JHMR backcountry guided skiing permit

The area shaded in salmon is available to Jackson Hole Mountain Resort for guided backcountry skiing. The Bridger-Teton National Forest — which permits the ski area — is considering allowing the resort to double its guided backcountry skier days in this zone.

A proposal to double the number of backcountry skiers Jackson Hole Mountain Resort can guide in the Rock Springs and Jensen Canyon areas was reinitiated last week, but then pulled back by federal land managers.

The Bridger-Teton National Forest circulated a 5-page “scoping document” last week outlining the ski resort’s proposal, which would increase guided skier days permitted from 1,200 annually to 2,400. The proposal was slated for minimal analysis as a categorical exclusion to the National Environmental Policy Act.

Individuals and organizations who have commented on the proposal in the past were told they had seven more days to weigh in, but then the document disappeared from the Bridger-Teton’s website.

“We’ll start over again in the New Year,” forest spokeswoman Mary Cernicek said. “There was some confusion over whether or not it’s a categorical exclusion or an environmental assessment. We need clarity, so we’ll come out with a clear scoping letter.”

An environmental assessment prompts a more substantive analysis than a categorial exclusion under federal law.

The plans to double guided backcountry skiing on 2,146 acres of terrain south and west of resort boundaries generated a good deal of public interest when first proposed in February.

Some 120 people weighed in, according to the updated and then removed planning document. The most common gripes and worries were how such an increase in guided skiers could create more competition for backcountry powder and that the added activity could further threaten the Teton’s imperiled bighorn sheep herd, which is faring especially poor in the southern portion of the range. Research in the Tetons has shown that bighorns do not adjust to even infrequent backcountry skiing excursions, and that they tend to abandon their windswept, high-elevation habitat when confronted with skiers.

Cernicek emphasized that the temporary withdrawal of the proposal had nothing to do with bighorn sheep.

When the plans were first released early in the year, a multi-agency working group of local land and wildlife managers were partway through a public process geared toward averting a collapse of the Tetons’ bighorns. To the north in Grand Teton National Park, officials are taking drastic steps to aid that effort and are eradicating nonnative mountain goats in order to help the native sheep that share some of the same habitat.

Currently, guided skiing accounts for a small portion — approximately 7 to 10% — of the backcountry activity in the resort’s out-of-bounds permitted area.

For over a decade, Jackson Hole Mountain Resort guides have exhausted all 1,200 skier-days they were allowed, typically by February or early March. Once exhausted, the national forest allowed the resort to use “pool days” left over from a sparsely used High Mountain Heli Skiing permit. In effect, little would be changing.

“The proposed level of use by JHMR guides has been occurring since 2012,” the Bridger-Teton’s withdrawn scoping document said.

Before the proposal was pulled back, the amended guided skiing permit would have been effective for the 2020/2021 ski season. The proposal did not materially change between February and when it was re-released last week. People who weighed in will be heard.

“We will honor any of the previous scoping comments,” Cernicek said. “However, when we initiate formal scoping on this project in the future, people are welcome to comment again or with additional perspectives.”

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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