Are Your Ready for the Ultimate Off-Grid Vacation?
By Wendy Becktold, SIERRA Magazine
Have you ever booked a vacation-rental property that promises blissful solitude, only to show up at your mountain hamlet and realize that the online photos left out the traffic-jammed road or the nine other cabins clustered nearby?
What to do if, when you want to get away, you really want to get away?
FreeHouse is here to help. The website, which launched last June, lists off-the-grid vacation properties where travelers can really unplug. Founders Sarah and Jason Stillman got the idea for FreeHouse while (where else?) on vacation—actually, over the course of many vacations.
Jason was inspired by his experiences cross-country skiing in the Colorado Rocky Mountains, where he would stay in 10th Mountain Division Huts, a system of rustic backcountry cabins. "They have woodstoves. They have solar panels. They usually don't have running water," he said. "The whole point is to get out there in the wilderness."
Another source of inspiration for the couple was Sarah's father's off-the-grid property on the east cape of Baja, where the couple eventually got married. Their trips to that isolated location got them thinking about how great it would be to have a resource for finding similar spots.
"Off the grid" doesn't mean that a property lacks electricity, just that "there is no way to extend the external infrastructure feed to those areas," Jason explained. "We are giving people the confidence that if they book through us, they are going to a place that's truly remote."
Most of the properties operate with solar power, though a few use wind or hydro power. Many of them also rely on wells or rainwater. "A guy in Santa Fe took us through his whole setup for rainwater collection," Sarah said. "It's a pretty cool educational experience, especially for people who are thinking about implementing one of those systems at home."
But aren't these properties already available on better-known booking sites?
The problem, Sarah and Jason say, is that other online services don't have the best filters for these types of searches.
"Needle in a haystack," Rosellen Sell, who has booked places through FreeHouse, says about trying to find off-the-grid properties on websites like Airbnb and VRBO. She and her elderly mother stayed at secluded locations outside of Santa Fe, New Mexico and Fort Lupton, Colorado, while on a road trip. "My mom isn't going to go backpacking, so to get her out there and sit on the porch and look at the stars—yet have a house and a warm bed—that was a really nice experience."
FreeHouse doesn't just connect travelers to the right vacation rental—it also connects property owners to the right kind of traveler. After all, a composting toilet may not factor into everyone's idea of a dream vacation, not to mention being asked to conserve water and other resources.
"Sometimes people end up at off-the-grid places who really shouldn't," Jason said. "A lot of our property owners mention that because of the unique nature of their property, they don't want to put it on Airbnb." With FreeHouse, everyone knows what they are in for.
Not that the properties are devoid of luxury. The website includes a range of options from which users can pick and choose. "The majority of our places are pretty nice in terms of having all the comforts of home," Jason said.
For now, FreeHouse only lists about 50 properties, around 35 of which are in Colorado, where the couple lives. A smattering of properties in New Mexico, Florida and Baja make up the rest. But vacation rentals in North Carolina, the Yucatán and Nicaragua are soon to follow. "We are focusing on North America for the time being, but if properties elsewhere reach out to us, we add them," Sarah said. Ultimately, the couple hopes to list off-the-grid properties all over the world.
Sell has no doubts about whether she'll use the service again for her next trip. "It's very comforting to have these destinations where I can be true to the values I adhere to in my everyday life while also vacationing."
Reposted with permission from our media associate SIERRA Magazine.
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By D. André Green II
One of nature's epic events is underway: Monarch butterflies' fall migration. Departing from all across the United States and Canada, the butterflies travel up to 2,500 miles to cluster at the same locations in Mexico or along the Pacific Coast where their great-grandparents spent the previous winter.
Millions of People Care About Monarchs<p>I will never forget the sights and sounds the first time I visited monarchs' overwintering sites in Mexico. Our guide pointed in the distance to what looked like hanging branches covered with dead leaves. But then I saw the leaves flash orange every so often, revealing what were actually thousands of tightly packed butterflies. The monarchs made their most striking sounds in the Sun, when they burst from the trees in massive fluttering plumes or landed on the ground in the tussle of mating.</p><p>Decades of educational outreach by teachers, researchers and hobbyists has cultivated a generation of monarch admirers who want to help preserve this phenomenon. This global network has helped restore not only monarchs' summer breeding habitat by planting milkweed, but also general pollinator habitat by planting nectaring flowers across North America.</p><p>Scientists have calculated that restoring the monarch population to a stable level of about 120 million butterflies will require <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/icad.12198" target="_blank">planting 1.6 billion new milkweed stems</a>. And they need them fast. This is too large a target to achieve through grassroots efforts alone. A <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/CCAA.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">new plan</a>, announced in the spring of 2020, is designed to help fill the gap.</p>
Pros and Cons of Regulation<p>The top-down strategy for saving monarchs gained energy in 2014, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service <a href="https://www.fws.gov/southeast/pdf/petition/monarch.pdf" target="_blank">proposed</a> listing them as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. A decision is expected in December 2020.</p><p>Listing a species as endangered or threatened <a href="https://www.fws.gov/endangered/esa-library/pdf/listing.pdf" target="_blank">triggers restrictions</a> on "taking" (hunting, collecting or killing), transporting or selling it, and on activities that negatively affect its habitat. Listing monarchs would impose restrictions on landowners in areas where monarchs are found, over vast swaths of land in the U.S.</p><p>In my opinion, this is not a reason to avoid a listing. However, a "threatened" listing might inadvertently threaten one of the best conservation tools that we have: public education.</p><p>It would severely restrict common practices, such as rearing monarchs in classrooms and back yards, as well as scientific research. Anyone who wants to take monarchs and milkweed for these purposes would have to apply for special permits. But these efforts have had a multigenerational educational impact, and they should be protected. Few public campaigns have been more successful at raising awareness of conservation issues.</p>
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="91165203d4ec0efc30e4632a00fdf57d"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/KilPRvjbMrA?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
The Rescue Attempt<p>To preempt the need for this kind of regulation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approved a <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/pdfs/Monarch%20CCAA-CCA%20Public%20Comment%20Documents/Monarch-Nationwide_CCAA-CCA_Draft.pdf" target="_blank">Nationwide Candidate Conservation Agreement for Monarch Butterflies</a>. Under this plan, "rights-of-way" landowners – energy and transportation companies and private owners – commit to restoring and creating millions of acres of pollinator habitat that have been decimated by land development and herbicide use in the past half-century.</p><p>The agreement was spearheaded by the <a href="http://rightofway.erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank">Rights-of-Way Habitat Working Group</a>, a collaboration between the University of Illinois Chicago's <a href="https://erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Energy Resources Center</a>, the Fish and Wildlife Service and over 40 organizations from the energy and transportation sectors. These sectors control "rights-of-way" corridors such as lands near power lines, oil pipelines, railroad tracks and interstates, all valuable to monarch habitat restoration.</p><p>Under the plan, partners voluntarily agree to commit a percentage of their land to host protected monarch habitat. In exchange, general operations on their land that might directly harm monarchs or destroy milkweed will not be subject to the enhanced regulation of the Endangered Species Act – protection that would last for 25 years if monarchs are listed as threatened. The agreement is expected to create up to 2.3 million acres of new protected habitat, which ideally would avoid the need for a "threatened" listing.</p>
A Model for Collaboration<p>This agreement could be one of the few specific interventions that is big enough to allow researchers to quantify its impact on the size of the monarch population. Even if the agreement produces only 20% of its 2.3 million acre goal, this would still yield nearly half a million acres of new protected habitat. This would provide a powerful test of the role of declining breeding and nectaring habitat compared to other challenges to monarchs, such as climate change or pollution.</p><p>Scientists hope that data from this agreement will be made publicly available, like projects in the <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/MCD.html" target="_blank">Monarch Conservation Database</a>, which has tracked smaller on-the-ground conservation efforts since 2014. With this information we can continue to develop powerful new models with better accuracy for determining how different habitat factors, such as the number of milkweed stems or nectaring flowers on a landscape scale, affect the monarch population.</p><p>North America's monarch butterfly migration is one of the most awe-inspiring feats in the natural world. If this rescue plan succeeds, it could become a model for bridging different interests to achieve a common conservation goal.</p>
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