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 teenagers. 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 nine lodgings around the U.S. 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 revenues 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, said Audubon spokesman John Bianchi.
The Sierra Club has been welcoming members and guests to its Clair Tappaan Lodge at Donner Pass--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 said. Large-scale inn keeping and outfitting don't quite fit with the organization's core mission of wilderness preservation and appreciation, he said.
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?"' said 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%, 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 said. Gonsior's answer: It's buffalo grass, a native plant, and once established, it requires minimal water.
"We probably won't even mow it," Gonsior 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 younger than 10 aren't invited. Here's a quick overview of 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, telephone (800) 628-6860, Internet http://www.tnc.org. Its lodging portfolio 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. There are also three spots in Arizona:
The Hart Prairie Preserve near Flagstaff, tel. (520) 774-8892, includes seven solar-powered cabins (three with kitchens) on 245 acres amid aspen groves and elk herds. It's open to guests June 1 to Oct. 31. Rates: $50 to $250 nightly.
Next to the Ramsey Canyon Preserve, a 380-acre site about 85 miles south of Tucson, the Ramsey Canyon Inn, tel. (520) 378-3010, has six rooms (each with private bath) and two housekeeping apartments. Children under 16 are accepted at the apartments but not the inn. Rates: $121 to $145 (breakfast included) at the inn, $145 to $158 at the apartments.
Northeast of Tucson, the Muleshoe Ranch, tel. (520) 586-7072, has five housekeeping units that date to the 19th century. They're due to reopen after renovation in September. Rates: $85 to $125 nightly, or $15 for a rustic cabin. (Bring potable water.)
* The National Audubon Society, tel. (866) 428-3826, http://www.audubon.org. With the reopening of its facilities in Connecticut and Wyoming (closed this year for upgrades and expansion), it will have six camps next summer. The others, in Maine, Minnesota, Vermont and Wisconsin, generally use rustic cabins or dorms. Programs typically last a week and cost $700 to $750 per person.
* The Sierra Club, tel. (415) 977-5500, http://www.sierraclub.org. The club's flagship is the Clair Tappaan Lodge, tel. (530) 426-3632, a 45-minute drive west of Reno. It's open year-round, offering hiking, rock climbing, mountain biking and cross-country skiing. (Rental skis are available on site, and there is downhill skiing nearby.)
The lodge sleeps up to 140 guests, all in bunk beds, which can be found in two-person cubicles and larger group rooms. Meals in the communal dining room are included. Guests bring their own pillows, towels and sleeping bags. Rates: $35 to $46 for adults, depending on the season and membership status. Children are OK.
Other Sierra Club California properties include several cross-country ski huts near Reno and a handful of lodges that sleep 14 to 64 people each. Harwood Lodge is in the San Gabriel Mountains above Pomona. Foster Lodge, a two-cabin property, overlooks the scenery of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park east of San Diego. Information is available through the Sierra Club Internet site.
Christopher Reynolds welcomes suggestions, but he cannot respond to letters and telephone calls. Address comments to Travel Insider, Los Angeles Times, 202 W. 1st St., Los Angeles, CA 90012, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.