By Peter Moore
It’s a busy time, but that’s not new news. To begin, some background, for this is how my mind works. It starts with words that have definitions that develop principles that then give meaning to direct experience.
I have focused recently on 3 “e” words, all related, having distinct meanings. “Efficiency” is the first one. We have to be efficient just to get through this difficult situation we’re in. To me it means using the least inputs (resources—money, time, labor, emotional turmoil, etc.) to derive the most outputs. Efficiency is a driving force here at BHS these days, and not just for me. It enters into all our planning and implementation.
The second word is “effective”. Getting stuff done. But not just anything done, because we have to be careful about our outcomes. That leads to the third word, “efficacy”. Efficacy is the ability to produce an intended result, i.e. getting the right stuff done.
Efficiency, Effectiveness, Efficacy. I’m measuring my own outputs related to work here based on these metrics. We need to get the right stuff done, in the least costly ways. As usual, we are undercapitalized to do all the things we need to do here. To survive this extended Covid closure and disastrous fire, we have to get it right the first time as we go forward.
There is another word, this one starts with “a” for “ambiguity”. There are so many dependencies outside of our control that, though we make projections, predictions and plans, we don’t know what will actually happen. For instance, we fully intend to have Breitenbush’s ‘Soft Reopening’ next month, starting May 28. What this means to me is that we’ll be open to the public on that day and we’ll host as many as 100+ guests on property any day during the ensuing summer. Those guests will camp, in tents we provide or their own tents, or they may stay in their personal vehicles. We will also host day use visitors everyday. There won’t be served meals but there will be many soaking opportunities for these guests. Breitenbush’s financial projections are based on these numbers in this scenario.
Will this come to pass? Not sure. There are many unknowns including our own readiness on property. At this moment we are nearing completion of tree cutting and stump removal, also ash and debris removal. We have laid out where our new tent structures will be sited. We plan to construct 20 geo-heated slabs with a big tent (14’X16’) on each, as well as offer another 20 tenting spots for BYO tents, plus a dozen PV sites for the Van Life crowd. All of these camping options surround Strawberry Meadow, an area now more than twice the size it was prior to the fire. Fire swept through the Middle Path area and most of those trees have been taken down, opening up a massive meadow area. This Strawberry Meadow area is where guests will be staying while we begin the multi-year project of replacing the overnight guest cabins, all of which burned down last September. We also have to replace our shop buildings, the Well 4 pumphouse, the meadow pools utility building, and a number of other structures. And this doesn’t even touch the lost Sanctuary and Healing Arts center, nor those staff cabins lost in the fire. So much to do.
Preparing the edges of Strawberry Meadow for tenting is the central focus of our prep work prior to Soft Reopening this year. Meanwhile we’re just now finishing the final touches on the first phase of footbridge repairs, but have much more to do on that project later this year when we take up all the treds and replace the infrastructure (domestic water pipes, geo, etc.) under them. Meanwhile we are zeroing in on final engineering of the geo heating supply/return lines that will supply heat to the new structures we will soon be building. We also are near to having engineering for the mineral water supply/returns down near Well 4 where we plan to add 20 tubs for soaking in the development we call Labyrinth Arc.
There are other questions pinned to Soft Opening like, will the road be adequately open? We’re negotiating with the US Forest Service over that question. They plan to have work crews on Highway 46 for months into the sunny weather—replacing burned down safety guardrails and damaged culverts, ‘rock scaling’ (working on the fractured rock cutbanks along the roadway) to remove giant boulders that will likely cascade onto the road surface endangering vehicles, taking down more hazard trees, etc. The gate across the road at Detroit, the small town 10 miles away, will still be there and we are negotiating our ability to get 100+ guests through it each day without having to manage traffic flow with a full-time worker at that location, … Etc. It’s all a puzzle at this point, and any one of these things might limit the flow of people to Breitenbush.
So the exact meaning of opening on May 28 remains elusive, hence ambiguous. Nevertheless, our soft reopening is set for May 28, and we’re going for it. If we cannot do the fully intended thing, we’ll do something else. It may become a softer opening than our plan, in which case we’ll have to adjust expectations and financial projections, with associated downline effects. In any case, we’ll make it.
Meanwhile a lot is changing inside the structure of the Co-op. We have done away with minimum hours and unpaid vacation, and are working 40 hour work weeks. This includes all of us—me, other administrative staff, workers who build, program, maintain and clean things—everybody. Simply put, these changes make us capable of more efficient labor planning. All that labor happens inside of three departments instead of numerous individual teams, as before. These departments are Facilities, Guest Experience and Administration. Descriptions follow.
The Facilities Dep’t is in charge of all capital improvement projects (CIP), which is huge because not only did the fire burn down 60 buildings, it fried all utility lines (electricity, water, septic, geo, comms) connecting to those structures, scrambling much the electro-mechanical brains of the campus. So CIP isn’t just about new buildings, it’s about repairing/replacing a vast network of these mostly underground utilities. It is a very big commitment to plan, engineer, permit and then install and build all of this infrastructure, not to mention having these projects come in on time and on budget. And on top of all that, the Facilities Dep’t has its other half, the daily operations, which include maintenance, systems, grounds, information services, and non-CIP projects. Ultimately the labor of all workers in the Facilities Dep’t goes to the highest priority, sometimes in operations, sometimes in CIP. But everybody works together doing what is needed.
The Guest Experience Department does just what the title suggests. It deals with the experience a guest has, from the look, feel and information available on the BHS website, to online registration, to onboarding guests once they arrive on property, to their experience of accommodations and programs, to the food and beverage services here, to bathing, to gathering data from guests after their visit about how it all went—all of it. We are planning to hire a Guest Experience Director (GXD) who has deep experience in these critical technical and service aspects of the Department. In terms of the guest experience this year, we will not be serving meals; people will bring and prepare their own food at their campsites. For hot springs access, guests will make their way to Main Camp on the trail behind the Office building, and down to the Meadow or the Spiral Tubs and Labyrinth Arc. We plan to add a bathroom building up in the Strawberry Meadow area, also one near the Spirals soaking area. Our plan is to not limit Day Use, it can be whatever it grows to be. There will be no conferences or workshops this year. The East Wing of the Lodge will be converted from a dining room into a store with tea service and a small stage for live performance. Covid protocols will conform to CDC guidelines, which is currently to mask up and maintain social distance, regardless of whether you’re vaccinated or not. Ultimately we hope to offer dining to our guests again in 2022, and also begin to host workshops and events again. But for now, this much more simple version is what we can do. And even this stripped down version of Breitenbush services is a heavy lift as we must manage our tubs, systems, cleaning and so on with very few staff and careful management of finance. Not to mention, concurrently conduct our CIP work at the same time as hosting guests. As I said at the outset, we have to work with efficiency, effectiveness and efficacy.
The Administration Dep’t does what it always has done, manage finances and bookkeeping, do all personnel related work, deal with insurance and legal issues, etc.
Right now, there are about 20 people, mostly onland, handling all of the above responsibilities. The current Breitenbush co-op is being formed by, and conforming to, the changed circumstances we find ourselves in. The co-op will grow in time as we add in more workers to do more necessary things, all the while balancing the budget and managing the cash burn rate.
The environmental stewardship requirement that was passed last year has been brought into sharp focus by the fact that a majority of the many thousands of trees and other flora on property was seared by fire. Fortunately (in one way anyway), that conflagration was driven by a high intensity wind event with two outcomes: 1) the fire was moving so fast that it didn’t have time to severely burn/sterilize the soil; and 2) the wind-driven fire created a mosaic effect on the landscape leaving pockets of trees and structures unburnt while consuming other areas. In those areas where the land has been denuded we plan to put in a non-perennial cover crop this spring, then in the fall plant a seed combination of grasses and wildflowers specifically designed for the post-fire environment. This, in combination with a massive replanting of native tree species over the next couple of years.
About the trees: There has been locally expressed concern about the cutting of trees on Breitenbush land since the fire, so let’s talk about stewardship in this extreme situation. A working definition of forest stewardship/management is that it has to meet the needs of the current generation while not detracting from or degrading the needs of future generations. Strictly speaking, forest stewardship is the management of the vegetation, which includes young and old trees, shrubs and the herbaceous plants. A more holistic forest stewardship commitment is based on conservation principles that ensure protection of not just trees but all forest resources including wildlife, soil, water, recreational opportunities and natural beauty. True forest stewards actively manage their land on a long-term basis by managing goals and objectives that are based on multiple resources, are economically viable and conserve natural resources. In Breitenbush’s case, we have to manage for human risks as well because we are a commercial operation. And to the point: thousands of trees were burned. Many of them had their roots and/or cambium layers burned through, and when we see significantly burned roots, even if it has a green top, or the cambium layer that has been laid bare and burned through, if that tree has a potential target of tent sites, walking or driving routes, the parking lots or structures, we’re taking those trees down. This adds up to hundreds of trees. This activity has been painful to do, to listen to, or witness. We’re trying to be as conscious about this taking down of trees as we can, balancing it with awareness that we cannot allow known hazards in a place that often hosts up to 200 people a day, including staff and guests.
Speaking for myself as a limited human being with a limited lifetime, I know I will never again see Breitenbush as I have witnessed it since I came on land more than 43 years ago. But I also know that the duration of my limited lifespan is almost inconsequentially small when compared to the life cycles of the forest ecosystem. I know that beyond my lifetime the trees will grow again and other life forms will proliferate. The efforts we make now will assist that natural process of regeneration. And BHS will once again be a forested paradise. No question about it. And, ironically, it may be visited by consuming fire yet again. We’re all just passing through. So my job, and our job, is to get the best information, best practices and engage those fully now, knowing that the future will do its own thing.
And there is more. One of the things we finished last week was to file for an emergency grant from the Oregon Health Authority to protect our drinking water intake. In a post fire environment with so much damage upstream, the river behavior is changing and is predicted to change even more radically over the next 3-5 years. With the grant $$$ we’ll be reinforcing the rockwork at the intake pond so it doesn’t get eroded away. We’re also looking ahead at taking out the dam, which is predicted to change river behavior in difficult ways. We’ve already experienced a damaging flood event 3 months after the fire in December. That eroded a massive amount of the rock embankment that protects the fish diversion so we’ll be reinvesting in that as well. With all these changes in river behavior, we’re exposed to greater liability/less reliability than before.
In terms of donations received since the fire, all of those offerings went into the general fund. Very little of it was earmarked for specific projects. When donor intent was specified, BHS complied happily with donor intent.
On yet a different note, the Breitenbush JEDI Council has been formed and we submitted another grant application, which we won, to connect and make some kind of common cause with a BIPOC organization in our region. We’ve identified one and we’ll be reaching out soon. The grant gives Breitenbush the ability to support them to do something they would wish to do themselves, and for Breitenbush to assist in some measurable and useful way. We are thinking to invite their leadership team to come to Breitenbush, perhaps there would be something that we do together as organizations. Beyond this grant activity, the JEDI Council is looking at ways to make commitments going forward regarding staffing and roles at BHS that would increase the diversity and the comfort of both guests and staff from the BIPOC and LGBTQ+ communities.
On a personal note, I plan to travel to Esalen soon for a week, to study their service models for the kitchen and guests, their reopening models in terms of Covid, and to talk with them about their business practices and see what is applicable to ours. I am really looking forward to that visit. Rob (former BHS Maintenance Team Coordinator) and Katie (former Kitchen team worker extraordinaire) are currently residing at Esalen where Rob was recently hired to supervise their Maintenance Department. It will be so good to see some former Breitenbush people again.
To conclude, we are making commitments to create the best possible future for Breitenbush in terms of service to guests, rebuilding and refreshing the co-op, and taking care of the land and the built environment. The Breitenbush Community remakes itself in these commitments.