As a world-class ski destination, people from all over the world come to visit Jackson Hole Mountain Resort (JHMR). Part of the allure is the resort is known for being one of the most challenging ski areas in the country. Testing your fortitude on the naturally steep, cliff-studded slopes provides a challenge many advanced skiers long for.
Now the resort is proposing a plan that will prioritize the creation of intermediate terrain over maintaining expert runs that draw these skiers in. The primary area in question is the Alta Chutes which is one of the premier steep skiing spots at JHMR. The proposal would remove rocks as well as thinning and delimbing select trees. JHMR claims this would allow for earlier openings and fewer closures throughout the season.
The other area of concern is a proposal to clear a groomed run through the North Woods. The North Woods are the section of tightly spaced pine trees between Rendezvous Trail and The Hobacks. The area is spaced out just enough to allow for skiing or snowboarding and often contains great powder snow.
Creating the new trail for less experienced skiers is intended to give them a chance to bail onto an easier slope if the tight moguls and rocks prove too much. This would require cutting down trees across a 140-foot slope but would spread skiers out and provide more terrain options by enhancing underutilized areas.
Why would JHMR do this?
In an email exchange with JHMR, Director of Resort Development, Jonathan Markman, had this to say:
“We do not wish to take the character or difficulty away from the Alta Chutes as it’s one of the premier steep skiing spots at JHMR. We have submitted a proposal for rock removal and select tree thinning/limbing in the Alta Chutes with the goal of earlier openings and fewer closures throughout the season. JHMR’s vision for the North Woods is to spread skiers out and provide more terrain options by enhancing underutilized areas.”
The motivation behind the proposals also appears to be skier safety, but many locals don’t agree. Many argued that by making the areas more accessible to intermediate skiers you not only take away some of the character of the mountain, but it increases the likelihood of someone getting into a situation that is out of their skill range.
As it is now, the natural hazards of the terrain keep people who shouldn’t be in there out of harm’s way. Specifically with the Alta Chutes area, one long-time JHMR ski patroller says it could make avalanche danger in the area worse. By removing rocks and trees you create unknown problems and potentially an easier avalanche path.
Many would like JHMR to stay just like it is. Commenters on the proposal raised several points. They iterated that the areas in question are scary for a reason – to keep people who shouldn’t be there out. They also showed contempt for the North Woods trail, asking as to why would anyone would want a groomed trail when they can ski powder in the area days after a storm. Others complained about how this would take away from the character of the mountain and cater only to tourists, essentially accusing the resort of trying to appeal to a lower level of skier to expand its market base.
These are just two projects out of 35 that JHMR is hoping to implement over approximately the next six years. Included in the proposal are other high-profile alterations, one of which is replacing the Sublette Quad with a six-person chair. Also in the proposal is installing new via Ferrata routes and infrastructure in Casper Bowl, the Tram Tower 4 cliffs, and Corbet’s Couloir. Additionally, the resort wants to build an additional 10 miles of new summer trails that would crisscross the resort and pass through parts of Rock Springs Canyon.
The concerns already mentioned over these projects don’t even begin to address the potential environmental impacts they could have. Some think the ecological damage to the forest would be devastating. Areas of concern are the impact on the whitebark pine tree population, a species recently listed for federal protection under the Endangered Species Act. The EPA is also worried about the encroachment of trails into moose habitats as well as potential impacts on wetlands and water resources. This includes the potential for increased water withdrawals and water quality from new snowmaking.
What happens next?
The proposal is currently in the process of reviewing public comments and preparing a draft environmental assessment. Once the document is released there will be another round of public comments before it can be approved. This is the second-highest level of review under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) but it could be elevated to an environmental impact statement, which is the highest level of NEPA review. This would happen if the Forest Service can’t demonstrate that there is no “significant impact” on a list of pre-established resources, including federally protected species.
These developments clearly show the passion that local JHMR riders have for their sacred mountain. In general, people were supportive of projects that would expand summertime access to the mountains but critical of projects that would alter the expert-level terrain or have significant impacts on tree cover. It will be fascinating to see how the additional assessment and comment period plays out for the future of JHMR.