Brianna Leaver has spent hours helping someone find a lost ski on Mount Glory — to no avail.
She frequently empties a trash can filled with dog poop, tries to create order of the parking morass on the top of Teton Pass, and carries a U.S. Forest Service radio and first-aid kit just in case she stumbles across a backcountry skier in trouble.
And she does it all in her free time.
“We’re lucky to have this pass,” Leaver said. “We just have to be able to share it.”
As a Teton Pass ambassador, Leaver is one of 14 or so volunteers with the Teton Backcountry Alliance who keep the peace in the parking pullout on top of Teton Pass. Years ago there was conflict between skiers, Wyoming Department of Transportation plow drivers and commuters over sharing the right of way. Now, while there’s still occasional friction, things are much improved, according to the people who manage the area. Part of that is credited to the pass ambassadors, whose role has expanded beyond parking superintendent. Now, as Leaver said, they function as a pseudo ski patrol on the pass. They keep order in parking areas, sure, but also check to see if people have the appropriate avalanche gear, give visitors a bit of beta on where to head, and provide some help in the backcountry if people are hurt or lost.
The Teton Pass ambassador program is relatively well-known to Jackson Hole’s backcountry skiers and snowboarders. But 20 years after Friends of Pathways and the Bridger-Teton National Forest first recruited Wilsonite Jay Pistono to encourage skiers to behave more responsibly while they parked and crossed the highway, the idea of recruiting unpaid volunteers to encourage community-oriented behavior has caught on. It seems like every nonprofit, federal land manager and their partners have an ambassador program.
Linda Merigliano, the Bridger-Teton National Forest’s longtime wilderness and recreation manager, was one of the people who suggested recruiting Pistono. At the time, skiers and Wyoming Department of Transportation plow drivers were close to exchanging blows over disagreements — if not throwing punches outright. She and Tim Young, then the head of Friends of Pathways, wanted a backcountry skier to encourage other members of the backcountry community to do the right thing, rather than sending a uniform-clad ranger after them.
“We don’t need to have total regulation,” Merigliano remembered, thinking at the time. “And none of us want total bedlam and chaos.”
It’s not a stretch to say that idea has stuck.
Now there are hundreds of people in Jackson Hole who take time out of their week to patrol public areas and offer visitors and locals advice rather than tickets.
In the past, PAWS of Jackson Hole recruited “poop fairies” to encourage people to pick up their dog’s poop at popular trailheads. The movement was widely credited with cleaning up the Cache Creek drainage a few years back.
Friends of Pathways gets cyclists to ride around in the summer and encourage pathways etiquette.
The Bridger-Teton National Forest’s nonprofit partner, Friends of the Bridger-Teton, has a stable of volunteers who spend their summers living in campers at some of the forest’s most popular dispersed campgrounds.
Then there’s the wildlife brigade, which manages bear jams in Grand Teton National Park; the wildlife ambassadors who keep traffic moving when grizzlies are out on Togwotee Pass; and the river ambassadors who float the Snake, educating people about the fisheries and damping down the chaos on boat ramps.
More recently, skiers trying to find a way to make Snow King Mountain Resort’s uphill program sustainable suggested an ambassador program. The Jackson Hole Chamber of Commerce has even enlisted volunteers to stand near the antler arches to greet visitors and point them around town.
Twenty years ago, none of those programs existed. Most have sprung up in the past decade or so, starting with the Teton Pass program. Pistono is widely considered the first ambassador, and now oversees a cadre of red jackets like Leaver who have picked up his mantle and kept things running smoothly as backcountry use has skyrocketed.
“There’s so many folks out there and there’s more of a tendency towards entitlement than, say, self-governance,” Pistono said. “There has to be some sort of referee there. And that’s where the ambassador thing really kicked into gear.”
But not every ambassador ends up dealing with confrontation as much as those on the forest.
In Grand Teton, for example, crosscountry ski ambassadors were originally envisioned as a way to get skiers to make sure other skiers were following park rules, like using the right lane, keeping dogs on a leash on the groomed park road and not ski-joring — hitching dogs to their waist for a boost while cross-country skiing. But in recent years, as winter use of the park has surged, the ambassadors have spent more and more time orienting visitors to the park, what there is to do, and how to handle their equipment.
Steve Morriss has been one of the park’s cross-country ski rangers since the mid-2010s, when the Grand Teton National Park Foundation started grooming Teton Park Road. Once that began, park officials saw the ambassador program as a way to set rules of the newly groomed park road.
Almost 10 years later, Morriss said, when people want a break from downhill skiing and go into Skinny Skis looking for a place to cross-country ski, they’re pointed to the park road. Business owners know about the ambassador program, and know they’ll help visitors out.
“Oftentimes that help involves getting them into their skis for the first time, helping out with other equipment issues and pointing in the right directions,” Morriss said.
Scott Kosiba, a former U.S. Forest Service wilderness ranger who now serves as the head of Friends of the Bridger-Teton, thinks ambassador programs have proliferated for two related reasons. Land managers like the Bridger-Teton and the Park Service have trouble hiring enough staff as it is, especially as demand for recreation surges, and volunteers are often a ready and willing solution. They’re retirees looking for a place to park a camper for the summer, skiers looking to give back while they’re in the backcountry, or hikers tired of pooch poop on the trails they walk themselves.
“They’re able to stay in one of the most beautiful places in the country, protect the resource and connect with people and share their own passion,” Kosiba said, referring to the forest’s campground ambassadors. “If we were outside in some other place — in rural Illinois or something — we wouldn’t have that same recruitment potential.”
The proliferation of ambassador programs comes as the number of people visiting Jackson Hole has skyrocketed. And that’s no coincidence.
In 2005 Jackson Hole Airport recorded 250,000 “enplanements” for the first time, the airline industry’s way of gauging how busy an airport is by counting the number of people boarding planes there. In 2022 the airport reported 405,693 “enplanements,” a 62% increase. And visitation was actually down in 2022 from 2021, when the COVID-19 pandemic drove visitors to Jackson Hole in record numbers. In that year the airport reported about 500,000 “enplanements,” a twofold increase since 2005 — in less than 20 years.
If Teton County is following national trends, which land managers feel it is, a lot of people visiting Jackson Hole are also new to outdoor recreation. Camping, certainly. A 2022 report from KOA, an American franchise of privately owned campgrounds, estimated that 21% of households that went camping in 2020 were new to camping: That’s some 10 million groups. In 2021 that number dipped down to 16%, or about 9 million households. But both years represented a dramatic increase from years prior. In 2019 only 4% of households that set up show in the woods were new to camping, just under 2 million people.
“There’s a lot of people that are fairly new to outdoor activities,” said Merigliano, the forest’s recreation specialist. “So we just need to go back to some basics and not assume that everybody grew up knowing how and what to do in the woods.”
As visitors have flocked to the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, officials say having a friendly face present in highly trafficked areas has helped steer visitors, new valley residents and long-time locals toward behaving in a way that’s more in line with the community’s values and regulations.
For the Friends of the Bridger-Teton, the presence of ambassadors has helped prevent human-caused wildfire and euthanasia of wildlife in dispersed camping areas where they’re present. Camping ambassadors have put out over 200 unattended campfires, Kosiba said, and talked with nearly 1,000 people about food storage violations, the main cause of human-wildlife conflict. Wildlife ambassadors on Togwotee Pass have also helped keep traffic moving on the highway — and roadside bears like Felicia alive. Shadow Mountain has become a “pretty decent place to go camp,” Merigliano said. Same with Curtis Canyon.
“The Sheriff’s Office was scared to go up there because it was pretty dangerous,” Merigliano said. “Just having that daily presence has really helped transform that place.”
On Teton Pass more people are leashing their dogs near the highway and fewer people are flipping WYDOT plowmen the bird. In Grand Teton the ski ambassadors have helped enforce rules, but also become a point of contact for visitors new and old.
“Their job originally was to educate people,” said Jess Erwin, Grand Teton’s volunteer coordinator. “But they developed into so much more, which was helping visitors get oriented.”
On Teton Pass, where Pistono served as the valley’s first ambassador, the idea was to promote “responsible recreation” and keeping the peace by encouraging people to behave politely. Merigliano thinks that’s worked, at least in part. And she hopes that ethic continues to spread, ensuring it’s not a hassle to do the right thing.
“I’m seeing that start to take hold,” Merigliano said. “And that’s incredibly encouraging.”
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