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Groomed for future

Methow Trails executive director has organization back on track

James DeSalvo greets cross-country skiers as they set out from the Winthrop trailhead last weekend. (Michael Guilfoil)
James DeSalvo greets cross-country skiers as they set out from the Winthrop trailhead last weekend. (Michael Guilfoil)
Michael Guilfoil Correspondent

WINTHROP, Wash. – Four years ago, Methow Trails – formerly known as Methow Valley Sports Trails Association (MVSTA) – was bogged down in debt and at risk of drastically curtailing maintenance of the nation’s largest Nordic ski area.

Much has changed since then, including new leadership and a new name, and now the nonprofit organization is on track for a record-setting ski season.

James DeSalvo joined MVSTA as a volunteer in 1999, was hired as trail manager in 2008, and promoted to executive director in 2011.

During a recent interview, DeSalvo described the group’s evolution, recent policy changes, and why he’s optimistic about Methow Trails’ future.

S-R: Where did you grow up?

DeSalvo: I was born in Calgary, but my family moved to Issaquah (Washington) when I was 2, and I grew up in the Issaquah/North Bend area.

S-R: What were your interests back then?

DeSalvo: Downhill skiing, running, hockey – anything athletic.

S-R: Did you have a favorite class in high school?

DeSalvo: My biology teacher really inspired me. He got my head out of the classroom and more aware of the natural world.

S-R: Any other major influences?

DeSalvo: My parents played a huge role. They were backcountry skiers, and I can remember building snow caves when I was 4.

S-R: What did you study in college?

DeSalvo: I was at my best outdoors, so I went to the University of Colorado in Boulder and graduated with a double major in biology and snow hydrology.

S-R: Then what?

DeSalvo: I started out as a park ranger in Steamboat Springs, mainly working with ice fishermen and cross-country skiers. I also put in a few ski patrol seasons at Steamboat and Mount Baker. That was followed by 10 years with Outward Bound, working my way up from a field instructor teaching sea kayaking and climbing to regional director of the Pacific schools. We had base camps in Alaska, Oregon, Baja, two in California and one here. That’s what originally brought me to the valley. There are at least 100 retired Outward Bound staff here, all doing great things.

S-R: Why did you leave Outward Bound?

DeSalvo: I had a nice job doing what I loved. But I was traveling a fair amount, and my wife, Tory, and I had the first of our three sons. I asked myself what were my dream jobs here in the valley, and one was to work for MVSTA. So I volunteered for a few years, waiting until the trail manager job opened up. I did that for three years – out on the trails every day, really getting to know the system – and became executive director three years ago.

S-R: What Outward Bound skills transferred to this job?

DeSalvo: The budgeting side – forecasting revenue in a pretty unpredictable industry. For us, of course, the main challenge is weather. We get two-thirds of our revenue in the winter, and 90 percent of that during 14 holiday days. So if the passes are closed or it’s hard to get here from Spokane, or we don’t have enough snow those 14 days, it’s a real hit to our budget. With Outward Bound, students were our snow – our revenue source, along with fundraising.

S-R: Did the recession have an impact?

DeSalvo: Definitely – on both the organization and the entire valley – because it coincided with some poor winter weather.

S-R: What’s your annual budget?

DeSalvo: Around $1 million.

S-R: Has the trail system ever been in financial jeopardy?

DeSalvo: Yes. Three or four years ago we had increasing expenses, decreasing revenue, substantial debt, and people were scared. Just because we’d been here more than 30 years didn’t guarantee we’d survive. So our board took a hard look at how we could become more financially stable. What got us into trouble was living season to season, so we started taking a longer view with our financial planning.

S-R: What has changed?

DeSalvo: We’re building a bit of a cushion through reserve funds, so we’re less vulnerable to unanticipated financial dips. That allows us to purchase industry-leading equipment regardless of the sort of season we have.

S-R: Anything else?

DeSalvo: We’ve found ways to groom smarter, concentrating on runs that have more use and not grooming everything if we know an 8-inch dump is coming. We’ve cut our grooming expenses by 18 percent, yet to the everyday skier it appears like we’re grooming more.

S-R: What shape is the organization in now?

DeSalvo: It’s good. We hope to be debt-free in 10 years.

S-R: Tell me about this year’s rebranding.

DeSalvo: We knew anecdotally that the organization’s initials – MVSTA – were easily mangled, leading to confusion. People could explain where they went and what they did, but not who ran the trails and sold tickets. Now we’re known simply as Methow Trails, which makes it easier for visitors to share their experience when they go back home.

S-R: What are you most proud of?

DeSalvo: Our decision three years ago to quit charging skiers 17 and under. Not only is getting kids outside the right thing to do; those kids are our future. Nordic skiing around the world is declining, but our trajectory of skier days is going up. We hope other ski areas around the country see how our decision has paid off and try it.

S-R: Since you moved here in 1999, how has the organization evolved?

DeSalvo: We’ve gotten better at communicating what we’re doing and why. Part of our mission is to support community vitality, which means helping the local economy. We estimate that for every $1 spent on a trail pass, another $28 is spent in the community. Even if you’re a fit person, an hour or two on the trail is good. What you do the other 22 hours – lodging, eating, shopping, ice skating – makes for a more enjoyable visit and supports local businesses.

S-R: Has your relationship with landowners changed?

DeSalvo: Yes. Twenty years ago, it could be a hard sell trying to persuade property owners to allow us access across their land. Now we’ve reached a tipping point where people are asking us to extend the trail to their property. But we’re maxed out. If we expand the trail, we’re not going to increase revenue.

S-R: Fat-tire bikes are gaining popularity. When did they first show up?

DeSalvo: About five years ago.

S-R: What was the reaction?

DeSalvo: Curiosity and fear – the same reaction as a decade ago, when we started allowing dogs on some trails. But gradually people have accepted them both. We have 30K (18.6 miles) open to dogs, and 20K (12.6 miles) open to fat-tire bikes in the winter, and most people respect those restrictions. This is a small community, so there’s a lot of accountability.

S-R: How has technology affected the trail system?

DeSalvo: This year all of our groomers have GPS trackers, so skiers have access to the same up-to-the-minute information I have. We even offer an app.

S-R: When are the trails busiest?

DeSalvo: During the winter, we have about 51,000 skier days (individual guest visits), and we’re busiest between Christmas and New Year’s. But we estimate twice as many people use the trails during the summer, when they’re free.

S-R: Do you every worry about global warming’s impact on the trail system?

DeSalvo: All the time. It’s not practical for us to manufacture snow, but we could take better advantage of our higher-elevation trails.

S-R: What do you like most about your job?

DeSalvo: It used to be getting out on the trails almost every day. But now that I have more on my plate, I enjoy educating people about the significant role we play in the community.

S-R: What’s your work schedule during winter?

DeSalvo: From mid-December until April 1, I’m pretty much on every day.

S-R: When do you catch your breath?

DeSalvo: When it rains.

This interview has been edited and condensed. Freelance writer Michael Guilfoil can be reached via email at mguilfoil@comcast.net.
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