to NOLS instead).  This happy accident turned into a ten-year stint working in the AMC huts. He worked in the huts four summers in a row, for several years as a seasonal worker, and eventually became AMC’s fulltime Hut Manager from 2004 to 2007.  Mike loved the sense of conviviality among both the “Croo” and the many hikers coursing through the huts.

At AMC Mike developed an enduring interest in working for conservation-related causes.  He was deeply influenced by Andy Fallender, former Executive Director of the AMC, who stressed that hut jobs went beyond hospitality to include education, stressing that the Croo’s job was to aid in “moving people through a conservation continuum”.   AMC also connected him to a large network, some of whom have made backcountry lodging a profession, including: Jesse Bellingham (Director of Lodging for the American Alpine Club), Tom Callahan (Executive Director of Alaska Huts Association), Paul Cunha (VP of Operations, AMC), and James Wrigley (Huts Manager, AMC).

After AMC, Mike enrolled in the MFA program at the University of Montana in creative writing, where he honed his classroom presentation skills and continued to work on his own creative expression.  He then taught writing and photography workshops internationally for National Geographic, taught literature in Turkey for a year as a Fulbright Fellow, and taught ESL at Montana State University.  While then While he liked teaching, he missed being outdoors and working in conservation.

Working for Jeff Brown (a former AMC huts manager) at the Yellowstone Institute Field School for 3.5 years, Mike ran the Lamar Buffalo Ranch.  There he managed lodging and field operations and supported a wide range of educational programs. This position deepened his management and hospitality skills, and grounded him in creative partnership methods for managing public lands.

Mike’s next move brought him ever closer to APR: working in the startup phase of Adventure Scientists, which operates citizen-science projects all over the world.   For 3 years he managed data collection projects, including an APR wildlife baseline data study (through camera tracking and transects).  Spending lots of time on the prairie engendered a love the subtle and spare beauty of the prairie and admiration for APR’s mission and organizational ethos.  He witnessed the profound responses of volunteer citizen scientists to places and to wildlife as they practiced close observation.  This reinforced the power of meaningful exposure to a landscape in engendering genuine appreciation and a sense of commitment to environmental protection.

As Adventure Scientist’s liaison to APR, Mike attended their annual Transect where an interdisciplinary group stays in tents and moves together across the landscape for ten days by foot, bike and canoe.  He marveled at the learning and sharing that went on around the campfire and along the trail, and discovered that APR was approaching a crucial moment in its evolution: after 15 years of focus on acquiring land, fundraising and building an organization, APR was ready to invite more visitors to the reserve and launch a new phase in its educational agenda.  The staff of APR was exploring how best to encourage people to visit this remote, harsh, and little-known prairie landscape.

This got Mike thinking about how hut systems allow people to move safely and gently through a range of environments, and support them in immersive listening and learning.  He began to envision the APR as a vast laboratory to test ideas about how facilities can, in Fallenders’s words, “move people through a conservation continuum.”  He shared his observations and experiences with APR, suggesting that huts could be a way to get people to come for recreation, but at the same time build a connection to the landscape that fosters a commitment to conservation.

It soon became clear that a prairie hut system was an innovative way for APR to realize its public access and educational goals, and that Mike was the perfect person to serve as its first Visitation and Huts Manager.

Why Mike?  For one thing, he has a broad perspective on the task at hand.  In addition to working in one of the nation’s largest hut systems, he came to know huts in Europe and New Zealand in his travels. However, while running the AMC’s hut system was about continuing a tradition and unswervingly maintaining a set of time-tested systems and procedures, the APR and its hut system are both startup organizations, requiring vision, flexibility and imagination.  Mike has experience in both following a plan and in “making it up as you go”.  This prepares him to help build new approaches to backcountry safety, logistics and hospitality in the nation’s first hut system not located in the mountains.

While Mike is the point person and has unique knowledge of how hut systems operate, he is hardly the only one at APR contributing to developing the hut system.  Partners include land management folks, marketing and PR staff, scientists, operations staff, fundraisers, board members, volunteers, and administrators.  His background in non-profit management in a variety of settings makes it easy for him to operate effectively within a larger organization, especially one as innovative, values-based, and unique as APR.

As a writer, photographer, and humanist, Mike is great at connecting the dots to create a compelling narrative.  He understands his work on operational, scientific and technical endeavors through a liberal arts lens.  He approaches his work as a humanist and an artist, as well as a manager and a skilled practitioner.

Finally, Mike’s sophistication with different forms of verbal and visual communication allow him to reach people in many different ways.  He is accomplished in using maps, images and text in telling the story of the APR and the huts.  Storytelling can inspire dreams when he talks about the prairie landscape and about the roles of huts.  His commitment to conservation education, his realization that it needs to be based in a fun experience, and his diverse experience in teaching and learning are invaluable assets in this recreational and educational enterprise.

Mike clearly has the skill set, education and experience for the job, and he came by them in his own unique way.   APR definitely has the financial and organizational capacity to develop something new on the American prairie!  It will be fun to watch this hut system innovate!

Reflections on the position of Founding Hut Master in the 21st Century

I’ve published a number of profiles of hut and trails founders; each person and set of circumstances is different.  While I’m not prepared to generalize across these stories, talking with Mike I began to see the outlines of a 21st century model for innovation in huts, for a new generation of Hut Masters, and for new approaches to public/private partnerships in conservation, recreation and education.  Riffing on my conversation with Mike, following are some initial thoughts.

Mike and the APR are at the beginning of an ambitious undertaking; and they approach it as a commitment to creating a new model for public/private partnership in conservation, recreation and education.  They are looking at what it takes to develop an innovative, educational, environmentally-sensitive hut system on private lands in 21st century.

The job of actually founding a hut system, bringing it to life, is a unique and rare calling. Like entrepreneur, farmer, conservationist and educator, the job of “hut master” is a richly interdisciplinary, creative undertaking.  It requires: vision; mastery of a wildly diverse bundle of practical skills and technical knowledge; sophisticated people, political, and organizational skills; perseverance; flexibility; and an active imagination. The work is aided by the gift of creating a compelling narrative about the significance of preserving and enjoying a wild landscape — and, in APR’s case, a vanishing and largely unknown biome that once dominated a third of the continent – that is traversed by the hut system.  This role goes way beyond safety, hospitality and recreation, and far into the realms of conservation and environmental education.

The ability to blend science, education, and practical know-how within a broad imaginative framework can be immensely helpful to the hut master. And the ability to make the educational dimensions of hut experience enjoyable, not dry and didactic, is a key to the success of any conservation education enterprise aiming to capture the imagination of young people.

As Andy Fallender said, guests may come to the hut experience for recreation, but through the efforts of the hut crew they gain they form a connection to the landscape that motivates them to protect it.  This is hardly a new concept in the hut world, but its importance is underscored as we struggle to cultivate an ethos of biophilia and do as little harm as possible to the natural world.