Being part of a longtime Jackson Hole family, Reade and David Dornan visit Aspen Cemetery on Snow King Mountain seasonally to clean up the grave sites of their daughter, son-in-law, siblings, parents, grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles.
The adjacent ski area is near and dear to the Saddle Butte residents, and they say they value how their place of reflection is about to be developed.
“Our greatest objection, therefore, is to the zipline and any other development that will turn the hill into a place for yelling and destruction of the forest,” the Dornans wrote to the Bridger-Teton National Forest this spring. “Please limit changes to the mountain to more sedate activity and to the areas already designated. No expansion of Snow King, please, and find another place for the road.”
The call to curtail some of the renovations and expansions requested by Snow King Mountain Resort is a sentiment shared by more than half of the people who took time to weigh in on the most substantive changes proposed in the ski area’s 81-year history. On the other side, a strong contingent of commenters would like for Snow King investors and managers to do whatever they believe needs to be done to stay afloat financially. That was particularly a theme within the business community.
Hotelier Joe Madera wrote that society’s interaction with the outdoors is changing with the times and that a new road, a backside mountain biking park, a summit restaurant and other amenities are needed modernizations to ensure Snow King thrives.
“Amenities such as zip lines are essential to attracting visitors to ski resorts in the summer and providing opportunities to connect to the wilderness for the contemporary traveler,” he wrote.
Madera’s and the Dornans’ letters are among about 400 pieces of correspondence sent to the Bridger-Teton earlier this year, before a deadline lapsed allowing input on a draft environmental impact statement. The statement, or DEIS for short, assesses four options for the Jackson ski area affectionately known as the Town Hill. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Forest Service staff have been sorting, evaluating and responding to the comments, spokeswoman Mary Cernicek said.
“Once all that is done,” Cernicek said, “we will look at the collective response, and this potentially could lead to modifications to alternatives.”
By June, the forest is looking to issue a final environmental impact statement and draft record of decision. Until those documents are out, it’s unclear which way the Bridger-Teton is leaning, because it did not identify a customary “preferred” alternative in its planning document.
But many planned changes are common among three of the four alternatives included in the DEIS. (The fourth option is a required “no action” alternative, which would leave Snow King as is.) Those common components include: east- and west-side boundary changes, new backside development (including a lift), a lower-grade road with a new alignment, more ski runs, a zip line, a gondola, new summit buildings, mountain bike trails and a bike park.
Many commenters perceived that the analysis lacks the “reasonable range of alternatives” demanded by the National Environmental Policy Act. The town of Jackson, which is a cooperating agency in the process, was included in that camp.
“Based on the public comment we received, we are particularly concerned with the road and skiway alignment,” Mayor Pete Muldoon wrote to the forest. “At the outset of this process the town requested a range of alternatives for the proposed road and skiway across the face of Snow King Mountain to and from the summit. Alternatives three and four contain the exact same alignment as alternative two, which is the proposed action by the resort.”
Others, however, were eager to see a longer and wider road that requires Snow King boundary expansions to the east and west.
Jackson Hole native and Teton County Board of County Commissioners candidate Peter Long wrote that Snow King’s success depends on the road and other proposed developments: “The summit road will provide more immediate access for emergency personnel and open terrain for beginner and intermediate skiers and snowboarders. The proposal is necessary to ensure Snow King’s long-term financial stability.”
One entity that did not weigh in on the Bridger-Teton’s analysis is Snow King Mountain Resort itself. One of its business representatives, Jeff Golightly, read through each and every comment and was taken by the “extraordinary amount of feedback” from the community, both for and against.
“I think it shows how varied the community’s opinions are and what a difficult process this is for the forest given that the community has such a diverse opinion on the issue,” Golightly said. “Ultimately, we look forward to hopefully being able to build a gondola in the very near future so we can continue to have access to the summit of this mountain and so we can see Snow King thrive.”
Other individuals and groups are trying to hit the brakes.
The Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance has been one of Snow King’s most steadfast watchdogs throughout the development planning process, and Alliance staff have organized public workshops to help people weigh in. There appear to be fruits to those efforts. Skye Schell, the executive director, said his staff sorted through the 400 comments that the forest amassed, and found a roughly 2-to-1 ratio tilted toward people who had concerns about the direction the ski hill is taking.
“I think the biggest issue people raised was that there’s not a real range of alternatives,” Schell told the News&Guide. “Our community isn’t even being given a chance to think about different options for the future of Snow King. And in our view it’s unfortunate that the Forest Service is basically just rubber-stamping what one developer wants to do and not letting us have a conversation.”
The Alliance’s 60-page comment letter charges Bridger-Teton officials, who oversee Snow King’s federally owned permit area, with bias. The Alliance points to documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request that the group says shows the forest trying to sway the plan’s outcome. The documents show the forest advising the ski area to solicit as many positive comments as possible in order to tout favorable public feedback to local elected officials, according to the Alliance.
“It seems clear that the agency has not led an objective and impartial review for the public interest,” the Alliance’s letter reads.
Other nonprofit organizations are encouraging the Bridger-Teton to let Snow King’s proposal fly. Amy Edmonds, who directs the Advocates for the Multi-Use of Public Lands, wrote that she hopes the forest supports the plans, especially during the present trying times when the tourism base will need to be reinvigorated.
“As a non-profit representing recreational users of all types, we believe it is important to support thoughtful recreational expansion in our community,” Edmonds wrote. “This project falls under that category.”
Snow King officials have said that they can live with any of the action alternatives. Bridger-Teton staff who oversee Snow King say the final plans will likely be a blend of different options already on the table.
Weighing in, state Rep. Mike Yin, D-Teton, encouraged the Forest Service to take that blended approach and to weave the status quo into the blueprint.
“I do want to see Snow King succeed,” Yin wrote, “and I think there is a good middle ground between all the action alternatives and the no-action alternative that would allow Snow King to succeed and alleviate many of the community concerns that the proposed actions create.”