A long-awaited environmental study urges officials to tread lightly in developing a park in Karns Meadow, saying it could easily upset an ecosystem already hemmed in and strained by human activity.
The analysis argues for a more strategic and carefully considered approach to managing the 42-acre swath of wetlands along Flat Creek and surrounded by Jackson. Though the report doesn’t dismiss the prospect of building a park, it does address key features with great caution.
“The gains to our community may be outweighed by the impacts to wildlife habitat,” states the analysis, which was produced by Jackson-based environmental consultant EcoConnect.
If elected officials take that judgment to heart, it could mean the property will not fulfill the vision Pete Karns had in mind when he sold it to the town with conservation easements in 2003. He made clear that he hoped to strike a balance between the interests of Jackson’s human and animal residents.
“My family wants wildlife to thrive,” he wrote in a News&Guide guest shot in January 2018. “We want this great community to thrive; and we want the Karns Meadow to be used by the people of Jackson and not just the wildlife who live there.”
As part of the purchasing agreement between the Karns family, the town and the Jackson Hole Land Trust, which contributed $1 million to buy the land, the list of approved uses includes a pathway around the perimeter of the meadow with trail lighting.
According to the analysis, such a pathway “not only contradicts the stated goals of the Jackson/Teton County Comprehensive Plan to protect and steward open space but may also have a negative impact on surrounding habitat.” It also notes that the Wyoming Game and Fish Department objected to the pathway in 2012.
Citing this section, Councilor Jim Stanford said, “we have to be very careful in how we consider this.
“This [analysis] makes clear that we have in some respects marginal habitat that’s on the verge of becoming worthless habitat,” he said. “It might give us pause about being too gung-ho about putting things for our benefit in this meadow.”
More broadly, in a sweeping 200-plus pages, the analysis considers everything from archaeological artifacts in the meadow to the plants to the habitat and migration needs of animals ranging from mule deer to trumpeter swans to beavers. Stanford praised its thoroughness.
“This goes through every kind of thing under the sun,” he said. “This is the document that should guide us as we begin to entertain any future changes to the meadow and how we might go about doing it.”
Aside from the pathway, the analysis advises elected officials to keep in mind that just because something is permitted under the purchasing agreement does not mean it is required.
“When considering development options on the property,” it states, “it is essential to remember that allowable uses are just that, allowable.” It goes on to say that potential harm “can likely be avoided or significantly reduced through careful planning and adjustments to development plans.”
The environmental analysis arose as a way to study those allowable uses, but its findings go beyond the park plans. It recommends elected officials create a short-term management plan to address the “immediate needs to improve the existing conditions in Karns Meadow.”
Specifically, it urges officials to step up weed management, clean up trash and enforce laws against pets and camping in the meadow. Teton County/Jackson Parks and Recreation Department Director Steve Ashworth said that was one of his biggest takeaways from the analysis.
“There sometimes is a belief that if you just leave land alone it’ll take care of itself,” he said, adding that this is not always the case in an urban setting. “We should not just stand back and do nothing. We should be actively managing our property.”
At any given time between May and September, an estimated 20 to 30 people camp in Karns Meadow. Police have decided not to enforce the no-camping policy but are beginning to crack down on littering.
Laurie Andrews, president of the Land Trust, said she worries Karns Meadow will sink to the bottom of the town’s to-do list. Over the years, she said, enthusiasm has waxed and waned, taking a toll on the site. And with increasing pressure from redevelopment around the meadow — including the 90-unit Sagebrush Apartments in the works at the northeast corner — she argued the situation is growing dire.
“Right now, Karns Meadow is falling far short of what the community said they wanted 16 years ago,” Andrews said. “My point is, doing nothing is actually harming the resource. We need to, as a community, decide what we want.”
Ashworth offered an actual timeline for moving ahead with a management plan. Town staff could have a draft prepared by the start of 2020, he said.
The analysis also suggested a long-term strategy, or master plan, for Karns Meadow. The plan would hypothetically ensure that the property’s future aligns with the community’s goals for it. But Ashworth said such discussions are a ways off.
“What we do in the future … with that property is something we can continue to talk about,” he said.
Ashworth added that for now he will stick to immediate steps the town can take to give the meadow a boost.
The councilors agreed, welcoming the idea of a more thoughtful plan for the site. And, like Andrews, they acknowledged it isn’t living up to its potential.
“I think that anything we do to manage it will be better management than it is now,” Councilor Hailey Morton Levinson said. “I don’t think that it’s quite up to the standards that we would like it to be for the wildlife or people.”