One plump, native cutthroat trout after another tore into dry flies that skated with the surface of the Gros Ventre River.
It was one of those perfect days recreating in the wild web of land encompassing Jackson Hole that makes valley newcomers like me ponder how they’ll ever manage to leave this place. Diffuse columns of light-bending smoke shot up from the north and south, the product of large wildfires that were burning in the Hoback and on Togwottee Pass. Where we fished, somehow the air was crisp. My pops at my side, we plied the on-fire river running off the Gros Ventre Range’s granite so hard and for so long that time got away from us. Light faded while we trekked two muddy miles across relic pasture and bogs back to the end of the Gros Ventre Road.
I’ll never forget that day adventuring on what’s now land we all own, just a strut-stressing two-hour drive from Jackson Town Square. But for much of the 20th century it wouldn’t have been possible — at least without permission.
The trout-happy honey hole I ought not be writing about out of self-interest is located on the Bridger-Teton National Forest’s latest addition: a nearly 1,000-acre swath of ranchland that unfurls in a long valley that’s cut by a coiled creek-sized river. This fresh slice of federal turf didn’t materialize by happenstance. The acquisition began with the philanthropy of a longtime U.S. senator from Wisconsin, Herb Kohl, whose love of the land prompted him to preserve it, instead of maximizing the value, which could have entailed ranchettes on 35-acre plots.
Two land stewardship groups played pivotal roles. The Trust for Public Land orchestrated the donation and held the title for three years, until $3 million in federal Land and Water Conservation Fund dollars conveyed the land to the Bridger-Teton. The Jackson Hole Land Trust — of which Kohl was a founding member — also helped pull the deal together and invested in it.
Afterward, the fallow acreage of the former Upper Gros Ventre River Ranch wasn’t just left as it was. Trout Unlimited’s Snake River Headwaters Project stepped in to reverse one gash from its agricultural past, the 4-mile-plus “Common Sense Ditch.” The earthen structure, which predates machinery, still stands, but where it once severed four Gros Ventre headwaters tributaries the streams now connect — potential new habitat for juvenile cutthroat.
As I cover the conservation community as the Jackson Hole News&Guide’s enviro reporter, sometimes cynicism gets the best of me. The movement’s forebears in Jackson Hole scored remarkable achievements: the Rockefellers’ foresight in conspiring to gobble up the valley’s ranches for the long-term good of the land and people; the sprawling complexes of wilderness that were created in the 1960s and '80s; and, most recently, reintroducing wolves and recovering grizzly bears.
Nowaways the accomplishments often seem less grand — crumbs of conservation, comparatively. In a sense it’s true, because the biggest fights in this neck of the Northern Rockies have been fought. The relatively pristine state of the rightly revered Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is testament to the outcome: Preservation won the day.
For those rooting for the Earth, it’s heartening to know that, in places, the degradation human development has wrought to so much of our planet is losing. Count the Upper Gros Ventre as among those places. A century ago, when the Gros Ventre was the main drag connecting Jackson Hole to Pinedale, there were many working ranches along the corridor, only a few of which hang on. There were restaurants over the years, and even a post office. I once heard someone liken the upper valley’s flatlands near the Bridger-Teton’s new acreage to a modern day Hoback Junction — the last stop for services during homestead era.
Clearly, that’s no longer the case. But this rewilding doesn’t just happen willy-nilly. And for that, the aforementioned groups and people whose work and altruism helped preserve a slice of this place for perpetuity earn a much-deserved tip of my camo truckers hat. ￼