The Bridger-Teton National Forest has a bit more work to do for the planned expansion and renovation on Snow King Mountain to settle the concerns of an independent federal arbiter.
Specifically, analyses of the so-called Briggs summit road, a wedding venue and zip lines will need to be touched up before the national forest can give Snow King Mountain Resort the go-ahead to start moving dirt.
Last fall, managers of the 3.4-million-acre national forest gave the ski area the tentative OK to grow the ski resort’s terrain and infrastructure to the east, west and over the backside into Leeks Canyon. But that draft decision was subject to an “objection” process that’s intended to address concerns from people, organizations and agencies engaged in the forest’s planning process, and remained dissatisfied with the outcome. That review, run by the U.S. Forest Service’s Intermountain Region, has now wrapped up, and the Bridger-Teton has been given instructions on what must be done to rectify 114 grievances brought by 56 objecting parties.
“My response is the outcome of a deliberate and extensive review of concerns raised by objectors involving complex regulatory and management issues,” Acting Deputy Regional Forester Ryan Nehl wrote to objectors in a letter that was released on Friday. “Once my instructions have been addressed, Forest Supervisor [Tricia] O’Connor will sign the record of decision for the Snow King Mountain Resort On-Mountain Improvements project.”
By and large, the Bridger-Teton’s plans stood up to the objectors’ complaints and the Forest Service’s internal arbitration process. There’s little work remaining and likely just a matter of days remaining before O’Connor signs off on a final decision that will vastly increase the small ski area’s development entitlements.
“It’s Forest Supervisor Tricia O’Connor’s expressed intention to have this signed before the end of the month,” Bridger-Teton spokeswoman Mary Cernicek told the News&Guide. “She doesn’t want to leave things hanging.”
Snow King General Manager Ryan Stanley welcomed the coming end of a seven-year-long planning process, which launched in earnest in 2014 when the Bridger-Teton accepted an updated master plan for the small ski area just south of Jackson town limits.
“We’re excited that hopefully this process is coming to an end soon,” Stanley said, “so we can get to work on some good improvements.”
The “objection response” document that Nehl signed off on addresses objectors’ grievances one at a time over 62 pages. The vast majority of topics broached, from affects to Snow King’s historic landscape to impacts to elk winter range, culminate in the same phrase: “I find that the Forest Service adequately addressed this issue.”
Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance Director Skye Schell was among objectors who wasn’t pleased by the framing of the objection response, a document he found dismissive.
“It was like a copy and paste job,” Schell said. “Them saying, ‘We don’t see any issues and feel like the Forest Service adequately addressed everything.’ ”
The few exceptions to the do-nothing instructions include the Bridger-Teton’s treatment of the “Briggs Road” alignment, an alternative route for a summit road that was conceived by former Snow King instructor and ski mountaineering legend Bill Briggs. To appease objectors that include the town of Jackson, the national forest was instructed to supplement the project record with additional analysis of the alternative road alignment, which did not require as extensive eastern and western boundary expansions.
The Bridger-Teton’s approval of an open-air wedding venue on Snow King’s summit was also scrutinized. Building a permanent structure explicitly for weddings runs counter to the Forest Service Manual, the objection response document says. To rectify this, the forest was instructed to review the definition of “permanent structure,” determine whether the wedding venue meets the definition, and, if it does, modify the final decision to address the conflict with the agency manual.
The Forest Service’s Intermountain Region also instructed the Bridger-Teton to make up its mind about zip lines that may or may not be authorized on the face of Snow King. Alternative four — the forest’s preferred course of action — did not specify how many zip lines there might be, nor where they’d be located. O’Connor was told to explain the omission, or alternatively identify where and how many zip lines there might be.
While a signature on the record of decision for Snow King could come any day, it remains unclear what the final plans will look like.
“I don’t know what she’s actually going to decide to do,” Cernicek said of O’Connor’s decision.
Snow King’s Stanley is also not sure exactly what’s changing. In the meantime, he’s holding off on publicizing the ski resort’s summer construction plans.
“I don’t think they’re vast changes, but I’m confident that there are going to be some differences,” he said. “I have a feeling that it is not going to be exactly as what was laid out in one of the alternatives.”
Schell, at the Alliance, sees this coming decision as the last chance for the Bridger-Teton to balance the community’s wishes for Snow King with those of the ski area’s ownership.
“We’re waiting to see what comes out from the Forest Service,” Schell said. “We have to figure out the pros and cons, but we’re definitely looking at litigation and we’re trying to figure out what’s the best way to protect what we love about Snow King.”
“We’re excited that hopefully this process is coming to an end soon, so we can get to work on some good improvements.” — Ryan Stanley Snow king general manager