Sheltering from the cold drizzle, Bob Righter and Sherry Smith sat alongside John Turner under Jane Cooney’s front porch Monday morning watching Banjo the Portuguese water dog and Una the English setter romp on the soggy sod.
The quartet was split down the middle when it comes to a neighborly dispute that’s dragged on for years: whether to pave Meadow Road. They all rely on the 1-mile route, which cuts through Grand Teton National Park, to get home.
Smith and Righter, married historians, both favor leaving the 20-foot-wide road in a graveled state, while Cooney and dude rancher Turner take the opposite view. Those in favor of paving would like to see a less bumpy ride that could cut down on vehicle maintenance. Despite the division, they all agreed on one thing while sharing a porch on Monday. The National Park Service, which recently released analysis of whether to pave the road, has been confusing to follow and far from an effective arbiter of the situation.
“It’s a dead-end document,” Cooney said.
Righter was on the same page.
“They need to really get their act together and get coordinated,” he said. “They’ve got us running around in circles.”
A Grand Teton National Park environmental assessment issued last month describes the “preferred” course of action as doing away with the mile of gravel, but only if neighbors come forward in unison — or at least with a legally binding agreement that speaks for all the residents. Neighbors say that’s not going to happen.
As it stands, some residents are members of the Meadow Road Association, a registered Wyoming nonprofit corporation. Others belong to the Gravel Road Society, also a nonprofit organization. Neither holds the legal weight of a homeowners association or improvement and service district, which has never existed for the 70-lot community subdivided decades ago on the historic Gray Ranch (later known as the 3 Bar H Ranch). There’s also no progress toward creating one.
The dispute over Meadow Road has garnered more attention than it perhaps deserves for a mile-long gravel road. That’s partly because the famous cast of characters involved.
Besides Righter and Smith, gravel road proponents include Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard, wildlife photographer Tom Mangelsen and Bob Smith, a University of Utah professor who’s spent a lifetime researching the Yellowstone caldera. On the other side of the issue and favoring paving is Turner, a former U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service director, and the majority of the neighborhood joins him. De facto National Park Service Director David Vela, formerly the Grand Teton superintendent, has also been in the thick of the discussion and planning process, which has carried on for more than five years.
In August 2014, when the community was united under the Meadow Road Association, residents voted on whether to pave the road at their annual meeting. Sixty-three percent favored paving the most traveled and potholed portion, which stretches east-to-west across the park from North Highway 89 to the top of bench overlooking the Snake River floodplain. Leaving the lower parts of the road system — Upper Meadow, Middle Meadow and South Meadow roads — unpaved hasn’t been much of a discussion.
Meadow Road residents say the debate over what should become of the shared road is more of a friendly neighborly disagreement than cause for a bitter divide. As the neighbors chatted during the drizzle Monday morning, it was Turner’s water dog and Righter and Smith’s setter that played together — and their human owners were, mostly, equally jovial with each other.
Still, lawyers have been brought into the fray on both sides. The News&Guide acquired a paper trail of correspondence via a Freedom of Information Act request that was filed with the National Park Service in July 2019. Although requested a year ago, documents were only provided in full last week and only after Cheyenne attorney Bruce Moats, an open records specialist, wrote the Park Service on the newspaper’s behalf to remind the agency of its legal obligations.
The paper trail shows that after Grand Teton proposed acting on the 2014 neighborhood vote to pave the road, pro-gravel residents had Jackson attorney Jim Lubing write a letter suggesting that the park’s use of a “categorical exclusion” to the National Environmental Policy to authorize the project was of questionable legality. He enclosed another letter, from attorney Len Carlman, which argued there was not a “formal, legal mechanism,” like an HOA, in place for resolving neighborly disagreements.
The project disturbed just 0.8 acres, and was determined by the park’s interdisciplinary resource council to fit the bill for a categorical exclusion, but the attorneys’ notes swayed the park.
“Frankly, the park does not want to get in between these competing homeowners, and we really don’t have a strong position on whether or not the road ‘should’ be paved,” Grand Teton’s then-deputy superintendent, Kevin Schneider, wrote in an email to then regional Park Service Director Sue Masica.
Vela let the neighborhood know in a letter at the time that it was “prudent” to review the decision, and that they had suspended the project.
Those who remained members of the Meadow Road Association then hired attorneys from Holland and Hart to argue in support of the park’s earlier decision.
“Frankly, it’s not even within the park’s right to challenge the Meadow Road Association’s power to act,” the law firm’s October 2015 letter said.
A lawsuit never materialized, and the issue exited the public eye for several years.
The idea of paving Meadow Road was never put to bed, however, and behind the scenes the park was navigating its planning processes in preparation for an environmental assessment to address concerns about a NEPA violation.
In 2017 the park inventoried about 80 of its gravel and dirt roads and ranked their suitability for pavement, Rusty Mizelle, the park’s project management chief, told the News&Guide in 2019. Seven routes, including Meadow Road, ranked high for paving and were carried forward for “review.” (With much less attention, some of those routes were already assessed via NEPA and then paved: a 0.4-mile stretch of road at the base of Shadow Mountain and the 0.3-mile-long Nichol Springs Road, which both allow access to private land.)
Vela briefed the Meadow Road community about the assessment with a letter early the next year. He met with people on both sides of the issue at the Murie Ranch in person, and in writing that summer committed to preparing an environmental assessment promptly.
By summer 2019 the park was “scoping” the plans — a precursor to the assessment — and seeking public input. Although seeing the planning process through was dubbed a priority by Vela the year before, the park took a different line when it came to actually paving the road.
“Paving Meadow Road is not a priority for us,” park spokeswoman Denise Germann told the News&Guide at the time. “There is no funding available if the decision is made to pave the road at this time.”
At the same time park officials announced that they’d failed to find any records or legal agreement detailing management of Meadow Road. In the absence of such records the road “defaults to the park for responsibility,” park officials said, and they began taking on routine maintenance, like grading, that had fallen on the Meadow Road Association for four decades.
But this year the community learned that the park had changed its tune, and those duties were back on them.
“That’s a reversal that’s left us all kind of baffled,” Righter said.
The reason Grand Teton again reclassified the road, park officials said in an email, was that they consulted with “relevant National Park Service offices” and “reconfirmed that the long-standing purpose of Meadow Road is to provide property owners and access to the subdivision.”
No roads or trailheads spur off the road into the sagebrush north of Jackson Hole Airport — and haven’t for decades.
The Meadow Road Association, in the meantime, had reduced its member dues, anticipating the park was taking on the maintenance.
“It’s hard for us,” Cooney, the association’s longtime president, said from her porch. “Forget whether the road’s being paved. If we keep getting mixed messages they’re going to pay for it or not, it makes it very hard for us to budget and plan.
“They can’t do this flip-flopping all the time,” she said.
Cooney said park officials also informed her that paving, if approved, would no longer be eligible for federal funding. Grand Teton officials declined a oral interview for this story, but answered questions via email and said that no funding has been secured for the project and they don’t anticipate using federal funds to pay for the project.
The park’s environmental assessment, released June 8, also reflected that the park was no longer considering Meadow Road a “park road.” The gravel road inventory and model — said to be a big driver of the proposal the year before — was not mentioned in the 34-page assessment. Instead the planning document said that the “need for the paving of Meadow Road is based solely on correspondence” the Park Service received from residents. The rationale listed is that it would improve emergency access, better handle increased traffic and cut down on road maintenance costs.
The park’s environmental assessment, which cost about $80,000 to prepare, weighs two options: leaving Meadow Road as is, and the “preferred alternative” of paving the road with 2 to 2.5 inches of asphalt atop 6 inches of crushed base rock. The document explores the potential environmental effects of such a project in detail.
“One to three” sage grouse could be hit and killed over the next 30 years were the road paved as a result of vehicles surpassing the posted 25 mph speed limit, the document projected, but there would be no population-level effect on the species, even though it’s struggling at the moment in Jackson Hole (see related story, page 38). The project also had no projected adverse effects on historic artifacts, which were found near the Meadow Road corridor when National Park Service archeologists inventoried the project area back in 2007.
While impacts to resources have been dragged into it, Smith said the Meadow Road paving dispute is really about differences in values among residents. On each side of the debate, she said, there are Republicans and Democrats, old timers and newcomers, and people who are wealthy and in the middle class.
“Some people want a road that’s efficient and economic,” Smith said. “Others prioritize environmental aesthetics — they want a gravel road. People are not going to change their values and the hierarchy in which they place them.”
The Meadow Road debate will always drag on in that sense, though Cooney was also hopeful that the park’s “dead-end” document will have some utility by blunting the conversation.
“With the funding issue and with the passage of time, we’re so far away from ever paving this road,” Cooney said. “The only reason why I think the [park’s EA] might not be a waste is if this ends up making this whole thing a dead end.
“If we can just get past this, I’ll take it,” she said. “I’m sorry it cost taxpayers money.”
The Meadow Road Association collects road maintenance dues from its members and also from Gravel Road Society members voluntarily and with a “tin cup,” she joked. They could never afford the $450,000 paving bill (based on a 2015 estimate), she said.
The other hurdle is the requirement the community come to the park united under the umbrella of a formal organization that can make decisions on behalf of all property owners in the meadow. Current homeowners can’t be forced to join an HOA, Cooney said, and an improvement and service district that can speak for the road wouldn’t be a viable vehicle because only Wyoming residents could vote and many of the lots in the subdivision are owned by trusts and limited liability corporations.
Turner, who coordinates road maintenance for the community, worries about the long-term increases in the cost of upkeep for the gravel surface, which he has improved significantly over the years. He was also bewildered that the Park Service has invested the time, energy and money in a planning process that’s bound to never result in the road actually being paved.
“This is really nutty,” Turner said. “Now there’s another hurdle, and that’s the HOA.”
Cooney chimed in: “And they’re not going to pay for it.”
After collecting comments for the second time — they’re due Friday — the park will prepare a “finding of no significant impact” document about Meadow Road, responding to the public’s wishes and outlining its decision. Righter is hoping for some clarity in those documents, which ought to bring the issue to its end.