The National Park Service has no money set aside for paving Meadow Road, nor does the task sit high on Grand Teton National Park’s to-do list, but a proposal is moving forward anyway.
“Paving Meadow Road is not a priority for us,” park spokeswoman Denise Germann said. “There is no funding available if the decision is made to pave the road at this time.”
Yet park officials are devoting staff time and resources to preparing a federal planning document assessing the environmental effects of paving — a necessary step to getting the project done. That analysis is now in the “scoping” stage, preceding an environmental assessment, and comments are due Thursday.
Meadow Road is an east-west neighborhood road that branches off the highway between Moose and Jackson Hole Airport. It cuts for a mile through an expanse of park sagebrush before switchbacking down off the bench into the Snake River floodplain. The century-old gravel road once ended at the long-gone Gray Ranch.
A 70-lot subdivision — home to dozens of longtime Jackson Hole residents, including some famous ones — has replaced the ranch. Among the residents who hang their hats at homes along the graveled streets branching off Meadow Road are Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard, former U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director John Turner and wildlife photographer Tom Mangelsen.
Paving has come up before, splitting the community into two camps — paving proponents and gravel road stalwarts. The paving question has been more a friendly, neighborly disagreement than true fighting words, by some accounts. Still, some neighbors don’t know what to make of the park’s latest plan to pave the road, which has little public use.
“We’ve been here for 30 years now, and there’s always been a controversy about paving it,” said South Meadow Road resident Bob Righter, a gravel person and historian who focuses on Grand Teton National Park.
The paving issue came to a head in 2015, when the park announced intentions to give the historic road an asphalt finish. A cohort of residents who dubbed themselves the “Gravel Road Society” fought the plans, threatening a lawsuit that argued the park improperly authorized the project by using a “categorical exclusion” to the National Environmental Policy Act. NEPA, for short, requires a review of projects that affect federal lands. The proposal was withdrawn and the issue went to bed for a few years, but then in June the paving plans reemerged. The project is now being reviewed on an environmental assessment track, which is a more stringent level of review.
Records are vague
In the years since paving plans moved to the back burner, the park formally added Meadow Road to its basket of park roads. For decades, upkeep and plowing of the 1-mile route fell to the Meadow Road Association. Searching through records, park employees could find no legal agreement made with neighbors or the former ranch detailing management of the road.
“As we’ve been going through this, we determined that all the analysis and the agreements were not in place for Meadow Road,” Germann said. “And when they’re not in place it defaults to the park for responsibility.”
Part of what forced the park’s hand to make that decision was the 1950 legislation that created Grand Teton National Park. That act states “the Secretary of the Interior shall designate and open rights-of-way … over and across federal lands within the exterior boundary of the park for the movement of persons and property to or from State and private lands within the exterior boundary of the park.”
Teton park project management chief Rusty Mizelle said “the founding legislation grants the right to access but it doesn’t get into specifics.”
There’s “more work to do,” Mizelle said, to figure out how exactly Meadow Road will be managed. The first winter after it was reclassified, Grand Teton required residents to secure a permit to plow the road in the winter, Germann said. Residents paid for the contracted plow trucks, but the park also started taking some maintenance duties, like grading, into its own hands.
Meadow Road homeowners who once footed the bill for all upkeep have welcomed the assistance from Uncle Sam, and the road reclassification has even created some common ground for neighbors who are split on the paving issue.
“Nobody at Meadow Road asked the park to take over the road,” said John Turner, a longtime resident and paving advocate whose family owns Triangle X Ranch.
“Everybody was surprised the park said ‘it’s our road and our responsibility’ after 40 years,” he said. “What I’ve done is asked them, ‘What does that mean? You’re taking responsibility — what does that mean?’”
Righter, the historian, said it was a “shock” to learn of the park’s decision.
“It’s a wonderful gift that the Park Service is going to take over our road because we’ve been paying for it for a long time,” Righter said. “They’re certainly enticing us with real benefits here.”
Modeling paving payback
The park inventoried about 80 of its gravel and dirt roads and ranked their suitability for pavement a couple of years after the threatened lawsuit temporarily halted the Meadow Road paving plan. The model used for the assessment was developed by the South Dakota Department of Transportation and has been borrowed by locales such as Laramie County. Applying the model, Mizelle said, the park identified “15 or 16” routes that initially were recommended for paving. Many of those roads, though, were cut from the list because of concerns outside the model’s scope, such as maintaining historic character, and so the list was winnowed to seven routes recommended for “review.”
With decidedly less outcry, two of those routes were already assessed via NEPA and then paved: a 0.4-mile stretch of an access road to private land at the base of Shadow Mountain and the 0.3-mile-long Nichol Springs Road, which also allows access to private land.
Another factor prompting the park to pursue paving Meadow Road was residents asking for it, park officials say.
In a neighborhood vote before the foiled 2015 proposal, about 66 percent of the voting neighbors favored going to asphalt, Turner recalled.
Turner, who was a longtime point person for maintaining the road, said he put “zero” pressure on the Park Service to get the job done.
Before leaving to take a job as the Park Service’s deputy director of operations, David Vela was park superintendent at the time the decision was made to again pursue paving Meadow Road.
“What we initiated was a process for analysis and dialogue,” Vela told the News&Guide while catching up at a ribbon-cutting ceremony for a multimillion dollar renovation of Jenny Lake trails and other infrastructure. “The direction was: What’s in the realm of possibility for that road, because it is a park road? What do we need to know about it, because visitors sometimes use that road. And how do we make it sustainable?”
For now pro-gravel Meadow Road residents say they intend to keep up the fight. A couple of members of the loose-knit Gravel Road Society recently emailed Acting Superintendent Gopaul Noojibail, trying to make the case again to hit the brakes on the plans.
“Meadow Road is not the Moose-Wilson Road,” Tom Mangelsen and Rick Black wrote in a letter. “Most of the residents spend only one to four months in their Meadow Road homes, and only a handful of residents are there year-round.”
“Wouldn’t it be better for the park to use its limited financial resources for: expanded parking at Jenny Lake, Bradley-Taggart and Lupine Meadows instead of the daily overflows onto highways and roads during the summer; improvement of hiking trails; and housing for park employees?” Mangelsen and Black appealed to Noojibail.
Meadow Road resident Bob Smith, a University of Utah emeritus professor of geophysics, said he has tried to remain “pleasantly neutral” about an issue that’s been a distraction that has “worn out its originality.”
“In our minds, it’s a relatively small issue compared to so many others,” Smith said. “I always asked the question, ‘Why?’ And I never got a good answer. I haven’t been convinced why it needs to be paved.
“It’s been argued that snowplowing was easier, and the maintenance and cost of maintenance was going to be reduced,” he said. “Well, that’s when we were all paying for it. But now the Park Service has said they’ll pay for it.”
Grand Teton’s model that recommends paving Meadow Road estimates that maintenance costs would be higher if the route were asphalt. The estimated annual cost to the agency is about $68,000 if the road remains gravel, but that figure rises to nearly $75,000 if it were to be paved. But the model, Mizelle said, takes much more into account than just plain dollars and cents. Added wear and tear on the estimated 200 private vehicles that travel the road every day is a type of impact that’s taken into account. There were also non-economic factors included in the methodology, such as if a road accesses housing, the likelihood of increased future traffic and public opinion.
Up to the Park Service
Paving proponent Turner said the debate about whether to pave Meadow Road has been left to the Park Service.
“The road issue is no longer in our hands, and it’s no longer a fight,” he said. “I’ve got more important things to worry about than this silly road.”
Turner lamented how the narrative has been that the people of Meadow Road are fractured. His neighborhood, he said, is not some gated Jackson Hole community where residents notoriously and constantly sue their homeowners associations.
“This is not the [Battle of the] Little Bighorn,” Turner said. “The congeniality and neighborliness of this community surpasses a lot of the others in Teton County, and in Teton County we’ve got a lot to argue about. That’s how we get through the winter: We duke it out on the issues.”
Still, some of Turner’s neighbors are genuinely baffled. Count Jackson Hole resident Ann Harvey, who owns a lot in the Meadow Road neighborhood, in that camp.
“What I don’t understand is why the Park Service is spending money to improve a road that serves a private subdivision when about half the residents are opposed to paving it anyway, and they have a lot more serious issues to be dealing with,” Harvey said.
“If they don’t have the money, and it isn’t a priority,” she said, “why are they putting time and resources into an EA?”