Conservationists put out the welcome mat

Lodgings: There is a growing list of inns and camps run by organizations dedicated to preserving the environment.

Destination: Wilderness

September 30, 2001|By Christopher Reynolds | Christopher Reynolds,Special to the Sun

In the 1920s, a handsome building rose on one of the rolling hills just outside Silver City, N.M. It was to be a school for troubled teen-agers. When that failed, it became a country club. For decades after that, it was a dude ranch, with 178 acres of hills and trails bordering the Gila National Forest.

When owner and avid birder Myra McCormick died in 1999, she bequeathed the property to the Nature Conservancy, as long as the conservancy promised to keep it as lodging.

The conservancy agreed to that, and in March, after a renovation and upgrade, the Bear Mountain Lodge reopened as a bed and breakfast with a resident naturalist. In this corner of southwestern New Mexico, the tree huggers are now the innkeepers.

Bear Mountain Lodge is in good company. The Nature Conservancy, a nonprofit organization founded in 1951 and dedicated to the preservation of plants, animals and land, now has 10 lodgings around the United States.

And it isn't the only conservation group to tiptoe into the lodging trade. Three of the world's largest conservation groups -- the Nature Conservancy, the Audubon Society and the Sierra Club -- run various forms of lodging operations, which bring members closer to the natural world and can bring in revenue, too. But in some environmental circles, the idea is still an issue for debate.

The National Audubon Society, which started its first summer ecology camp in 1936 on Hog Island, Maine, now has six camps open or under renovation, and more may be in the offing, says Audubon spokesman John Bianchi.

The Sierra Club has been welcoming members and guests to its Clair Tappaan Lodge at Donner Pass in California's Sierra Nevada Mountains -- if they perform mandatory chores for a half-hour every day -- since volunteers built the place in 1934.

The Sierra Club, with about 700,000 members, owns and operates a handful of other lodges and wilderness huts around California, but Dennis O'Connor, operations manager of the club's outings program, doesn't expect a lodging expansion soon.

"We've decided to stay away from that, for the same reason we decided not to get into the outfitting business on the Colorado River," O'Connor says. Large-scale inn-keeping and outfitting don't quite fit with the organization's core mission of wilderness preservation and appreciation, he says.

Maintaining standards

When conservation groups and consumers start facing the nuts and bolts of the lodgings business, interesting questions can arise.

"People do say, 'Why is the Nature Conservancy in the bed and breakfast business?' " says Rachel Maurer, assistant director for marketing and public relations at the group's New Mexico chapter.

Maura Gonsior, manager of the Bear Mountain Lodge, says that early signs have been encouraging: Occupancy is running about 70 percent, which she didn't expect for at least a couple of years. But she acknowledges that being part of the conservancy makes her job vastly different from her former position at a bed and breakfast in Silver City.

Gonsior has been questioned by more than one guest about the just-planted and well-watered grass in the lodge's handsome new landscaping, she says. Gonsior's answer: It's buffalo grass, a native plant, and once established, it requires minimal water.

"We probably won't even mow it," she says.

Then there are those handsome Adirondack chairs. Is there an oppressive logging practice in their history? Maurer says no. The chairs were made by a local craftsman from small-diameter trees felled during a reforestation project at Gila National Forest.

What about children?

Among the conservancy's 1 million U.S. members are quiet birders and unquiet families, two groups that don't always blend well. (The Audubon Society, facing the same quandary with that first Hog Island camp, banned children. Now the society runs some programs that exclude children and some that are tailored for them.)

The kid compromise at Bear Mountain Lodge: Children who are younger than 10 aren't invited. For more information about the lodge, call 877-620-2327.

Plenty of choices

Here's a look at overnight lodging options offered by the Nature Conservancy, National Audubon Society and Sierra Club. (Each group also runs tour programs. More information is available from the organizations.)

The Nature Conservancy (800-628-6860; www.tnc.org) has a lodging portfolio that includes ranches in west central Montana and southern Colorado, tent cabins in Wyoming's Bighorn Mountains, lodges in New Mexico and Virginia, and a Pennsylvania mountain inn.

The Blue Berry Mountain Inn (570-646-7144) in Blakeslee, Pa., is located in the Pocono Mountains. In 1992, Grace Hydrusko, owner of the inn, donated some 335 acres adjacent to the Nature Conservancy's 2,200-acre Thomas Darling Nature Preserve. Hydrusko maintains her six-room bed and breakfast nearby. Rooms offer "beautiful views of nature, with trails leaving right from the back door," according to the conservancy's Web site.

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