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County resists letting Snow King get bigger

September 26, 2018

Snow King Mountain Resort and its national forest landlord are under pressure to consider keeping the Town Hill confined to its current boundaries.

Top officials at Snow King are pushing for the opposite: expansions to the east and west that would enlarge the ski area’s permit area from 338 to 495 acres — a 46 percent jump. The request that the Bridger-Teton National Forest include a no-growth alternative in an impending environmental impact statement assessing Snow King’s proposed renovations comes directly from Teton County elected officials.

“I would like to have an alternative, or have it reconsidered in the alternatives, to have a zero net increase in acreage,” Teton County Commissioner Natalia Macker said at a Sept. 17 workshop.

The idea had traction with the rest of the board, except Greg Epstein, and it was formalized in a letter to the Bridger-Teton that commissioners approved Monday. The forest is still accepting public comments during its “scoping” of Snow King’s plans, and there’s an Oct. 4 deadline to submit critiques. The process is intended to shape options that will be included in the upcoming environmental impact statement.

Also at Macker’s urging, Teton County asked the Bridger-Teton to come up with designations for forestland inside of Snow King’s proposed boundary expansions that would restrict what uses are allowed.

As they’re drawn up in Snow King’s tentative plans, the expansions to the east and west would enable a longer, lower-grade road to reach Snow King’s summit, but much of the permitted treed terrain in the north-facing slope would be left fallow with the exception of some runs and glading between road cuts. Macker’s request, if granted, could restrict Snow King from adding a feature like a ski lift downslope within the new boundary at some point in the future.

Epstein, formerly a longtime Teton Gravity Research employee, resisted requesting changes such as no net increase of acreage.

“I think we need to treat Snow King the same, equally to Jackson Hole Mountain Resort and Targhee,” Epstein said. “I’m maybe on the opposite end of the spectrum from all of you.”

The commissioners’ discussion turned toward asking the Bridger-Teton to assess and mitigate impacts to wildlife, the foremost concern of Smoky Rhea. Again worried about singling out Snow King, Epstein struck a similar chord, pointing to recent on-slope development in Teton Village. Paul Vogelheim took exception.

“I don’t feel that we have in any way looked at Snow King differently than we have the other facilities,” Vogelheim said. “When we looked at the recent JHMR [improvements] as a cooperating agency, it was mostly about uses, it was not an expansion of the ski resort. This is a pretty substantial increase in the footprint of the ski resort with an impact on habitat, and I think that’s the distinction between the two.”

The commissioners’ letter also asks Bridger-Teton decision-makers to “carefully consider” how the Snow King renovations align with goals and regulations outlined by the 2012 Jackson/Teton County Comprehensive Plan. The first paragraph of the plan calls for stewarding Jackson Hole’s ecological resources and protecting and enhancing the ecosystem to achieve the community’s desired character.

“I think this board is tasked mostly with understanding the relationship of Snow King to our comprehensive plan and how it fits in with that,” Commissioner Mark Newcomb said. “Certainly, we’ve looked at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort and their requested resort improvements under that lens, too.”

Snow King General Manager Ryan Stanley did not respond Tuesday to an interview request.

Snow King officials have pitched the proposed road, and the expansions they say depend on it, as key elements of the resort’s “phase 2” renovation. They reason that it would provide beginner terrain from top to bottom and allow easier vehicle access to the summit.

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