Let My People Go Skiing

Far from the bustle and glamor of Jackson Hole lies a quieter, simpler part of our county: Alta, Wyoming. While the dramatic view of the Tetons from the Alta town park is just as stunning as it is from almost anywhere on the eastern side of the range, the pace is different.

That’s just fine by the folks who live there.

Just up the hill from Alta lies Grand Targhee Resort. As anyone who has spent a day at the ‘Ghee knows, it’s a throw-back to skiing the way it used to be, a Neil Young slow dance to the Kim Kardashian club vibe of the modern ski experience, mellow, relaxed, a return to the soul of the lifestyle.

That, too, works for the folks from Alta, who live on the quieter side of the Tetons for a reason.

Late this summer, Grand Targhee proposed an expansion of their ski resort that includes a 50% increase in the ski area’s boundary; new ski lifts; on-slope restaurants, warming cabins and yurts; summer recreational trails, a zipline and additional recreation amenities; and expanded Nordic skiing and snowshoeing.

Overall, the proposal would add approximately 1,200 acres to the permit area and 57 acres of snowmaking coverage (for a ski resort that reports 500 inches of snow a year).

This is hardly the first time Grand Targhee has proposed additions and improvements it says it needs to stay competitive. In 1994, the resort received approval to build the Peaked Mountain chair lift, which would add 600 skiable acres of in-bounds riding to the area and give it more lift-accessed terrain than Jackson Hole Mountain Resort. It has yet to be built.

In September, I wrote to urge the Teton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC) to provide written comment on the proposal to the United States Forest Service, and to ask that the BCC be designated as a cooperating agency under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

I also asked that our BCC meet with the Teton County, Idaho Board of County Commissioners to coordinate a regional response—something planned to occur on Monday, October 26, at 1 p.m.

I did so because the proposed expansion of Grand Targhee Resort would fall within sensitive wildlife terrain, affecting elk, moose, bighorn sheep and bear habitat and perpetuating a pattern of habitat fragmentation that has direct implications for the longterm health of native species and their ability to roam.

I also did so because the proposed development would affect treasured sidecountry ski terrain that is currently open to human-powered outdoor recreation. Should the terrain be added to the proposed boundary expansion, the permit owners would have the right to prohibit public access to those public lands, as they currently do on Peaked Mountain.

Unfortunately for backcountry skiers and private citizens like me, the BCC does not have a good track record when it comes to listening to concerns related to ski area expansion.

In 2019, the BCC declined to provide written comment on the proposed expansion of Snow King Mountain to the United States Forest Service. This decision facilitated Snow King Mountain’s requests for development entitlements that have since been granted.

The proposed Grand Targhee expansion would similarly advance the interests of private owners licensing public lands. Having secured the necessary entitlements to expand the boundary of their operations, these same owners would be in an improved position for a future sale of the resort, which in turn would have implications for our infrastructure, property taxes and community character.

On September 30, to better understand the concerns about the proposed boundary expansion among those who would most directly be affected, I held a listening session with Alta residents.

As one of people who called in put it, “Every impact that is beyond Targhee is downhill.”

Case in point: water. One caller referenced the fact that the soil in the area of the proposed developments doesn’t hold it.

“Water’s going to be a huge issue,” he said. “We’re downhill. How will [the proposed development] impact our municipal water? How will it impact stormwater runoffs?”

Unlike the rest of Teton County, Alta is still an agricultural community. A number of the folks who called in (I’m omitting names for privacy) were second-, third-, and fourth-generation ranchers who spoke to the impacts of development on their land and livestock.

Traffic was another issue that emerged as a primary concern. Already this year, one caller noted there were 3,000 cars on Alta North Road—not Ski Hill Road—in July alone, clocking in at speeds of up to 71 mph.

What will traffic on Ski Hill Road be like, callers wondered, if the request for expansion is granted?

“Ski Hill Road won’t be safe,” said one.

“Traffic impacts, noise impacts, stormwater runoffs, safety considerations, the shared road concept—all would be hugely impacted,” said another.

The scoping process for the expansion closed on Friday, October 16. As one concerned citizen emailed me, “I have been on a huge emotional rollercoaster since August 25 [when Grand Targhee Resort submitted the proposal]. I thought it would slow down [October 16]. I realized that this is just the beginning of the biggest fight of my life.”

Would she give up?

No—and therein lies the hope.

“I think my path now is to create a grassroots organization called Save Teton Canyon,” she wrote.

The reason Teton County residents have a place worth fighting for is the direct result of past generations who were so inspired by the singular nature of our ecosystem that they rose to the occasion to protect it.

The reason we’ll have a spectacular place moving forward is because of people like the author of the aforementioned email—and the 380 others who wrote letters to the US Forest Service on the proposed expansion, which may be found here.

Development is powerful. People profit directly and quickly from it, which creates a strong lobby for its interests.

Our environmental integrity, meanwhile, pays its dividends slowly, from generation to generation. It depends on our community at large to protect it. We don’t have a lobby. We simply have our concerns and the vague hope that somehow, perhaps by osmosis, our elected officials will do what’s right and take environmental impacts into consideration when making their decisions.

In recent years, this has occurred less and less frequently. Our ecological wellbeing is increasingly degraded as a result.

The protection of our wild places has almost always been catalyzed not by elected officials, but by private citizens, such as the ones in Alta, who cared so much for this place that they were willing to fight, however long the odds, to save it.

I recognize that the protection of our environment is key to a healthy community and economy, for this and future generations. That’s why, if elected, I’ll advocate for our pristine waters and stunning views, our mountain air and wild vistas, our grizzlies, wolves, bison, balds and the quality of life and experience they afford us all. I’ll make the protection of the ecosystem my North Star in decisions such as the Grand Targhee expansion.

But regardless of who takes office in January, we will need to keep pressuring our elected officials to prioritize our public lands and natural resources—and this will depend on the willingness of private citizens like those in Alta who are willing to stay in the game and continue to engage even when the odds feel long.

As Margaret Mead put it, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

Keep fighting, Alta. If I’m elected, I’ll stand shoulder to shoulder with you in the battle to protect this singular place we all call home.

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@ 2020 Christian Beckwith for Teton County Commissioner.