Federal officials last week released four potential blueprints for future development on Snow King Mountain, and in many ways they’re all essentially identical. Jackson officials want to know why.
None of the options proposed by the Bridger-Teton National Forest departs drastically from what the ski resort owners have already proposed, despite concerns of elected officials and the public. Some watchdogs have criticized the alternatives, but Tyler Sinclair, community development director for the town, said he’s giving the U.S. Forest Service the benefit of the doubt.
“They’ve vetted the pros and cons of any number of different alternatives,” he said, “but often the ultimate release of a document or plan doesn’t reflect that.”
Sinclair has asked the Forest Service to explain its rationale for the striking similarities, in the hope that that will reveal the logic behind its decision not to outline a more conservative approach to transforming the Town Hill.
“It’s helpful for the community and electeds to see the journey that the Forest Service went through to come up with what they did,” he said.
Besides the customary “no action” option, all of the “alternatives” on the table seek to expand Snow King’s boundaries to the east and west essentially by the same amount. All options would permit a high-speed quad lift on the undeveloped southern face and a summit gondola.
Each course of action also allows for a zip line from Snow King’s summit, though routes down the hill vary. A longer, lower-grade road replacing the current summit road is also part of all the options.
Bridger-Teton Ski Area Administrator Sean McGinness said any significantly scaled-back or altered designs for the 7,808-foot-high hill overlooking town would make it challenging to meet the “purpose and need” of the resort updates.
The plans are outlined in an “alternative summary report” made public last Wednesday by the Bridger-Teton. Next up, the Forest Service is expected to release a draft environmental impact statement in November. That more detailed document, being prepared by Snow King consultant Cirrus Environmental Solutions, will detail the possible impacts of the four alternatives outlined in the summary report.
Alternative two, which was triggered by Snow King’s original proposal, includes five new ski runs on Snow King’s developed face. A zip line in that option would run top to bottom. It also includes new facilities, among them a summit wedding venue, a yurt camp and a summit building. Snowmaking would increase by 90 acres, and night skiing, enabled by lighting, would be extended to the summit and expanded by 27 acres.
In response to concerns raised by the town of Jackson, which is in its own process for Snow King, the Bridger-Teton developed alternative three, which is supposed to balance “recreation” and “resource protection.” Under that option there is a single-acre reduction of the western expansion to keep the ski area boundary out of critical mule deer winter range. The Cougar Lift would be removed, and the ski area would be asked to build a “Snow King Historical Interpretive Center” to pay homage to the ski hill’s 83-year history. There would also be changes to the zip line alignment and mountain biking trails.
Alternative four, which prioritizes “resource protection,” eliminates several of the new planned runs in existing developed areas in exchange for new runs in both east and west expansion areas that are not included in other options.
Option four also calls for glading, instead of clear-cuts, along several new cut-off runs that would span the summit road switchback on the east-side expansion.
Differences and commonalities among options listed here are not comprehensive. Review them all in the forest’s summary report posted alongside this story at JHNewsAndGuide.com.
One Jackson conservationist, who has watchdogged the Snow King expansion plans, viewed options he saw as one and the same.
“We hoped to see a legitimate range of alternatives, and that is clearly not what the Forest Service has proposed,” Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance Executive Director Skye Schell said. “The real ‘alternatives’ are all basically the same and allow the same major and harmful expansions into wildlife habitat.”
Town Councilor Jim Stanford, another consistent Snow King skeptic, expected to see at least one without the new summit road and boundary expansion.
“That’s not going to inspire much public confidence, if that’s how it turns out,” he said about the lack of variety among alternatives.
The Town Council has not discussed the alternatives as a group, though Sinclair said he expects they will at some point, and will likely respond formally to the Forest Service.
The National Environmental Policy Act, the federal law governing the Bridger-Teton and Snow King planning process, requires that environmental impact statements contain a “reasonable range of alternatives.” The law stipulates that options also must accomplish the “purpose and need” of the project.
Bridger-Teton officials say they do not anticipate identifying a “preferred alternative” in the draft EIS. The ultimate selection will either be a blend of options or one of the alternatives detailed, McGinness said. NEPA requires identifying a preferred alternative in a draft environmental impact statement, if it exists.
The town is engaged in a parallel Snow King review process. The Planning Commission will consider an amendment to the resort’s master plan in November, and it will then go to the council in December.