The U.S. Forest Service has tentatively granted Snow King development entitlements that mostly mirror what the private ski resort’s owners asked for when they entered a yearslong planning process.
Altogether, the expansions and renovations being approved constitute the largest changes to the Town Hill in 82 years — since the historic resort was conceived. Under a draft decision issued by the Bridger-Teton National Forest, ski slopes and other infrastructure would be allowed to stretch to the east by 67 acres and to the west by 88 acres.
Over the top, Snow King would feed a lift into the south-facing, sun-exposed and currently undeveloped Leeks Canyon, which would also feature a new mountain bike park. In addition to new ski runs, a gondola and new trails, there will be a longer, wider summit access road, a summit restaurant and wedding venue, and a zip line.
If it all builds out, Snow King would transform in a way that goes against the wishes of many community members, whose comments never gained traction with the U.S. Forest Service.
It’s a makeover that, its ownership maintains, is needed to ensure that the small, old-fashioned ski area stays afloat financially.
To get to this point, Snow King hired consultants who headed up an environmental impact statement assessing the changes proposed to the 7,808-foot-high ski hill. Bridger-Teton staff, meanwhile, spent more than two years overseeing and contributing to the 293-page planning document, which underlies the draft decision forest officials released last week about the future of Snow King last.
All the while, the public was asked what they thought.
There was a stakeholder process, headed by the town of Jackson, with a goal of finding a balance between Snow King’s growth desires and the interests of the community.
On the federal planning side, the public had two opportunities to weigh in: when the proposal was “scoped” in 2018, and then again last year when the environmental impact statement was released in draft form. Hundreds took advantage, with letters pouring in from 388 individuals, 33 organizations and nine agencies in response to the draft EIS.
Many residents and organizations said that they’d like to see Snow King get everything the resort requested.
But a roughly equal number of commenters also asked the Bridger-Teton to look into major changes to the blueprints for the Town Hill. A repeated request was to curtail the development and to keep Snow King within its current footprint. Calls to consider restraining growth weren’t confined to advocacy groups, or old-timer residents resistant to change. Teton County commissioners and Jackson town councilors were among parties asking for a look at — although not demanding — a no-growth alternative, an option that would be in keeping with the Jackson/Teton County Comprehensive Plan. That guiding community document states that “existing planned resorts should be limited to their existing footprint.”
Wildlife professionals also had reservations. Wyoming Game and Fish Department staffers initially encouraged their federal land management counterparts to keep the ski area out of the Leeks Canyon area for fear of compromising winter habitat used by elk and mule deer. Later they softened their request. The Teton Raptor Center worried the eastern expansion would compromise habitat used by the most reproductively successful known goshawk pair in Jackson Hole.
Those types of concerns did lead to “conditions” in the Bridger-Teton’s draft decision for Snow King, but they did not truly upend any of the ski area’s plans.
For example, because of the goshawks, a “sensitive species” for the state of Wyoming and the national forest, no nesting trees the raptors use can be cut down when Snow King builds mountain bike trails. The resort also won’t be able to glade islands of forest that remain between newly cut ski runs in the expansion area.
But in the end, the most productive known goshawk pair in Jackson Hole would have its primary territory carved up and filled with more infrastructure and use under the Bridger-Teton’s draft decision.
Confining Snow King to its present footprint was considered but not carried forward in depth because it conflicted with the “purpose and need” of the ski area’s proposal, according to the final EIS.
In its decision the Bridger-Teton went with a “preferred” option for Snow King developed for “resource protection” reasons and then modified. Conditions were added to address concerns about lift-served mountain biking, elk and deer habitat, goshawks, the Cougar Lift removal and public interest in electric biking. New ski runs were pushed away from the center of Snow King’s face, concentrated instead in the expansion areas and near the outskirts of the current permit area to diminish the effect on the historic look of the landscape.
Snow King General Manager Ryan Stanley was among those pleased that his employer’s development proposal has advanced as it has to this point in the approval process.
“I thought it was really positive and exciting,” he said in response to the forest’s draft decision.
But the lack of substantive reforms has left others disappointed or scratching their heads.
“It seems clear that the whole thing has been driven by the proponent from the beginning,” Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance Executive Director Skye Schell said, “and the Forest Service was never seriously interested in balancing what the developer said they needed with the wildlife protection that so much of our community was asking for.”
Bridge-Teton Supervisor Tricia O’Connor said the structure of U.S. Forest Service’s decision-making process explains why calls for big changes lacked traction.
“There will be impacts to the environment, and you can’t do anything without having some level of impact,” O’Connor said. “But those impacts, with the design features we have, are within our forest plan to allow. That’s kind of how we look at things.”
O’Connor said she often hears the question: “Why don’t you say no?”
“Well, we wouldn’t say no unless there’s an environmental or social reason that’s measurable and cause to say no,” she said. “For us, looking at it, this is within a level of impact that meets our forest plan.”
The Bridger-Teton’s Forest Plan, which is 30 years old, is similar to a zoning tool, and designates “desired future conditions” for various parts of the 3.4-million-acre national forest.
The landscape south and east of Jackson around the Snow King ski area is classified as “special use recreation,” where there are “many signs of people,” and buildings and structures used by permittees are OK. This is a development-friendly classification where wildlife is explicitly deemphasized. Habitat management in “special use recreation” areas like those around Snow King is “not intended to meet state wildlife population” or “harvest objectives,” according to the 1990 federal document.
Bridger-Teton officials also frequently cited the “purpose and need” of the Snow King project when they dismissed requests for change while responding to the public’s comment. The “purpose” is described as: improving ski area infrastructure, providing year-round outdoor recreation and connecting visitors with the natural environment to support the community’s quality of life and economy. Needs, meanwhile, are listed as improving beginner and intermediate skiing, expanding snowmaking to enable November ski race training, adding high-quality guest facilities to attract local and destination skiers, and providing access to a wide range of year-round activities.
That purpose and need — a mission statement, of sorts, for the project — is derived directly from Snow King Mountain Resort. It’s often cited as a reason for turning down alternative ideas, and plays a central role in a U.S. Forest Service decision-making process that some observers say is set up to favor permittees.
“It’s sort of like a fox designing a chicken coop, in a way,” Teton County Commissioner Mark Newcomb said.
Newcomb said that from a personal standpoint he thinks the Snow King changes in progress will profoundly alter a historic landscape, negatively affect wildlife and the character of the town and that those changes are hard for him to accept. But as a county commissioner, he understands that the Bridger-Teton had policies and a recreation-tolerant forest plan governing the land around Snow King already in place.
“Professionally, I don’t necessarily see a way that we can say this just is not allowed,” Newcomb said. “When the forest plan was crafted it certainly involved a public element, and it was decided through that public process to create that zone, so to speak. So, there it is.”