Idaho locals wary about Wyoming ski resort’s expansion plans

ALTA, Wyo. (AP) — Standing at the edge of a mountain meadow, Mike Whitfield explained to a group of journalists, activists and backcountry skiers how the slopes of Teton Canyon are important habitat for far more than just bighorn sheep.

As well as anyone, the Teton Valley native would know the ecological importance of the canyon where Grand Targhee Resort has proposed to add a ski run and stretch its boundaries. In the 1970s he completed a master’s thesis on now-imperiled native sheep in the Tetons, and he went on to spend a career working in wildlife and land conservation, and recreating and researching in Teton Canyon.

And so Whitfield spoke with authority when he said the Mill Creek area, a heavily treed nearby drainage where Targhee also seeks to expand, is crucial terrain for an array of fauna.

“It’s security habitat for elk and mule deer and bear and moose and the gamut,” he said. “Plus, it has sensitive species like great grey owls, goshawks, boreal owls. It’s really vital habitat.”

Minutes later, Whitfield switched hats. He pivoted his critique of the on-slope expansion and base-area development afoot to its potential effects on the community’s wellbeing, which he’s tasked with overseeing as a Teton County, Idaho, commissioner.

“The ski resort has been the driver of development in Teton Valley for decades, and still, it’s the biggie,” Whitfield said. “I’m probably more concerned about the development impact down in the valley that will accompany the expansion.”

“If we become a big destination resort,” he added, “Teton Valley is toast.”

That’s a sentiment widely shared within the 12,000-person valley west of the Teton Range that’s transitioning away from its agricultural roots and into more of a tourist destination in itself.

Rob Marin is Teton County, Idaho’s GIS Specialist who was appointed by his three-person board to take on a new duty: keeping tabs on the Grand Targhee development plans by splitting his job as the county’s new “community projects coordinator.” Through that role he read every last one of the 396 letters that were mailed into the Caribou-Targhee National Forest last summer, when the ski area’s proposal was early in the analysis stage and going through “scoping,” which is all about seeing what the public thinks. Those who took the time to weigh in had plenty of worries about impacts on wildlife, housing, parking and transportation.

“They were predominantly skeptical of one or more aspects about resort development,” Marin said of the commenters. “There were really only a handful of comments that were like, ‘Yeah, more skiing, bring it on.’”

While it’s not fair to pin Teton Valley’s troubles on Targhee, Marin said development up the hill from Alta in Wyoming can only exacerbate existing problems.

“Grand Targhee’s not the enemy, and a lot of the issues we’re facing aren’t their fault,” Marin said. “It’s not their fault we have a total housing crisis and invasion of out-of-state money.”

“But,” he added, “it’s the reality we have to deal with, and an expanded resort is likely to throw gas on the fire.”

In conversation the U.S. Forest Service has told Teton County, Idaho, decisionmakers and staff that saying “it’ll make it worse” doesn’t suffice. And so they’re commissioning a socioeconomic study so they can say specifically how a potential Targhee buildout would add to the transportation, housing, labor, emergency services, infrastructure and quality-of-life woes that are already mounting.

“We want to be safe, rather than sorry,” Marin said. “And that’s why we want to study this. Maybe it won’t be as bad as we fear, but we need to look at the true impacts of the accumulative development at Targhee.”

Development on the horizon along the west slope of the Tetons is slated for two different classes of land, neither of which Teton County, Idaho, has much control over. Initially the 65-year-old ski area sought to expand its 2,517-acre permit area on the Caribou-Targhee by 50%, tacking on two approximately 600-acre nodes, one each in Teton Canyon (the South Bowl Pod) and the Mill Creek area (Mono Trees Pod).

Word has since spread that the proposed Teton Canyon expansion area — where Whitfield and others hiked into — had been lopped in half, and two ski lifts had been eliminated from consideration due to avalanche concerns. But the shrunken enlargement is not a done deal, Teton District Ranger Jay Pence told the Jackson Hole News&Guide.

“It depends on how the deliberative process goes,” Pence said. “Because we still have a safety concern. We might want to put those 300 acres back in and treat it similar to how we’ve been treating Mary’s.”

Targhee could then rope off closed in-bounds terrain, he explained, rather than allowing unfettered access through a backcountry gate.

Expanding Targhee in both areas will require amending the Caribou-Targhee Forest Plan, because the adjoining federal property is not classified as suitable for a ski area. That amendment is being prepared in conjunction with an environmental impact statement that’s being headed by SE Group, a consultant whose work the Caribou-Targhee is overseeing and Grand Targhee is commissioning.

Many other renovations and redevelopment are planned within Targhee’s existing footprint: Rebuilt and all-new lifts, a tubing park, a guest yurt, 29 miles of new trails, 5.6 miles of new roads and a zip line, a ropes course and an aerial adventure course. There are also two major on-slope buildings proposed: a 6,000-square-foot restaurant at the summit of Fred’s Mountain, and a similarly sized guest building with a 2,000-square-foot deck would be added to the top of the Sacajawea Lift.

Those projects were accepted into Grand Targhee’s conceptual master plan in 2018. The same year, Teton County, Wyoming commissioners renewed decade-old entitlements that would allow the ski area to add 354 new lodging units and 150,000 square feet of commercial development to the 120-acre privately owned inholding that’s surrounded by the national forest.

Even with the pared-back Teton Canyon expansion, the on-slope changes on the table would roughly double Grand Targhee’s skier capacity, from 3,000 to 6,000, Marin said. That’s an untenable leap, he said, given the current state of infrastructure.

“Right now, the level of service on Ski Hill Road has declined to basically non-functional on powder days and holidays,” Marin said. “How are you going to adapt? From our perspective the obvious answer is you’re going to have to have more parking in the valley and a more robust shuttle system.”

But Teton County’s ability to adapt and upgrade its public services has been hamstrung in part by the Idaho Legislature. Sales tax revenues from a newer, larger Targhee would filter into Teton County, Wyoming’s coffers anyway. And a Gem State statute that caps property tax budget growth at 3% restricts Teton County, Idaho, from even harvesting much in the way of ancillary benefits via the ongoing real estate boom the Targhee development would fuel.

Because they’re strapped for cash, Teton County, Idaho, commissioners went to their Wyoming counterparts looking for help to funding the socioeconomic study, expected to be an approximately $50,000 expense.

After hemming and hawing over a couple weeks, Teton County, Wyoming, commissioners declined to make a financial contribution outright. Both Mark Barron and Greg Epstein expressed doubts about the need for a study, a sentiment shared by Grand Targhee owner Geordie Gillett. Over the weekend an attorney for the resort, Nicole Krieger, lobbied Wyoming commissioners, urging them in a letter not to contribute.

“It is unclear how the results of Idaho’s proposed study will be used or be of benefit, and the resort therefore respectfully asks that the request for contribution be denied at this time,” she wrote.

Although noncommittal, Wyoming commissioners also didn’t shut the door on the idea, and they agreed, 4-to-1, to mail off a letter on Tuesday that expresses an interest in helping their neighboring county out.

“We are not doing anything yet,” Chairwoman Natalia Macker said in a Tuesday meeting. “We’re … essentially saying, we think we’re interested in it, but we’re not going to commit until we see what the other study includes.”

The “other study” is a chapter of the SE Group’s draft environmental impact statement, and both counties expect to see a sneak of preview of it this month. But the environmental consultant has already indicated that it won’t assess the socioeconomic impacts of private land development at the base area. That’s a flaw, in Wyoming Commissioner Luther Propst’s view, in the federal analyses required by the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA.

“I want us to participate in the study, because unfortunately this is an example of how NEPA is being segmented to the point where it’s almost meaningless,” Propst said. “It just analyzes one tiny thing at a time.”

Just recently, the Bridger-Teton National Forest wrapped up a NEPA analysis of the expansions and renovations proposed by Snow King Mountain Resort. The years-long public engagement process failed to result in any meaningful changes.

“People lost a lot of trust,” Wyoming Wilderness Association Associate Director Peggie DePasquale said. “There was so much incredible input for Snow King and it was totally ignored, and they greenlighted the whole project.”

“That was disappointing to see, but that doesn’t mean that we should feel like our voices don’t matter, because they still do,” she added. “It is a different forest and there’s room for a different outcome here.”

Some Teton Valley organizations are waiting to see what the NEPA analysis says before taking a stance on Targhee’s big plans. Count Valley Advocates for Responsible Development Executive Director Shawn Hill in that camp.

“Everybody is approaching this expansion with a lot of trepidation,” Hill said. “At least from our perspective, we’ve always been willing to have an open mind.”

Still, few parties in Teton Valley are openly advocating for Targhee to get the green light. Even the business community is somewhat wary, Teton Regional Economic Coalition director Brian McDermott said.

“We want to see them be successful in a manner that doesn’t overburden the infrastructure,” he said. “Our local business, we welcome the Targhee guests, but we are cautious in that we have limited capacity in our valley to deal with explosive growth.”

McDermott was hopeful that between the Forest Service process and Teton Counties’ collaborative efforts, plans could be shaped “to everybody’s satisfaction.”

But optimism and withholding of judgment aren’t virtues shared by all.

Dissatisfied with advocacy groups’ responses, Teton Valley residents like Anne Callison, Chi Melville and Kirstin Robbe have become vocal opponents of the family-owned ski resort’s plans. Changes to the valley and and what they see as an erosion of the quality of life has fueled their discontent.

“The outline of how this is going to affect this valley is outrageous,” Callison said.

Prospective impacts aren’t just related to services and needs like law enforcement, housing, schools and the environment, but the community’s identity.

“We’re just trying to say no,” Callison said. “Jackson didn’t say no, and now where are you? It’s chaos.”

Already, Robbe said, the Targhee experience has transformed. Her daughter is on the ski team, and to get her to the slopes in time on the weekends last winter they routinely had to depart their Pine Creek Pass home at 6:15 a.m. to avoid the traffic.

“If you got there past 8 o’clock,” she said, “you were sitting on the road waiting for a parking space.”

Free-flowing traffic and untracked slopes are qualities that brought many residents to Teton Valley in the first place. They moved there, Marin said, because it wasn’t a resort community.

“That’s including myself,” he said. “There’s a lot of people here who just recognize that it’s diminishing returns to grow past a certain point. We recognize that Targhee has to grow and modernize — we get that — but do they need to grow to the extent that they’re proposing?”

Randomly approached on Monday, four Teton Valley residents and workers were uniform in their view that stretching Targhee’s slopes and adding hundreds of housing units at its base would do more harm than good.

Grand Teton Brewing brewmaster Clint LaMeer, accosted at work, was straight to the point: “I don’t like it.”

The 42-year-old, who’s dwelled in the Wydaho region for his adult life, was recently pushed out of his Victor apartment, then priced out of the community. Now he commutes from Rexburg, Idaho.

Lifelong 84-year-old resident LaRell Kunz and his pal Robert Engstrom, 88, took a break from a round at Targhee Meadows Golf Course to share their 2 cents.

“There’s room for a little expansion,” Kunz said. “But they’d have to do something with the infrastructure first, and I don’t think they need it, frankly.”

Engstrom, a proud every-day skiing “Targheezer,” also thought it was too busy already.

“There’s been days where they turn people around halfway up Ski Hill Road,” he said. “They’ve got to address that before they make it a destination resort.”

Broulim’s deli clerk Rachel Smith, who commutes from Ririe, Idaho, is of the mind that Targhee’s growth and expansion is inevitable. Nevertheless, she has her own reservations.

“It’s a bad thing,” Smith said. “It would totally interfere with the wildlife.”

Marin, Teton County’s community projects coordinator, has heard all these concerns before.

“The bottom line is Geordie (Gillett) should have made the case to the public before he entered into the NEPA process,” Marin said. “He’s got to make his case to the public, and he’d be remiss not to.”

Gillett and other Grand Targhee staffers declined an interview for this story.

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