THE BUZZ 2: To NEPA or Not

By on June 7, 2017

Public will get a voice in the Phase 2 Snow King saga.

Sitting on the Town Hill, contemplating its future. (Photo: Robyn Vincent)

JACKSON HOLE, WY – Snow King Mountain will not yet move forward with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) review process, which would bring it one step closer to realizing its Phase 2 Development Plan. Instead, town councilors heard public pleas for revising the Resort District Master Plan, and directed staff to draft a plan that allows for public discussion of the master plan prior to, or at least concurrently with, any United States Forest Service updates.

Quick refresh: Snow King Mountain is hoping to move forward on Phase Two of its development plan, which would add a gondola, a restaurant at the summit, and expansions to the recreational land on Bridger Teton National Forest. To do so requires Forest Service approval, which first requires Snow King to go through the NEPA process. But some think that moving forward with the NEPA process before amending Snow King’s 17-year-old Base Master Plan is premature.

While the May 15 town council meeting brought a slough of citizens forward to support Snow King’s Phase 2 Development Plan, public comment at Monday’s meeting was more wary of growth.

“NEPA is kind of like an oil or gas lease,” one local said. “It’s hard to stop things once that’s gone through.”

She questioned whether Snow King Mountain was more concerned with recreation, or with profit. “Phase 2 to me is all about bringing more and more visitors in to recreate,” she said. “That impacts animals. [Snow King] is already close to over-recreated.”

Jeff Golightly, vice president of Gardiner Capital Management, says such concerns are misinformed. “There’s a misconception about how important the recreational component is to the land around Snow King from an economic value standpoint,” he said. Most guests of Snow King resort, he said, aren’t there to ski the King. If anything, they’re there to ski Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, and just happen to be staying at a hotel in town that just happens to sit at the base of another ski resort.

Golightly noted that of the 88 percent of winter tourism driven by skiing, Snow King attracts just one percent of those destination travelers. The rest, he said, end up at Snow King by chance, on their rest days. So the mountain isn’t increasing tourism, Golightly said. It’s “distributing tourism.”

But the guest who stays at Snow King Resort and skis at Teton Village, councilman Jim Stanford said, should still contribute to the mountain. That’s how the Snow King Base Master Plan is supposed to work. The fact that it’s not working that way, Stanford says, is exactly the problem, and why a reevaluation of the master plan is necessary.

Stanford reminded fellow councilors and the public about the snow King Resort Master Association, SKRMA, that was written into the master plan. SKRMA, Stanford said, is supposed to integrate all of the different elements of Snow King—the resort, the mountain, the ice rink, etc.—into one functional, cohesive unit. But, Stanford said, “it did not even exist until a few years ago when we started asking questions about it.” Or, it did exist; it just wasn’t doing anything it was supposed to do.

“[SKRMA] has never done anything in 17 years,” Stanford said. “It’s supposed to be front and center, in charge of integrating all these different elements of the resorts.” But in reality, “it only exists on paper.”

But the Snow King of today is vastly different than the Snow King of 2000, when the master plan was written. The biggest difference, of course, is in ownership. Snow King was once one cohesive entity, under the same ownership, so SKRMA’s job was easier. Now, recreation is separate from lodging, which is separate from the ice rink. Each entity, Stanford said, is supposed to support community recreation—in other words, revenue from the resort should help subsidize recreational costs. But that doesn’t seem to be the case.

“The master plan states that it’s expensive to provide recreation,” Stanford said. “We’ve been told now for years, ‘Hey, you need to approve this to keep recreation running.’ But the master plan explicitly stated, ‘this is how we support recreation.’ Tools were provided, but nobody’s ever followed through.”

If such a central pillar to the original master plan isn’t holding up, Stanord said, isn’t it time to reevaluate the master plan? Stanford clarified that he does not fault the new ownership, nor is he opposed to development that could save Snow King and maintain its character. But, he said, that can’t happen without public discourse. “The master plan should be opened up so community can weigh in and come to an agreement on what the future of the resort can be.”

Golightly and Snow King Mountain Resort general manager Ryan Stanley said it’s not that simple. “I’m sure Manuel [Lopez, former owner] didn’t imagine his empire breaking up,” Stanley said, “He didn’t put that in [the master plan.]” But that’s the reality Snow King faces. Updating the master plan and trying to move forward with Phase 2 developments at the same time, Golightly said, could require resources that neither Snow King nor the town have.

“If everyone knew 10 years ago what we know today, things may have been done differently,” Golightly said. “We’re a relatively new ownership group that has knowingly purchased an asset that we were hopeful we could invest in.” And growth is part of that investment. As it relates to SKRMA: it’s hard, Golightly said, to ask for money and cooperation from people who “bought assets from the old ownership” and didn’t have to pay as much.

“We thought that if we went through the right public process—we’ve had 20-plus public meetings over the course of the last year, three town council meetings, a two-year scoping process—we could try to capture the community’s will. I feel like we’ve reacted to that.” Golightly noted that a large part of the NEPA process is, in fact, public comment. It’s a balancing act, he said. “We’re continuing to alter plan to serve needs of community, but we also have to serve ourselves to make it viable long-term. We really want to find that balance.”

At the end of another lengthy discussion, the council moved to direct staff to draft another motion for the next meeting. As per Councilors Bob Lenz’s and Hailey Morton-Levinson’s suggestions, the motion will allow public dialogue to happen somewhat concurrently with Forest Service improvements. It will include an update to the master plan to reflect what is actually on the ground today, and allow the town and the public to discuss the master plan before the council drafts a letter of recognition to the Forest Service to begin the NEPA process.

 “I do want to sign a letter to start the NEPA process,” Morton-Levinson said, “and start looking at the NEPA process by the end of the year/beginning of next year. I wish we could do everything at once.” PJH

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