Residents of Buffalo Valley describe their backyard as a place to listen to sandhill cranes, to admire elk in the riverbed of the Buffalo Fork, to hike and stargaze.
One weekend a year, though, for the past two summers, the quiet of the neighborhood has been pierced by a heavy metal festival held at the nearby Heart Six Guest Ranch (see the Scene section of this newspaper for a related story diving deep into the metal scene).
After last year’s Fire in the Mountains event, neighbor Joy Getler wrote county commissioners saying the noise, traffic and late-night partying invaded their lives. She was shocked to see a few men walking around the festival in thongs.
“It was screeching and yelling and hollering,” Getler said. “They were just screaming and yelling as loud as you could.”
This year’s festival brought more than 800 metalheads to Buffalo Valley last weekend, more than doubling the size of the 2018 event. Matt Farides, a Salt Lake City metal fan who wore a loincloth and a cowboy hat to the festival, didn’t see what the big deal was.
“Three hundred sixty-three days out of the year they get to enjoy their peace without us,” Farides said, standing around a bonfire following the music. “Give me two days, come on. Close your window.”
The conflict over the festival’s location is rooted in a deeper debate about Teton County regulations and what some argue are flawed “loopholes.”
Under the county land regulations, property owners in rural areas like Heart Six are entitled to host up to three “outdoor receptions” a year. It’s the same regulation that could have allowed a proposed 20,000-person Dead and Company concert in 2018 and 2019 on the Jackson Hole Hereford Ranch in South Park. But what exactly an outdoor reception is — like how many people can attend or how many days it lasts, — isn’t defined in the regulations, County Commissioner Mark Newcomb said.
“I think it is a hole in the regulations,” Newcomb said, “and I really think that the primary concern is a lack of predictability, and people in the county want predictability.”
Filing an application
Under the county process, organizers of special events that may place demands on county resources like police and fire are required to submit an application with Teton County at least 45 days before an event.
Applications must spell out details like the number of attendees expected and the hours when amplified music will start and end. They are reviewed by County Administrator Alyssa Watkins, don’t require neighbor notification and can be denied if they constitute a “nuisance” that interferes with other landowners’ enjoyment of their own property. If denied by Watkins, event holders can appeal to the Board of County Commissioners.
Deputy County Attorney Keith Gingery said, “Even at the commissioner level they don’t have a lot of authority to say no.
“All that system is doing is making sure all the different permits such as a food permit, making sure you did get your liquor license if you’re selling alcohol, making sure you did talk to the fire marshal,” Gingery said.
Even though the county asks event hosts to go through that process, there isn’t much enforcement. The county’s response to measures like noise limits is almost entirely complaint-driven, planners said, and the Teton County Sheriff’s Office sticks to enforcing just state statutes.
Two sheriff’s deputies and several U.S. Forest Service patrollers were on hand and reported no incidents at the festival, other than one noise complaint.
Watkins issued an approval certificate in December for 2019’s Fire in the Mountains, with conditions such as a required submission of a site plan to the Teton County fire marshal, restrictions on amplified sound outside the hours of 1 to 2 p.m. and 4 to 10 p.m. and prohibited parking in wetlands. Noise at the property line is limited to 55 decibels.
At this year’s festival the organizers started at 3:30 p.m. both days, rather than 4, as their permit allowed, to keep the music from going past 10 p.m. and keep room in their schedule for weather delays, co-orgainzer Jeremy Walker said.
But like last year, whether the music stayed under the decibel limit was controversial. Neighbor Katie Matthies measured decibel levels from her porch with a small handheld device and said the noise levels consistently exceeded 55 decibels, which she plans to report to the county.
“While I absolutely support the rights of anyone to listen to any kind of music they like, I do resent being forced to listen to it myself, for six hours this evening,” she said.
But Walker said his professional sound engineers tracked the noise levels at the property line and they remained under the limit. He said he made large-scale efforts to divert speakers away from neighborhoods and keep sound at levels appropriate for Buffalo Valley.
“Ultimately we do this out of respect for them,” he said.
Wild and scenic
Fire in the Mountains organizers say the remote, natural location and camping on the nearby national forest is central to the festival’s ethos, as is mitigating impacts on the environment and educating festivalgoers about stewardship.
For the neighbors the problem is that the quiet Buffalo Valley is simply the wrong place for large, amplified events of any kind, and Teton County shouldn’t authorize it.
“The major concern that I have is that a heavy metal concert doesn’t really seem appropriate in an area that the county has designated is primary wildlife habitat, nor does it seem appropriate to be right up against one of the nation’s wild and scenic rivers,” neighbor Andrea Riniker said.
Neighbors say they don’t have anything against metal music or its fans.
“I don’t care if it’s Paul McCartney; I don’t care if it’s James Taylor,” neighbor Si Matthies said.
He said any large concert just doesn’t fit the area.
The county certificate also prohibited camping on the private Heart Six site, which meant the nearby Bridger-Teton National Forest became the de facto campsite, Blackrock District Ranger Todd Stiles said.
“By default those people have to go somewhere,” Stiles said.
Rather than allow 800 people to camp dispersed throughout the Bridger-Teton, Stiles worked with Fire in the Mountains organizers to establish a designated campsite on the national forest for festivalgoers through a recreation event permit — often issued for events like ski races. That gave the Forest Service some say in how the campground would be managed, like requiring Fire in the Mountains to supply port-a-potties, bearproof trash containers and ban campfires.
“We’re just doing the best we could to protect the resources and work with the permit for them to minimize the overall effect to natural resources and the neighbors and the community up there,” Stiles said.
Stiles also kept in contact with neighbors about plans and cooperated with other agencies like the Moran fire department and the Teton County Sheriff’s Office. According to Stiles, the campers complied with the restrictions and there were no incidents.
Many Buffalo Valley neighbors praised Stiles’ proactive handling of the situation but felt the county dropped the ball in its failure to prioritize tightening up special event restrictions.
“I think the county sent us a message that they really don’t care,” Riniker said.
Private property rights
Newcomb feels bad that Buffalo Valley residents feel that way. He is interested in adding land development regulations that would require public hearings and more rigorous permitting processes for multiday events or events of a certain size, like more than 300 people. He has drafted regulations to that effect.
“To what extent we need to impact private property rights to protect that will always be a debate,” Newcomb said.
Heart Six Guest Ranch owner Frank Chapman said he agreed to host the festival because “if people are having fun, then that’s good.”
“People tend to be selfish and not think of the greater good,” Chapman said. “When you’re making 800 people happy and one person is sitting up there complaining, generally they complain about everything. They need to think about the 800 people that are going to be happy instead of just themselves.”
Despite Walker’s ambitions to continue to grow the festival, Stiles said the existing campground likely can’t handle more people. Next year, Walker said, organizers hope to ask Teton County for a conditional use permit so that camping will be allowed on the private land at Heart Six, rather than on public lands.
— Billy Arnold contributed to this article.