Opinions

OPINION: Backcountry huts and public use cabins are an economic opportunity for Alaska

Huts

Growing up hiking and skiing in Alaska’s backcountry gave Mackenzie Barnwell a love of Alaska’s wilderness and a solid foundation for a career in outdoor recreation. Barnwell is the executive director of the Alaska Huts Association, aka Alaska Huts, and part of a collaborative group of outdoor advocates working to increase recreation opportunities in Alaska. This includes creating new trails and lodging while improving existing assets to benefit Alaskans and visitors alike.

“I recognize the opportunities that enjoying public lands gave me, and want to help others to similarly experience the transformational power of nature,” Barnwell said. “There are so many benefits to exploring outside, and huts are a wonderful way to do it. Alaska Huts is really focused on creating more opportunities for people to enjoy the wilderness.”

Alaska Huts is experiencing significant growth each year; at the Manitoba property, bookings are up 20% from pre-2020 numbers, and an estimated 4,000 people stayed in the association’s managed properties in 2021. In March, the busiest month of the year, the property is booked at nearly 100% capacity.

Barnwell says their usership runs the gamut, from avid outdoors people there for backcountry skiing to multigenerational families of children, parents and grandparents enjoying light exploration around the Manitoba property, which includes a cabin and three yurts.

As Alaska Huts continues to expand its properties, the association is focusing on building and maintaining backcountry lodging that promotes camaraderie, stewardship, outdoor education and Alaska’s cultural heritage. They are currently raising money for the Glacier Discovery Project, a hut-to-hut system along the backcountry Whistle Stop corridor in the Chugach National Forest, as part of their focus on making the state’s wild outdoor spaces more accessible.

Hut-to-hut systems

Alaska Huts isn’t alone in their work — considerations about how to serve people new to wilderness experiences, or those who simply want more amenities, are top of mind for state and federal officials funding new outdoor recreation projects. Many recently completed or proposed outdoor recreation projects focus on meeting the “missing middle” for both visitors and locals.

Chris Beck, a longtime outdoor recreation advocate and the Alaska Trails Initiative Coordinator, defines the missing middle as an experience filling the gap between extreme backcountry experiences and packaged tours, and says that this kind of experience is what the market wants.

“Alaska has many lifetimes’ worth of hardcore adventure, and we’ve done a good job for large-volume visitor experiences like the cruise industry,” said Beck. “But we’re weak on offering a way to get outside for an Alaska adventure, and ending the day at a nice place to stay with an IPA, a bed, and internet access that’s not on a ship with 3,000 other people.”

One increasingly popular way to provide this kind of experience is through hut-to-hut systems or public use cabins, opening up the wilderness to adventurers of varied skill and abilities while making an economic impact.

Hut-to-hut systems are broadly defined as a chain of three or more overnight accommodations along a trail, with the average distance between them being 6-8 miles. They can range from wall tents or yurts to cabins or modern lodges, and provide space for as few as four or as many as 300 guests to eat, sleep and socialize. Sometimes, a hut system extends to accommodations in communities near trail access points and may include bed and breakfasts, inns, and hotels.

Altogether, Alaska is home to approximately 381 public use cabins and huts, managed by the state or federal government, or nonprofits. Nightly rates range from free — donations encouraged — to $195 for the “whole shebang” at the Manitoba property.

Alaska offers public use cabins connected by trails that could be considered hut-to-hut systems — the Bomber Traverse in the Talkeetna Mountains and Resurrection Pass Trail in the Chugach National Forest both offer rustic shelters — but in general, they lack some of the amenities offered by popular systems outside of the state and are more suited for somewhat experienced outdoorspeople rather than the “missing middle.”

Economic impacts

Groups like Alaska Trails and Alaska Outdoor Alliance have been working to increase awareness of outdoor recreation as an economic driver for the state’s economy. With an estimated 81% of the population engaging in outdoor activities, Alaska is ranked the highest in the nation for outdoor recreation participation — tied with Montana. Nationally, the rate is under 50%. Outdoor recreation is on the rise for visitors as well; hiking was the fastest-growing activity for both air and cruise out-of-state visitors from 2011 to 2016.

The Bureau of Economic Analysis estimates that economic activity related to outdoor recreation — gear purchases, lodging, guided trips, etc. — generated $1.57 billion in value for Alaska’s economy in 2020, supporting 17,800 jobs.

Public investment in huts and trails creates demand that supports an ecosystem of private businesses that spring up around the hut-to-hut system. New or expanded hut-to-hut systems in Alaska would be especially impactful for gateway communities — the communities where systems begin and end — resulting in more jobs, business opportunities, and tax revenues near access points.

Public use cabins constructed by the Alaska Department of Natural Resources Division of Parks and Recreation (Alaska State Parks) vary in cost depending on location, design and price of materials, but in general are $100,000-$150,000 to build. Accounting for differing occupancy rates, ranging from $45-$100 a night, a cabin can pay for itself in four to seven years.

An economic analysis by the University of Alaska Center for Economic Development estimates that a network of 10 huts would generate more than $1.3 million in direct spending, or $1.5 million in total economic activity when accounting for multiplier effects, and would create 11 total jobs with a payroll of about $428,000. About two-thirds of total economic activity would benefit businesses other than the hut operator, such as retail stores, restaurants and others. Scaling up to 100 huts results in economic activity approaching $15 million, with 109 jobs created.

Investment for the future

Alaska is already a world-class destination for travelers, and many residents choose to live here because of the outdoor adventure opportunities and wild spaces. Huts and public use cabins across Alaska have proven their worth, with people of all experience levels waiting at their computers the moment of opening to book some of the most-sought-after sites. It’s not uncommon for popular, easy to reach cabins to be booked at 80%-90% occupancy.

Public investment in hut-to-hut systems, public use cabins, and trails makes economic sense; there’s a proven market, demonstrated return on investment, and case studies from around the world showing that public dollars spent on outdoor experiences for entry- and mid-level wilderness adventurers spur increased entrepreneurial activity and new business.

By investing in hut-to-hut systems, public use cabins and trails, Alaska can access a new segment of travelers to benefit the economy, while continuing to provide quality experiences for residents.

Gretchen Fauske is the associate director for the University of Alaska Center for Economic Development, Board President for the Anchorage Downtown Partnership, and a Gallup-certified Clifton Strengths coach.

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