Speak Up for Sawtooth Huts

The Sawtooth National Recreation Area (SNRA) has released a draft Outfitter and Guide Management Plan (OGMP) and we’ve partnered with the Nordic and Backcountry Skiers Alliance of Idaho to speak up for full utilization of the Sawtooth’s iconic backcountry ski huts.

Photo by Sun Valley Trekking (@svtrek)

In Idaho, the future of a backcountry hut system is being decided by a proposed Sawtooth National Forest plan and may result in reducing access to these treasured shelters.

The Forest Service is grappling with how to manage increasing recreation use and how it potentially impacts the other values and resources that the agency is tasked with managing in the Sawtooth National Recreation Area (SNRA). At the same time, the Forest is drafting a new Outfitter and Guide Management Plan. Recently, the SNRA released an Environmental Assessment for its Outfitter and Guide Management Plan (OGMP). This draft is the culmination of a three year project by the SNRA to develop a new management protocol for all land-based outfitters and guides on the SNRA. Unfortunately, the SNRA seems to be trying to force a round peg into a square hole and use the OGMP to solve larger recreation issues. For example, in terms of winter use, it appears that the Forest Service thinks that limiting use of the Sawtooth huts will meaningfully reduce winter use or winter use impacts in the Sawtooths (even though hut use is a minuscule drop in the bucket compared to all of the other winter uses in the SNRA). We agree there’s a need to address the challenges of growing recreation use in the Sawtooths, but limiting a longstanding use (the huts) that has no demonstrated adverse effects is not going to solve the larger challenges the SNRA is facing in terms of recreation management.

We’ve teamed up with our local grassroots group, the Nordic and Backcountry Skiers Alliance of Idaho (NAB), to take a deeper look at the Alternatives and how they’d affect the public’s ability to rent the Sawtooth Huts.

How Will This Impact the Huts?

The Sawtooth Huts are one of North America’s oldest and most distinctive backcountry hut systems and include three ski huts on the SNRA: Bench Hut, Fishhook Yurt and Boulder Yurts. This hut system provides access to phenomenal recreation opportunities in the Sawtooths.

As drafted, the OGMP could have a severe detrimental impact to the future of the Sawtooth huts. We need overwhelming written comment to change the SNRA’s flawed plan and ensure that huts and guided experiences are available to future generations in the Sawtooth Mountains.

“Our homeland, the Sawtooth Mountains outside Sun Valley, ID is looking at new management protocols that might impact access to the backcountry huts that make ski touring these stunning mountains possible. Specifically, these huts were lovingly built by Bob Jonas, life partner to Sarah Michael, the founder of Winter Wildlands Alliance. In fact, the butterfly moment that propelled Sarah to start WWA lives in an act of arson on one of the huts involved, by a small group who valued disharmony and noise – over solitude and refuge. All you need to do to help is submit comments online (via template) to the powers that be – letting them know we cherish our ability to access that beauty on skis – kindly, respectfully, and propelled by the power of our heartbeat.” -Hal Hallstein, WWA Board Member

Comments are due on August 31, 2022. We’ve provided a synopsis and what we would like to see as the final outcome below.

A Synopsis of the OGMP and the Impact on Sawtooth Huts

There are two pieces of the OGMP that affect the huts:

  1. How many Priority Use Days will be allotted to guides and outfitters – this determines how many nights huts will available each winter.
  2. Design Elements that affect how guides and outfitters operate and whether huts can receive additional Priority Use Days in the future.

There are three alternatives that the Forest Service is considering for the OGMP and, for example, none of the three alternatives would provide the hut operator – Sun Valley Trekking – with enough Priority Use Days to rent out the huts all season long.

Every alternative the Forest Service is considering will result in denying public use of otherwise available, unoccupied huts during the winter season.

  • The “No Action Alternative” proposed would result in a 50% reduction of use and approximately 300 nights made unavailable to the public at the three Sawtooth huts – this would be tragic to our ski community.
  • The “Proposed Action Alternative” would result in approximately 25% reduction in use and roughly 250 nights made unavailable at the Sawtooth huts.
  • “Alternative B” will allow enough days to accommodate the historic use at the huts but will strictly limit any more use than what has occurred in the past due to the “Design Elements”. There would be roughly 150 nights made unavailable on the SNRA under this action.
Alternative B is our Best Option

Given the options presented by the SNRA: Alternative B is the best for the short term.

We need you to help us convince the Forest Service to select Alternative B with specific adjustments made to particular “Design Elements” (outlined below).

The Design Elements create new restrictions, limits, and requirements related to outfitter and guide activities. Some of the Design Elements in the proposed plan would significantly impact the huts.

We’re most concerned about Design Elements A12, A18, A26 and 001.

  • We recommend a “No Action” alternative on A-12. A-12 prohibits or strictly limits new permitted use in the Sawtooth Wilderness. The OGMP defines all hut use in the Sawtooth as “Wilderness Use”.  This definition is fundamentally false; the huts are outside the Wilderness and the reality is that only 1/3-1/2 of hut use days cross the Wilderness boundary. On a typical 3-day trip: Day 1 is spent outside the Wilderness accessing the hut, Day 2 typically involves a ski tour into the Wilderness, and Day 3 typically is focused on skiing back to the trailhead outside of the Wilderness. There is further language in this element that is unnecessarily vague and seemingly designed to prohibit increased use day allotments at the Sawtooth huts. There is no evidence that there has been an adverse effect on Wilderness values or qualities in the 40-year history of these huts.
  • We oppose A-18. A-18 requires the outfitter to construct and maintain new parking areas or provide shuttle services for hut users.  Such requirement will drive costs significantly up at the huts and ultimately not address the primary issue: increasing day use at the trailheads and the SNRA’s addition of the Redfish Cabin Rental without adding additional parking. The historic hut use represents a fraction of the parking at these trailheads and has not increased in the past 6 years.
  • We oppose A-26. A-26 strictly limits authorization of short-term priority use in Wilderness areas. This element will limit use of the Sawtooth Huts well below capacity and to a level that is inadequate to meet the needs of the public in the future. A primary justification for this element is that people skiing at the Sawtooth huts will negatively impact other users’ solitude and “wilderness experience”. We believe this concern is imaginary and defines a problem that does not exist.  
  • We oppose 001. 001 limits maximum group size to 12. This group size limit is below the bed capacity at the huts and below the historic use levels at the huts. So, while the huts have 14 bunks, only 12 people could go on a trip together.
How Can You Help?

The final decision will be made by Area Ranger Flannigan in the coming months after receiving the public comment (due Aug 31, 2022). Ranger Flannigan can mix and match elements of any of the alternatives (including keeping or eliminating Design Elements) as he sees fit.

Having consistent and overwhelming written comments on the OGMP will be critical to gain the best possible outcome. We’re asking you to comment to ensure the huts remain open and available to our community in the future.

Alongside our partners at NAB, we’ve made it easy for you to submit a comment to the Forest Service. If you have a special connection to the Sawtooths and the huts so please personalize your letter so that the Forest Service understands the value of the huts to you!

Comment Now!