As Bob Brown piloted a Snow Cat slowly through the forest south of Ashford, it was evident the Mount Tahoma Ski Trail System means much more to him than just a place to play.
The deep bond he’s forged with this terrain stems from the volunteers who’ve proven to be the lifeblood of the 50-mile network of cross-country skiing and snowshoeing trails.
Brown talked about the grassroots effort to build the huts, the work by volunteers to rebuild after storms and to groom and patrol the trails. Brown says each year the Mount Tahoma Trails Association coordinates more than 9,000 volunteer hours for the trails.
“Volunteers are so important to us,” said Brown as the machine arrived at High Hut on an overcast morning. “Most of them have a special connection to this place.”
If all goes as planned, MTTA volunteers will build a new hut on the trail system this summer to replace Snow Bowl Hut that burned in 2008.
They’d love for this project to have their undivided attention, but for all the MTTA has accomplished and overcome, it may soon face one of its biggest obstacles – state budget cuts.
According to the State Department of Natural Resources, if Gov. Chris Gregoire’s proposed budget passes without implementing a new $30 multi-agency pass, the department will be forced to reduce services to the trail system.
“My feeling is that they would not shut it down,” Brown said. “But I would never sit on my rear end and do nothing.”
THE DISCOVER PASS
When word leaked out earlier this year that budget cuts might threaten the trail system, Brown fired off an email to MTTA members.
“The next day they (a DNR official) called and said, ‘OK, you can turn it off now,’ ” Brown said. “Apparently they’d received more than 500 emails.”
Bob Myrick, MTTA president, says agency staff told him that no decision has been made yet. However, a Feb. 4 memo from DNR recreation manager Mark Mauren to Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-San Juan Islands, states that the trail system would have to reduce services if the new Discover Pass is not approved. So would almost every other department recreation site, according to the memo.
Facing a $5.3 billion budget shortfall, the state is looking at recreation areas on state lands as a place to make cuts.
Lawmakers hope the $30-per-year or $10-per-visit pass will raise $71 million for state lands including DNR, state parks and fish and wildlife. The pass was part of the budget proposed by House Democrats on April 4.
The proposed $30-per-year pass would raise a projected $71 million for state lands including Department of Natural Resources recreation sites, state Department of Fish and Wildlife and State Parks.
Gregoire’s budget proposal would cut DNR’s operating budget from $6 million to $4 million, according to the February memo.
Department staff selected areas for closure and reduced services, if the pass isn’t approved, based on three criteria: trail access, visitor use and use-to-cost ratio.
According to the memo, the trail system earned the highest ranking for trail access because it has more than 10 miles of trails and use-to-cost ratio. It was listed as “low cost/high visit.”
However, the system ranked in the second tier for use, drawing less than 30,000 visitors per year.
What, precisely, would reduced services mean to the Mount Tahoma system?
Thanks to the MTTA’s army of volunteers it might mean very little, but DNR spokesman Bryan Flint says it’s too early to say for sure.
If the new pass isn’t approved, Flint says department officials would meet with the MTTA to determine the immediate future of the trail system.
Brown, who worked with the department for 33 years, says the primary costs for the DNR at the trail system are pumping the two toilets and oversight.
Myrick says he can envision the MTTA easily handling the toilet pumping – something it already does at its huts – and working out a compromise in regards to the DNR’s oversight.
Flint says it is not uncommon for strong volunteer organizations to keep recreation sites going after state funding shrivels up.
The Ahtanum Sno-Park is kept open by the fundraising efforts of the Yakima Ski Benders snowmobile club. Flint estimates that club raises about $2,700 to pay for oversight costs.
The concern the MTTA has for the future of its trails is offset by its excitement over its new hut.
The trail group is working to raise $75,000 by June 30 so it can rebuild the Snow Bowl Hut this summer. As of late March, the association had raised almost $63,000.
The donations, coupled with grants, will pay for a new $150,000 hut. The association plans to lean heavily on volunteer labor from its members to construct the two-story structure.
The association took a similar approach when it built its three huts and a yurt in the early 1990s. The result is a circuit of backcountry huts with solar power that are popular stops for day-trippers and overnighters.
Visitors can spend the night in the lodges for $15 per person, per night. The huts have room to sleep 8-14 people and the yurt holds six.
The popular Snow Bowl Hut caught fire and burned during a snowstorm in 2008. With nobody staying at the hut to clear the snow, officials believe the weight of the snow caused the structure to shift, broke a propane pipe and the furnace pilot light ignited the blaze. The pilot light was left on, because when it was turned off previously mold started growing in the hut.
The hut was uninsured.
Myrick says the organization originally hoped to build a hut with walls made from a material “like a beer cooler,” but the association opted to go with wood structure again to reduce cost.
Myrick says they plan to apply for a building permit soon and start work this summer.
If the state budget cuts result in the closure of the trails, MTTA board member Judy Scavone said donations for the new hut will be returned.
Before the hut burned down, it had not been accessible since before flooding washed out access to the south trail system in 2006. The idea of rebuilding Snow Bowl Hut and having the trail system at full strength by next winter is an exciting for long-time MTTA volunteers.
“It doesn’t make sense to close this down,” Brown said. “... There are so many people that enjoy it here.”
Mount Tahoma Ski Trail System
Miles of trails: 50
Backcountry huts: 3
Location: The MTTA trails are located north and south of Ashford. The portion on Department of Natural Resources land is south of Ashford. The northern trails are on Nisqually Land Trust property but the access road is on DNR land.