The most debated stretch of road in the National Park Service is known for its calming effect.
But the section of Moose-Wilson Road running through Grand Teton National Park has pitted elected officials, bureaucrats, conservationists and lobbyists in an imbroglio that’s lasted nearly a decade and is bound to extend for at least another.
Some want to see a bike path run alongside the road. Others want the land to remain untouched.
The dispute illustrates the difficulty of balancing conservation and recreation interests in a park renowned for both.
Both sides are weighing the possible repercussions of seeing bulldozers, pavers and dump trucks in a diverse ecosystem with a vision of an interconnected pathway system snaking throughout the park.
The park service in 2007 approved a path along Moose-Wilson Road as part of a Teton park transportation plan. Teton park officials reneged on the original deal on Dec. 6, submitting a notice of intent in the Federal Register to re-evaluate that part of the plan. Path proponents, including Gov. Matt Mead and Sen. John Barrasso, are opposed to the decision. A public comment period is open until Feb. 6.
The seven-mile slice of the winding country road delineates the missing link in a 42-mile bike pathway that would loop Moose, Jackson and Wilson.
The National Park Conservation Association, an advocacy group that works on behalf of the parks, pushed for initiatives to give bicyclists more room in Teton park during the first half of the last decade. It collected the support of Teton County residents, bike advocates and politicians alike. For six years, it had the support of the park service.
The park service approved a transportation plan that included the 42-mile loop of pathways in 2007 after more than five years of planning and public comments. The park service’s decision made Grand Teton the first park in the nation to implement a path system and gave the green light to put a 3.3-mile path parallel to the Moose-Wilson Road as part of the system. Pathway advocates wanted it to stretch 7 miles — the full length of the road connecting to Moose — but accepted the deal. Teton park officials completed construction on 30 miles of paths since then. Moose-Wilson was purposely at the end of the list.
“At that time there hadn’t been any pathways constructed for the park,” Grand Teton National Park Acting Superintendent Kevin Schneider said. “We didn’t understand how the path would function in that corridor. That’s why we are now going back and re-examining it.”
The original plan for the entire park cost $1 million. Park officials expect the new management plan for Moose-Wilson to cost $2 million during the next two years.
Mead saw a need for a separate pathway when he was biking down the road this summer, the governor’s spokesman, Renny MacKay, said.
“The governor does not believe a new study will add anything more to the 2007 [plan],” MacKay said. “He is concerned about the cost and timing.”
There’s no need for a new study, said Laura Mengelkamp, a spokeswoman for Barrasso.
“Senator Barrasso made it clear to the park service that they should be building off the 2007 [plan],” she said.
A consortium of nonprofits, business owners, local officials and residents banded to put pressure on park officials to get a pathway in the Moose-Wilson sector when the issue first emerged more than a decade ago. One reason they want more pavement in the park is safety.
Gabriella Axelrad was riding her bike on Teton Park Road in 1999. The 13-year-old Californian was on a trip with her family. She had on her helmet and wore an orange reflecting triangle on her back. The precautions didn’t stop a van moving at 50 mph from striking and killing her. The driver was changing a compact disc. At the time there were no bike lanes or paths in the area.
Jackson resident and former park employee Jeff Poole was riding his bike two miles south of Grand Teton’s entrance on Wyoming Highway 89 in 2001. Motorists were supposed to share the road. One struck him and he was killed.
Path supporters say it’s only a matter of time until something similar happens along Moose-Wilson Road.
“It’s our grave fear,” Teton County Commission Chairman Hank Phibbs said.
Based on science
The park touts a medley of reasons for reassessing its 2007 decision and convinced the National Park Conservation Association and other Moose-Wilson Road pathway supporters to drop support for that part of the plan.
Science, park officials claim, is the key behind the decision.
The Moose-Wilson corridor is 10,300 acres of sensitive and incomparable habitat to anywhere else in the country, they say. The riparian habitat of the Snake River converges with the ecologically diverse base of the Tetons, creating a lush tapestry of habitat for wildlife.
The grizzly bear population was insignificant in the Moose-Wilson corridor when the park service agreed to construct a bike path. Bear populations have changed since then, said Steve Cain, Grand Teton’s senior wildlife biologist.
The park began to see significant increases of grizzly use in the Moose-Wilson corridor in 2008, Cain said.
The park has yet to conduct a specific study of grizzly bears solely within the Moose-Wilson corridor, but officials have a compilation of photos, videos, visitor citing reports and employee reports of bears, Cain said. By scrapping the Moose-Wilson section of the 2007 plan, the park will be able to conduct new research in the area, he added. The park will continue to use the 2007 plan for areas other than the Moose-Wilson corridor.
“From a biologist’s perspective, having grizzly bears on the landscape now changes a lot of things,” Cain said. “Taking a fresh look at the management of the area is important.”
Officials from Teton County are skeptical about the bear data.
“We think the data is only supportive of their position,” Commissioner Ben Ellis said.
Jackson Mayor Mark Barron thinks park officials are also giving the Moose-Wilson Road special treatment.
“One would think that the park would have to close all the hiking trails because they are going to run into grizzly bears and black bears,” he said. “What makes this stretch more important than other hiking trails in Grand Teton?”
Data collected by a group of Interior Department, Wyoming Game and Fish, U.S. Fish and Wildlife, U.S. Geological Survey and Grand Teton officials show a 38 percent increase in the lands inhabited by grizzly bears in the greater Yellowstone ecosystem, which includes the Tetons and the Moose Wilson Corridor.
“There’s no question about bears being in that part of the park,” said Gary Pollock, a management assistant for the park service at Grand Teton.
Black bears overtook Moose-Wilson Road in August, foraging along the road and forcing park officials to close the stretch for nearly three days.
Grizzly bears forced park officials to close the road on three different occasions in 2012. There were a dozen closures due to grizzlies in 2011.
Other safety concerns
The pathways constructed by the park since 2007 run from Moose to Jenny Lake and from Moose down to the south end of the park along Wyoming Highway 191.
Park officials are now working on the third phase, a path running north on Highway 191 to the Antelope Flats section of the park.
Unlike Moose-Wilson Road, those areas are in wide-open, sage-covered stretches, Schneider said.
There is dense forest and limited lines of sight near the road.
“We do not want to set up situations where visitors are more likely to have surprise encounters with grizzly bears,” Cain said.
The proponents pushing so hard for construction of a new paved pathway along Moose-Wilson have forgotten that Grand Teton is a national park and belongs to all Americans, said Joan Anzelmo, spokeswoman for the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees.
“A localized single-user group should not be allowed to co-opt the park’s extraordinary wildlife and natural resources for their recreational preferences.”
Moose-Wilson Road is closed from October until May. It sees more than tourists when it’s open. Jackson locals are known to use it as a shortcut to the Jackson Hole International Airport. Park employees use it as a commuter route. Taxis and other local businesses use the road to shuttle visitors.
Former Grand Teton Superintendent Mary Gibson Scott suggested closing Moose-Wilson Road to northbound traffic in 2012. The suggestion was part of a traffic study in the 2007 plan approved by the park. Closing the road to northbound traffic would close off an important spring and summer thruway for residents of Teton Village.
Between 2,000 and 2,400 cars use the road per day when it’s open, said Sean O’Malley, the Teton County engineer. He partnered with federal and state officials to work on a Moose-Wilson Road audit in September.
In the eyes of a transportation engineer, the road meets no standards of what’s safe, he said.
Improving the road — widening it and removing the curves — would increase speeds and make it less safe for animals and nonmotorized users.
With the wildlife and majestic scenery abound, travelers make frequent stops and maintain safe speeds, he said.
“It’s ironic the road functions as safely as it does,” O’Malley said. “It would be safer now than if it were improved.”
The road is the elephant in the room, said Roy Hugie, a biological resource analyst for Pioneer Environmental Services, a private company that’s conducted research for national parks across the West.
He reviewed four environmental studies for Teton County officials in regard to the environmental impacts on Moose-Wilson Road.
“Nobody wants to talk about a transportation element to this,” he said. “This isn’t strictly about recreation. It’s a transportation corridor to some degree.”