Regulators are looking into claims that a luxury development has been quietly manipulating the banks of the Snake River, though the owner insists he was lawfully protecting his property.
The Snake River Sporting Club has a controversial history of trying to corral the inherently dynamic namesake river it is butted up against about 15 miles south of Jackson. At the center of the latest imbroglio — which public officials are still trying to get a grip on — is an approximately 350-foot “boulder trench” the club built late last year to protect its golf course from an erosion-prone riverbank.
Christopher Swann, founder of Cygnus Capital, which owns the club, told the News&Guide that the boulder-strewn earthen structure was installed about 40 feet inland, but this June a blast of runoff tore through the strip of land, creating the appearance of an unlawful riverside levee.
“All that erosion occurred in two days in June,” Swann said. “It’s a real issue. This is not just about the golf course, it’s about people’s homes as well.”
Below where Swann stood giving the News&Guide a tour Tuesday, blocks of grass-covered earth that were clearly knocked loose this spring were toppled sideways into a dry side channel of the Snake River. The channel did not exist when his firm bought the club six years ago. Since that time the bank here had receded by over 100 feet, he said.
“We didn’t want this to happen,” Swann said. “This was supposed to be the line of last defense, and unfortunately now [the river] is there.”
Swann did not inform Teton County, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers or the Bridger-Teton National Forest before directing an excavator to bury the boulders last winter.
The work was authorized by a 2013 erosion control agreement with county planners, he said, and required no notification or permitting as long as it was kept under a certain size.
“We were told by county officials that under 12,000 [square] feet we do not need a permit, period,” Swann said.
Swann’s impression was he did not need U.S. Forest Service approval because it wasn’t on the bank, nor Army Corps’ permission because it wasn’t in the riparian area.
“It’s a very thin line; I recognize that,” he said. “But the county told us to do it.”
The project was purposely kept out of a cottonwood stand just downstream, for the purpose of not needing the Army Corps’ OK for wetland disturbance.
Mike Happold, director of the Army Corps’ Wyoming regulatory office, confirmed that his agency hasn’t heard from the Sporting Club since 2010. So he couldn’t say if the work was compliant with his agency’s regulations.
“In our office we don’t have any idea of what was actually done out there,” Happold said. “We would have to look at the project to determine all of that. We’re hoping somebody can show us.”
Wild and scenic
Because the Snake River as it runs by the Sporting Club is classified as “scenic” under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, any work up to the high-water mark must past muster with the Bridger-Teton National Forest. Even if initially the rip-rap wall was built off the Snake’s banks on private land, Bridger-Teton Jackson District Ranger Mary Moore said, it still could be subject to restrictions imposed by the Snake River Headwaters Legacy Act.
“Even if that feature was 40 feet off, or wherever it was previously located,” Moore said, “if it was visible, we’d have to analyze it.”
Dave Cernicek, who coordinates Wild and Scenic river issues for the Bridger-Teton, first brought attention to the work happening along the Sporting Club’s riverfront property in July. He noticed construction “happening in a snowstorm” last winter, which made him think it “might be something fishy,” he wrote in an email to a Teton County planner and attorney, the Corps of Engineers and the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality.
“From my end,” Cernicek wrote, “I am seeing more and more activity happening.”
Cernicek reported increased activity at the Snake River Sporting Club, including work below the ordinary high-water line in the streambed.
“This is troubling in a Wild [and] Scenic-designated section of river, or anywhere really,” he wrote, “as I’m wondering if anyone or agency has been a part of reviewing plans or authorizing what is continuing to be bigger and bolder projects.”
Cernicek attached photos of work that concerned him, including the eroded rip-rap wall and earthen fill that blocked a separate side channel of the Snake upstream. He also attached an image of a new bridge over what was described as a side channel of the Snake, though Swann’s view is that the 3-year-old bridge crosses a man-made diversion that’s not covered by the Wild and Scenic rules.
The Bridger-Teton, which has not completed a site visit of the Sporting Club’s construction, did not authorize Cernicek to speak with the News&Guide.
Teton County’s staff were equally tight-lipped, pending their own site visit and review. Senior planner Hamilton Smith said he had no comment. Tyler Sinclair, the town and county’s joint planning director, did not return phone calls by press time.
Swann said Tuesday he made plans to show Teton County staff the erosion control work later this week.
Debate over the environmental record of the Snake River Sporting Club, formerly the Canyon Club, started before the county authorized the development of the River Bend Ranch in 2002. The public and advocacy groups pushed back hard, citing worries about nesting bald eagles — then protected by the Endangered Species Act — and the wild character of the Snake River, years before it was federally protected. The Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance tried, and failed, to halt the project with a lawsuit.
The Teton Conservation District wrote in a letter before the project’s approval that it “clearly infringes on the Snake River” and will require “extensive bank engineering,” according to News&Guide archives.
The district worried that three golf holes and three residential lots would be in the floodplain, at risk of seasonal flooding.
Snake River scenic raft guide Jim Stanford was in the thick of the debate, covering it during his tenure as a reporter for the Jackson Hole News and, later, the News&Guide, before being elected to the Jackson Town Council.
“It was a terrible idea to build this development in an area prone to landslides and flooding,” Stanford said Tuesday. “It was shoehorned between the steep hillside and the wild, meandering Snake River.”
Stanford floated by the Sporting Club last week and did not notice the rip-rap that’s become exposed along the bank by erosion. A blocked Snake River braid, however, did catch his eye upstream, near an occasional channel that the Canyon Club’s developers referred to as “Trout Creek.”
“There is now clearly what appears to be an earthen levee blocking a channel that has been navigable several times in the last 15 years,” Stanford said.
In the exact same place, he said, the Army Corps forced the Canyon Club to remove a levee that was built illegally.
Swann said he had nothing to do with the diversion.
“I want to be very clear,” he said, “we’ve never done anything out in the river. Never, ever, ever.”
The Snake River Sporting Club’s current head man took issue with being faulted for decisions made by the past ownership, led by Dick Edgcomb.
“Those are things that are hard for me to deal with,” Swann said. “I appreciate that they did things that made people angry, but they can’t persecute us for things that they did.”
Contact Mike Koshmrl at 732-7067, firstname.lastname@example.org or @JHNGenviro.