Last fall, while trying to get the U.S. Forest Service to protect wildlife and our Town Hill from amusement park development at Snow King, I saw a northern goshawk for the first time. I knew about them — I had spent thousands of hours recreating in their home territory — but I’d never seen one. I took a photo and sent it to a Teton Raptor Center biologist, who confirmed it was the female of the pair we were fighting to protect, the most reproductively successful goshawk pair in the area. I try not to anthropomorphize, but when the majestic raptor looked at me, I felt like she had something to say.
Running over Josie’s Ridge this summer after the Forest Service’s final decision, I was shocked to see the size of the new clearcuts on top of Snow King. I keep hearing dismay from friends and neighbors who supported the expansions but had no idea what the developers really intended. Lines on a map don’t convey the impact of acres of forest destroyed, or of seeing the one huge Doug fir by Rafferty chopped down to make way for a zip line. Community members are asking how this happened, who allowed it, and why?
The Snow King expansion is an important case study in public land management gone wrong. We need to learn from it to protect our other public lands.
Unfortunately, Jackson’s longtime and well-respected district ranger left just before the Snow King environmental impact statement started, and a series of interim rangers ran the process. We found evidence in a Freedom of Information Act request that one of these interim rangers worked with the developers to bias the public process. The developers’ representative emailed friends: “In addition, if each of you as individuals could send an email to Mary Moore at Bridger-Teton National Forest and mention why you support Snow King’s proposed projects and it’s [sic] ongoing operations as a ski area that would be great. They have requested we get as many positive public comments as possible.”
The ranger did not request public comments about how to protect the wildlife and local skier experience. Instead she brought the biased comments to Jackson Town Council and presented them in a biased way: In her telling, comments that were not pro-development “had a negative tone.” In hindsight it’s clear that agency staff colluded with developers to push the expansion through instead of honoring the public trust and objectively assessing costs and benefits of development.
Unlike the Park Service, the Forest Service is not just about protecting our public lands. The reality is more complicated: While many staff are dedicated conservationists, others see their job as helping concessionaires — whether timber companies or ski area investors — maximize profits.
Today on Snow King, “Phase 1” of development is underway: the gondola, a huge new road scar, expanded boundaries, a 10,000-square-foot summit building, and a zip line across the mountain.
There are two rays of light: First, community pushback convinced our Town Council to reject landing the gondola and zip line in the Phil Baux Park ballfield, and the Forest Service denied two additional zip lines and a yurt camp deep in wildlife habitat.
Second, the Forest held back many of the most harmful proposals for a Phase 2 “contingent” on assessing Phase 1’s “impacts on scenic quality, noise, and other environmental and social resources.” Phase 2 would include another 15,000 square feet of summit complex, a mountain bike park in Leeks Canyon, and big new runs cut from the S-Chutes/towers summit. Those runs would fragment the goshawks’ nesting territory. Goshawks move their nests every few years and need integrity of their whole area.
By separating development into two phases, the Forest Service created an opportunity for Snow King’s investors to do the right thing: After increasing their profitability with gondola tourism, zip lines, uphill ski tours ($750 for a half day), and more, they could say “good enough” and forgo Phase 2. If you know anyone who works at Snow King or the Forest Service, please ask them to protect our Town Hill and wildlife and stop after Phase 1.
And if you got caught off guard by Snow King, it’s time to pay attention to a huge expansion proposed at Grand Targhee. Targhee owners want to more than double the “comfortable carrying capacity” and become as busy as Jackson Hole Mountain Resort. Imagine the impact on Teton Valley. It’s even worse for wildlife: They want to build lifts in Teton Canyon and expand the ski area boundaries, further impacting the imperiled Teton Bighorn Sheep. The Caribou-Targhee national forest has started environmental review, but so far not many people on the Jackson side of the mountains have weighed in. Get involved, comment on the Draft Environmental Impact Statement in early 2022, and help prevent a repeat of the Snow King process.
Late this summer I heard both goshawks making a racket in a tree near Sink or Swim. I thanked them for still being there, and I hope that our community will do the right thing by them and all our human and wild neighbors.