To give uphill skiers more options, Snow King General Manager Ryan Stanley made the call to put a lift ticket scan station 500 or so feet downhill into Leeks Canyon.
“We’re just trying to expand the Uphill Challenge, essentially,” Stanley said. “People can ski down to the scanners and scan themselves. Obviously, it’s all snow dependent.”
The Uphill Challenge, which debuted in 2018, is a partnership with Stio that gives the town’s most ambitious skinners and bootpackers a shot at winning wool sweaters, ski pants and other outdoor apparel. Stanley didn’t expect much controversy when he opted to add the game camera-sized scanner and periodically groom the Leeks Canyon access road for an easier skin back to the Snow King ridgeline.
“People have been skiing back there forever,” Stanley said. “It’s nothing new.”
But the added amenity and encouragement to use Snow King’s out-of-bounds south-facing slopes wasn’t well received by all. Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance Executive Director Skye Schell perceived it as improperly greasing the wheels for undecided backside development plans that were already poorly received by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department.
“This is a poke in the eye with a very sharp stick to our community members who care about protecting our wildlife,” Schell said. “We are surprised and disappointed that the Forest Service would allow new disturbance of known important mule deer habitat.”
Pushing skiers into Leeks Canyon — and altering habitat there — is a sensitive subject.
When Snow King Mountain Resort officials opted to mow a swath of sagebrush on the 7,808-foot peak without permission in the fall of 2018, the decision was rebuked by wildlife advocates.
“As a biologist, I burned tens of thousands of acres of mountain sagebrush [for restoration projects],” Steve Kilpatrick told the News&Guide. “I’m not worried about the sagebrush loss. I’m worried about the magnet of the open slope bringing more people there.”
Species like moose, elk and mule deer, he said, could be displaced.
This year Snow King asked permission to mow the same slopes and some new spots, and the request was granted by its Bridger-Teton National Forest landlord. The Forest Service also approved the scanning station and grooming the road to the summit, both projects included in Snow King’s winter operations plan, Jackson District Ranger Mary Moore said.
“As part of the remedy for that mowing that occurred without authorization,” Moore said, “we asked them to submit any future mowing in a map to us ahead of taking the action.”
The map was produced and approved, and it included backside mowing as well, she said. The News&Guide requested the map, but the document was not provided by press time.
Snow King’s vision for Leeks Canyon, part of a broader redevelopment of the town hill, has been met with resistance.
Bridger-Teton National Forest officials say they intend to release an environmental impact statement analyzing the plans no later than Christmas, but they’ve already released bare-bones versions of four blueprints for the mountain. None of the options departs significantly from what Snow King’s owners have proposed, and all the options would permit a high-speed quad lift running down Leeks Canyon’s undeveloped southern face. Other backside amenities on the table include a yurt camp and new gladed ski runs.
Game and Fish biologists forcefully pushed back on those plans in a 2018 letter.
“The importance of Leeks Canyon as crucial big game winter range cannot be understated nor should it be potentially rendered ineffective because of expanded winter recreation into or adjacent to this important wildlife habitat,” Angi Bruce, then the state’s habitat protection supervisor, wrote in response to Snow King’s redevelopment plans.
“Consequently, we do not support any aspect of the proposed expansion of the Snow King Mountain Resort [in Leeks Canyon],” Bruce wrote. “Evidence of big game use in Leeks Canyon is historical and comprehensive.”
Bruce called for reassessing the plans in a way that offered a “comprehensive level of protection to wildlife winter range.” The request was not granted, according to the options for Snow King that the Bridger-Teton previewed in October.
Stanley said the state agency has since changed its tune about Leeks Canyon development.
“They looked at it closer,” Stanley said. “Upon closer inspection and actually hiking around out there, they found that there’s not a direct overlap of the area of concern.”
Bridger-Teton wildlife biologist Jason Wilmot affirmed that he’s been in talks with Game and Fish about the infrastructure expansion.
The scan station and groomed road, he said, are a separate issue. Wilmot was not worried from a wildlife perspective because they’re “tucked right off the top” and located in the back bowl that already sees plenty of human use.
“The critical winter range of concern is to the west,” Wilmot said. “The bulk of Leeks Canyon to the east and west would be untrammeled by this.”