Cabins for rent: Management of two historic guard stations in the San Juan forest is set to go to a concessionaire


The Aspen Guard Station in 2006, when it served as home base for an artist-in-residence program run by the San Juan National Forest. The building was constructed in 1933 by Civilian Conservation Corps craftsmen using the scribed-log method, which overlaps custom-notched logs at the corner, eliminating the need for chinking between logs. Photo by Sonja Horoshko.

For 16 years the U.S. Forest Service operated an artist-in-residence program at the Aspen Guard Station in the San Juan National Forest, providing 118 artists with an opportunity to stay in the rustic cabin, then interpret their experience and share it with the public.

But the program quietly disappeared in 2011 due to reductions in operating funds and staffing shortages at the U.S. Forest Service Dolores District offices.

Now, forest officials are planning to let a concessionaire begin renting out the station as well as a similar one in the Glade northwest of Dolores.

Pieces of history

The historic Aspen Guard Station, a 1933 cabin built by the Civilian Conservation Corps, is nestled in a meadow surrounded by the largest aspen forest in Colorado accessed on the road to Sharkstooth Trail on Hesperus Peak in the La Plata Mountain Range. It served as a residence for forest rangers and managers for decades.

The artist-in-residency program began when lifestyles and technology made it unnecessary for rangers to live in the cabin full-time.

“It became harder to find seasonal crews willing to stay at such an isolated cabin, especially because there is no electricity, only kerosene lighting in the evenings, no television,” said Ann Bond, public-affairs specialist with the San Juan National Forest. By the 1980s, officials were considering tearing the station down. Instead, Bond created an artist-in-residency program in 1995 that operated until 2011, revitalizing use of the cabin through the work of the artists staying there.

Although the building is equipped with a functioning kitchen and wood stove, a living-dining room, two bedrooms with beds, water and an up-to-date indoor bathroom, there is no electricity. Kerosene lamps mounted on the walls and two sky tubes provide the only supplemental lighting and in the studio room, a converted garage on the back of the original structure.

The residency awards were granted on the basis of a competitive application process juried by a team of volunteer arts professionals and managed by Bond.

No stipend was included in the award, nor reimbursements for travel or per diem. The building was used by the selected artists for two weeks in trade for a contribution of art inspired by the remote location and a requirement that they present a workshop to the local Montezuma County community.

The Aspen Guard Station cabin is one of numerous forest guard stations built in the early half of the 20th century. A similar, even older building located on the Glade in an grassy meadow 24 miles east of Cahone was also affected by budget cuts in the Dolores District.

The white, stick-frame, 1916 Glade bungalow was used as administration housing during the development of the San Juan National Forest. Now one of the oldest USFS administrative holdings, it is valued for the several eras of design and construction it represents, including CCC renovations during the 1930s. It was preserved during 2009-2011 after Forest Service archaeologists assessed its historical value and the issues necessary to save the building.

“The preservation of the building was a beautiful project,” said Julie Coleman, USFS archaeologist.

“The officials were considering tearing it down, but we applied for funding from a combination of government sources and grants to help preserve it and relied on the volunteers. It feels good to see it in that field today.”

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, commonly referred to as the stimulus or the Recovery Act, put $563,000 into historic San Juan Forest building preservation, but Coleman clarified that all of it went to a site at Chimney Rock near Pagosa Springs.

The budget for the Glade preservation project was nearly $100,000, she explained. It came from the Bacon Family Foundation of Grand Junction, Colo., and Colorado State Historical Society funds. The money didn’t cover labor, which was furnished entirely by 16 National Smokejumper Association volunteers. They worked one week every summer for three years to complete critical needs such as repairing rafters, replacing the plywood overlay and cedar shingles. Doors and windows were restored, and the exterior siding was repaired, sanded and painted white.

The building was not preserved for use as an arts residency, but served as temporary quarters for seasonal administrative duties, such as hunting-season management, and for archaeology assessment teams and firefighters while decisions about its future were on hold.

Tightening belts

According to Dolores District Ranger Derek Padilla, the loss of the residency program at the Aspen Guard Station in 2011 was a matter of budget cutbacks as Congress tightened the belt on federal lands agencies.

“The program and the Aspen and Glade guard stations facilities were affected by decreasing federal funding,” Padilla said. By the time he came on duty at the Dolores District in 2010, he said, the staff was at capacity.

“We were unable to oversee the program. We had to make some tough decisions based on the numbers of employees available to coordinate the Aspen Guard Station AIR program. It was getting 100 to 200 applications a year. Someone had to review them for acceptance and coordinate the procedure, inspect the facility, manage the upkeep, make sure it was safe for occupancy. The residency program was not essential for running the forest.”

But arts can be valuable resources to flesh out history, adding nuance and emotion to the story of time and place.

Painter Thomas Moran explored the Yellowstone region with the Hayden expedition during the mid-19th century, when the Western wilderness was a pathless, picturesque landscape. His paintings and drawings, along with images by others such as photographer William Henry Jackson, influenced Congress to establish the national-park system. As a result, Yellowstone became the first national park.

“Many of America’s most treasured Western national parks, monuments and forests would not have been preserved were it not for artists and photographers whose work captures the imagination of citizens and elected officials alike,” Dan Puskar, executive director of the Public Lands Alliance, told the Free Press. The Alliance is a non-profit based in Washington, D.C., that advocates for collaborations between public-private partnerships, increased funding for public lands and better learning opportunities for America’s visitors.

Artist-in-residence programs continue this tradition, Puskar said. “Their work can be the catalyst that encourages someone to visit a public land for the first time. Without the power of art, they may never get exposed to a park or forest’s wildlife, geology or history. It is because AIR programs play this vital role that many nonprofit partners of federal and state public lands support or manage them.”

John Peters-Campbell, a professor of Western art history who has taught in Beijing, China, Fort Lewis College in Durango and the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, told the Free Press that Moran’s 7-by-12-foot oil painting, The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, 1872, depicts a “fanciful rendering of an actual site” downstream from Lower Falls at Yellowstone.

Campbell said he was 12 in 1965 when he visited the canyon for the first time. “The impression it made has never left me and when I saw the enormous painting it shocked me into an obsession with the American West and painters who represented the American landscape. The image of the canyon is one Moran repeated obsessively for the remainder of his career. Unsurprisingly,” he added, “the view in the work of art is an actual place in the park now called ‘Artist’s Point.’”

‘A sense of ownership’

In an effort to nurture that relationship, a plethora of government-sponsored artist-in-residence programs have developed over the last 20 years. Their popularity among professional artists is due in part to the access they gain to subject matter valued by the general public. In turn, the economic value of artists’ portfolios increases with awards for residencies in the park system or forests.

An implicit benefit to the managing entities is the increased awareness of public-land attributes and values resulting from marketing during exhibitions and performances after the residency.

Ed Singer of Gray Mountain on the Navajo Nation, produced large bodies of visual art that have been on display in a multitude of gallery and museum exhibits since his 2009 residency at the Aspen Guard Station.

Juantio Becenti of Farmington, N.M., has composed several string quartets, elegies to the mountain that have premiered in major venues in New York City as a result of the influence of his residency.

“It’s been seven years since my residency,” recalled poet/photographer Jan Duda Dixon, “yet I can still remember the fragrance of fallen leaves and the pines outside the cabin door. What a sweet sanctuary. I especially valued the endless hours without interruption to write, a settling into an unbounded spaciousness where I felt free to be creative.”

The Aspen residency program was one of the first in Southwest Colorado and popular with artists across the country.

“They promote a more thoughtful and informed kind of land use,” said Peters- Campbell, one of six arts professionals who served on the jury selection process for the Aspen residencies. “It was a very successful arts program that advanced the awareness of public-lands management and value far beyond the aesthetic, in that they give public lands back to the public, enriched and vivified, and provide a sense of ownership for a public which may or may not be able to visit them.”

A shift in focus

During the past five years, plans for the two buildings shifted toward using non-governmental concessionaires to develop a profitable public cabin-rental program at both sites.

This direction, as well as the development of a cabin-rental prospectus for the two buildings, has been on hold while the Forest Service sought to fill vacant seats on the Resource Advisory Council, a group of local citizens that advises the agency on decisions concerning projects and funding issues. A March 2016 posting on the San Juan Forest Service website describes the request for new RAC members and the interests they must be qualified to represent. The list includes organized labor or non-timber forest products, harvester groups, outdoor recreation, OHV use, commercial recreation, energy and mineral development, timber industry, grazing and other permit holders, environmental groups, archaeology and history, wild horse and burro interests, hunting, local elected officials, American Indian tribes, and school officials.

There is no category representing the arts except where they could fit in the “affected public at-large.”

Moving forward

Progress on the cabin rental program was delayed by the RAC vetting process, Coleman explained, “but it finally finished in mid-October. Now we can move forward with decisions on the building.”

Tom Rice, recreation program manager with the Dolores District, hopes that the cabin-rental prospectus for the two sites will be finished over the winter. “We expect the prospectus to go out this spring [2017]. Any interested private commercial or non-profit business can apply if they are able to handle operations, maintenance, insurance, marketing, fee collections, ground inspection and maintenance, water systems and even dealing with problem guests. There’s a lot to the management of such a program.”

Agency officials are already aware of two applicants. They have worked with both of them and know they are qualified.

The Mancos-based Jersey Jim Foundation, which raised funds for the Jersey Jim Fire Lookout Tower northeast of Mancos about a mile from the Aspen Guard Station, developed the rental program there and handles all the reservations, operations and maintenance for the tower.

Rocky Mountain Recreation Company, a private company based in California, provides management services to campgrounds, marinas, day-use areas and other recreation sites for federal, state and local agencies. Services include maintenance and management of marinas, campgrounds, water recreation facilities, fast-food service, fuel docks, boat rentals, bait-and-tackle stores and the sale of sundry items and services. It operates all of the developed Colorado campgrounds in the Pike and San Isabel Forests and the San Juan National Forest.

The cabin-rental program would transfer the work load to somebody else, Rice said. In addition, “since Mesa Verde, Mancos State Park and Canyonlands have developed their residency programs, the interest in the Aspen Guard Station has dropped off. That deep bench of artists in the past just isn’t there today. It has not been important to have the program.”

Rice said no artist-residency program was included in the prospectus for the concessionaire. “We are leaving the business of the cabin-rental program to the concessionaire because we are basically not going to tell them how to operate it. The commercial operator has to make money, too.”

Padilla added that there are no plans to include an artist-residency program at either site. “We are definitely not giving that any consideration, even though it does have some benefit. We are making an effort to be fiscally responsible.” He explained that the district will either “utilize the cabin-rental concessionaire or physically remove [the buildings].”

Mixed-use programs

But some progressive mixed-use approaches to forest cabin programs are in the works elsewhere in the USFS. Chris Fabbio, director of the artist-in-residency program at the Angeles National Forest in California, told the Free Press that their mixed-use program will be operational soon.

“We are currently working on restoring a couple cabins in the forest. The plan includes cabin rental during ski season, artist-in residency in summer, and outdoor education other times. The restoration process will take a couple years as funds become available, so there’s nothing available yet.”

Salt Lake City psychotherapist and poet Renee Podunovich said there should be balanced use in such places as the San Juan Forest’s guard stations. “Offer one week a month for artists and rent the cabin the other times,” she suggested.

Podunovich said her own stay in the Aspen cabin “was spent finishing the manuscript for my second book of poems and falling into a timeless rhythm with the natural world, wild horses, mountain arnica, trails leading through new and old-growth aspens, star-watching and drinking tea in the cabin when it rained.”

The Dolores District office hopes to have the concessionaire in place and cabins available for rent in summer 2017.

From November 2016.