Skinning at Snow King

Skiers hike up Snow King past children sledding down the tubing hill last week. With the announcement of community spread of the coronavirus, Teton County residents are encouraged to maintain proper social distancing in order to keep infection rates in check.

With COVID-19-related restrictions closing down national parks, the Bridger-Teton National Forest is now more than ever prized by cooped-up Jackson Hole residents needing fresh air and a stretch of the legs.

Bridger-Teton supervisor Tricia O’Connor isn’t keen to close any of the 3.4 million acres she administers, but she has also put the public on notice that it must behave responsibly and healthfully.

“We’d like to keep the forest open,” O’Connor said. “If we can manage this well, we won’t need to do any closures.”

But the valley’s two most popular hikeable ski areas — Snow King and Teton Pass — have been primary areas of public health concern, she said.

“People have been having parties at the top of Snow King,” O’Connor said. “And we’ve heard of get-togethers with beer after a ski on the Pass.

“That’s the kind of thing that’s going to be really hard for our county health department,” she said. “They may say, ‘We need to do something that precludes people from doing that,’ and I don’t want to have to” close them.

Besides being too close to each other, some skiers are also being disrespectful of the resource. O’Connor has heard reports of beer cans strewn along the Snow King skin track, and her husband witnessed the same at Cache Creek.

“And it’s not like there’s a lot of out-of-towners here now,” O’Connor said.

Bridger-Teton officials encourage residents to recreate responsibly by exploring less popular areas, maintaining 6 feet of distance from others, making conservative decisions and recreating locally.

“Now is not the time to be taking risks that increase the chance of injury,” forest officials said in a press release. “Search and rescue operational capacity is limited due to COVID-19.”

Unlike the national parks, which are big tourism drivers, the national forests covering much of the West’s high country have generally stayed open as the coronavirus pandemic has unfolded domestically. But there have been exceptions, O’Connor pointed out. Trailheads on national forests like Idaho’s Payette closed early because snowmobile traffic was excessive, and attractions that tend to make people congregate, such as hot springs, have been closed on other forests.

“Typically, we don’t close off an entire national forest,” O’Connor said. “But we could do that.”

Locally, disrespect of social distancing guidelines and abuse of the resource appears to be the work of a few bad actors.

“When I’ve been out, people are being good and friendly, but keeping their distance,” O’Connor said. “If we can just keep that up, we’ll be good.”

Contact Mike Koshmrl at 732-7067 or env@jhnewsandguide.com.

Mike has reported on the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem's wildlife, wildlands and the agencies that manage them since 2012. A native Minnesotan, he arrived in the West to study environmental journalism at the University of Colorado.

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