FEATURE: Against the Current

By on September 13, 2017

Controversial river park could help Jackson shed its dirty water secret.

JACKSON HOLE, WY — On the banks of the Snake River sits the South Park boat ramp, a degraded industrial site that old chunks of concrete, decaying rebar and discarded sonotubes call home. The litter pokes out of rock piles and bends beneath concrete slabs under the bridge.

The debris extends over a mile upstream from the South Park Bridge, and stands in stark contrast to the breathtaking views and endless freedom that the rest of the wild Wyoming stretch of river offers.

The ramp has become a source of contention with locals, who agree that while something must be done with the eyesore, they’re not sure what.

Valley residents are divided on how to handle the site of the old South Park boat ramp — designated as Parcel 26 by the Bureau of Land Management.

While some push for development, others are more concerned with conservation as the main focus. Major players sit on both sides of the fence, making the issue over what to do about the old boat ramp a prevalent one.

“It’s the most divisive issue I’ve seen come before the board in my three years there,” said Mark Newcomb, chairman of the Teton County Commission.

When it comes to the issue of conservation vs. development, there are some good points on both sides.

The 1,078-mile long Snake River is the largest fee-free North American river in the West. It starts in Yellowstone National Park and winds through western Wyoming before it dips down into southern Idaho and across northeastern Oregon. In true snake fashion, the river ends by splaying open its mouth in Washington and emptying into the Pacific Ocean.

It is one of the few remaining intact riparian ecosystems in the US, and the Snake is a vital resource to the valley recreationally, culturally, ecologically and economically.

Local river steward and activist Aaron Pruzan calls the eyesore “the most degraded riparian zone in the valley,” which is precisely why he’s aiming to do something about it.

Enter Pruzan’s solution for the boat ramp issue: The Jackson Hole River Park at South Park. Pruzan and his group, the Jackson Hole River Parks Project, submitted the idea to Teton County officials for approval.

To park…or not to park

Six years, ago, Pruzan formed the JHRPP, a steering committee to conceptualize the park.  What the group came up with was the idea of an all-inclusive river sports spot: The park would not only provide separate boat ramp access, but would allow the public an easily-accessible point for all river activities, from fishing, kayaking and river surfing to less-wet options, like picnics and hanging out on the riverbanks.

The project would also modify the dangerous parts of the current boat ramp, making water hazards safer and turning them into recreational features, like waves, pools and eddies.

“Teton County committed to building a park in this location when they submitted the plan to the BLM for land transfer,” he said.

“In 2014, they voted 5-0 to approve the concept of the wave, but stated we had to fund, plan, provide a design and get a permit.”

The process took a couple years, and since then, four of the commissioners on the board have changed.

In mid-August, Jackson’s county commissioners voted on whether to partner with the Jackson Hole Kayak Club – the group Pruzan leads — in the application for a conditional use permit.

Despite a half million-dollar anonymous donation to Parks and Recreation, the board shot the idea down, voting 3-2 against it.

Park it

Ignoring the problem – or rather, ignoring that development doesn’t automatically mean more damage to the river – isn’t going to solve the issue, according to Pruzan.

What opponents don’t realize is that conservation and recreation are inextricably linked, Pruzan said, and the outdoor industry is a key force in conservation efforts – especially when it comes to the issue with Snake River.

While it may seem counterintuitive, river parks actually have very few environmental effects and offer great benefits to communities, according to Pruzan.

Still, Jackson Hole remains one of the only mountain towns in the West with no equitable access point to the river on public lands, and if the board votes are any indicator, it will remain one of the only mountain towns lacking.

“Recreation and conservation need each other,” Pruzan said. “Their past and future are intertwined.”

The opposition

On top of the opposition by local residents, there are a number of hurdles in the way for the proposed park – including degraded areas. Still, Pruzan is confident that should he get the go ahead for a river park, his team can handle them.

“We couldn’t even get the segment at South Park designated for a conditional use permit,” said Pruzan, “because the river had been too degraded by manipulation of levees. In 400 miles, it wasn’t even eligible.”

A big part of the river park project is Pruzan and his cohorts cleaning up the area, while creating a safe access point to the river and developing a whitewater park.

“Water is everywhere here, but it is very difficult for people who don’t own a boat or private land to access the Snake River close to Jackson Hole,” said Corey Milligan. Milligan is co-chair of the River Park Project, as well as a river enthusiast, environmentalist and conservationist.

Milligan is one of several who feel the process of getting park approval from the county has been convoluted.

“This project is snarled up in a lot of bureaucratic red tape,” Milligan said. “Three or four commissioners were not aware of the history of the project. We got the Snake River designated ‘wild and scenic’; we started the Snake River Fund. We built Rendezvous Park. We are committed to raise funds needed for this project.”

The core team of community members and river advocates who worked on the project before meeting with local officials say they were surprised the proposal didn’t pass.

“I thought we had everything we needed to get a CUP,” said Meredith Landino, a 25-year-resident of the valley and river enthusiast.

Despite the vote against a partnership and a CUP application, commissioners agreed that the project has merit.

“I do believe rehabbing the site and building a river-access park is a good idea,” said Chairman Newcomb, who voted against the proposal. “It was not an easy decision for me to make.”

Commissioner Natalia Macker and Commissioner Paul Vogelheim also rejected the partnership and permit application.

Newcomb said that one of the issues appears to be that Parks and Recreation Board had not vetted the proposal.

The in-wave feature drew the most concern, followed by issues with the fish passage, fish habitat and populations. There was also concern regarding ongoing funding for the park and long-term maintenance in an area where water levels fluctuate greatly.

“There was confusion on the in-water feature,” said Greg Epstein, one of the two board members who voted in favor of Pruzan’s plan.

“When Aaron and his team presented in mid-June, they had merely proposed a potential channel wide feature. In reality, the JHRPP had not decided on a final plan.”

There were originally two concept plans: One utilized a natural wave, and the other went across the channel to the shore.

The design plan would enhance the hydraulic of the existing wave, which will provide for safe back eddy access, and would prioritize cleaning up the industrial detritus along the riverbank.

The U.S. Forest Service and Wyoming Department of Transportation are on board for upgrading the eastern side of the highway.

Pruzan is concerned that WY-DOT is going to build the underpass, and it will go to a field of thistles.

“Wave or no wave,” Pruzan said, “we should have a plan for that spot.”

“There is a huge construction site there right now, and the county had an opportunity to reclaim the area, and turn it into friendly community park that gives people access to the river who don’t normally have it. Along with that, came the in-wave feature. I was mainly looking at better river access and a partner for reclamation,” said Epstein.

Len Carlman, Executive Director of the Snake River Fund, calls the site an “ugly mess distinguished by old concrete and asphalt slabs and some exposed rebar.”

Still, Carlman is grateful that the project has drawn wider attention to the 32-acre river right area above and below the South Park Bridge, which is now public land and under a 35-year lease to the county by Teton County Parks and Recreation.

“The new South Park boat ramp does not work where the ramp meets the water because there is no decent eddy,” Carlman said. “Boat ramps need eddies.”

The Snake River Fund does not yet, however, hold a formal pro or con position on the play wave proposal.

The divide over what to do about the boat ramp comes at a critical moment in time, according to Carlman.

“The BLM unequivocally does not want further ownership duties on Parcel 26, or 19 other small, isolated Snake River riparian tracts that cumulatively total about 1,000 acres in Teton County,” he said.

Still, while the complexities of the project may not be entirely understood, the degraded river parcel begs a solution.

A multi-layered puzzle

“This plan is a seven-part puzzle. The proposed play wave is only one piece,” said Carlman.

Other critical aspects include: fish passage, levee cleanup on the right river bank, the river left underpass beneath Highway 89, safe big game migratory movement and seasonal habitat security, as well as Von Gontard’s landing and the upland 9.5 mile tract of BLM land, right upstream of the bridge.

“We need to give high priority to ecological health of the river, including natural fish passage,” said Carlman. “It’s a fundamental priority.”

Ben Ellis, also on JHRPP’s steering committee, was part of the original feasibility study for the project. Ellis, who is also Vice President of Power and Energy at Lewis Bridger, an international renewable energy development firm and former Teton County commissioner, contends that the public recreational site is critical for equitable shoreline access.

“Making a wave out of the existing rock feature is the simplest solution and requires little change to the natural hydraulic,” he said. “The river channel has maintained southern course under the bridge for many decades. Linking the existing two rocks together and defining the eddy downstream are easy developments with de minimis environmental effects.”

Terracing the banks and manipulating the shoreline would help create a safe eddy and access point, according to Ellis.

“The commission used their process to block the concept and undermine the proposal,” Ellis said. “It could be a lack of understanding, but we need a real public hearing.”

Epstein said he believes that the CUP is the best process the county currently has.

“There are holes in the public/private partnership process. It isn’t well defined,” he said. “That is why Newcomb recommended the CUP, to put it in front of the public and get it vetted out.”

Still, many key players stand opposed, including Charlie Sands, owner of Sands Whitewater.

Sands has been beneficiary of many permits, and is heavily involved in the river business. According to Sands, the area is already too congested for the addition of a river park.

“There is nothing positive about it whatsoever,” he said. “There are four rivers to kayak on within a half hour of Jackson Hole — the Hoback, the Gros Ventre, the Snake and the Greys. For forty years, people have kayaked there. I don’t know why we have change it and create a dangerous situation.”

Sands also believes that the erection of a river park would adversely affect the migration of trout and create a conflict with scenic rafts and kayakers.

“It will only benefit Rendezvous River Sports,” he said. “We don’t need it, and never have needed it. It is messing with the river.”

Sands supports the county’s vote against Pruzan’s proposal.

“The county is not in the business of permitting a private enterprise. They should end it once and for all,” he said. “No one has done any homework. They are winging it. It’s baloney.”

Besides, said Sands, there is no money for the project.

That’s where Sands is wrong, though, according to JHRPP’s committee.

They say the half million-dollar donation to Parks and Recreation stands, and that fish passage might be a potential issue only if a more elaborate construction plan were pursued.

Pruzan feels the wave would be a win-win. It’s a solution that would provide a back eddy, which would also protect the boat ramp.

“Our leaders need to understand that wave or no wave, river cleanup is an urgent need on Parcel 26,” Pruzan said.

Daniel Abraham, Assistant Principal of Jackson Hole High School and former leader of the JH Kayak Club, said that the dollars to fund the project will be private, and securing long term funding for maintenance is a priority that JHRPP is willing to take on.

“We want to do whatever it takes to create a great resource for everyone in our community. It happened with Wild and Scenic, it happened with SPET-8, it happened with the R-Park,” he said.

Future Generations

Landino’s children have participated in the Jackson Hole Kayak Club for nearly eight years. Landino feels the proposed park is in just the right place, sitting alongside the Melody Ranch and the new school.

“We don’t have people recreating along the side of the river because we have dikes and stone barriers,” she said. “One of our greatest assets in Jackson Hole is the Snake River. People are wading out to sandbars in an industrialized river bend. We owe it to people to create recreational areas like this one to access a great natural resource safely.”

Emily’s Pond and the R-Park are currently in high demand due to scarce access points for the community, with Wilson and South Park the closest sites to Jackson.

“You can get to the water there, but it’s not easy to recreate,” said Milligan. “It’s fast moving current next to the shore. The risk element is high, and you are fighting your way back to shore immediately.”

Milligan has another reason, or three, to support the proposal. His kids — ages 10, 12 and 14 — who are avid kayakers.  Milligan said he doesn’t want to them to have to travel 40 miles south to find a place to kayak.

“It will be a safe, fun place for children. They will benefit most from this project,” he said.

Epstein agrees.

“The more we get young people excited about the river and it becomes a passion, they then become advocates for these resources,” he said.

Eddying out with an eye to the future

Although the county has no plan for South Park beyond the one submitted to the Bureau of Land Management, Pruzan remains hopeful.

“We are going to work on commonalities,” he said. “We can all agree that the levee has been degraded. Once you put the river between two levees, if it is pinched and not moving cobble, the carrying capacity of the river is diminished, and it’s more likely to overtop the banks. We have done the that at Wilson and South Park.”

The Snake River Fund remains central in the ongoing consideration of the project.

“Last month we were honored to be asked by the Teton County Commissioners to bring well-informed and diverse stakeholders together in a working group to see if there might be shared goals for the riparian areas and river near the South Park Bridge,” Carlman said.

Abraham finds this direction vague.

“I still think there is confusion from the last meeting about our next steps. What do we bring back to the county? Do we ask for another vote for a CUP?” he said.

Pruzan hopes to raise money for a deeper feasibility study, and provide for a long-term management and maintenance plan, in response to the board’s concern.

“The park could offer great access for everyone, like those in wheelchairs, and those who can’t afford specialized equipment and just want to get in the water,” he said.

Abraham echoes this sentiment.

“Conservation allows for use of the land, whereas preservation does not. Parts of our valley should be preserved. This area is not one of them. This change would be positive for the river and our community,” Abraham said.

A recreational park at South Park is congruent with conservation, not at odds with it, Pruzan said.

“As conservationists and recreationists, we need to be united,” he said. “If recreation is seen as the enemy, it is counterproductive to the goals of conservation. Jackson Hole has proven itself as an amazing community at solving our own problems,” he said.  

Like the river, Pruzan said, we need to keep moving forward. PJH


About Jessica L. Flammang

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