Teton County and Grand Teton National Park officials may have distilled the Moose-Wilson Road debate to its essence this week — whether the park has the right to govern traffic there.
Park officials are in their last weeks of accepting comments on the scope of a study that will define how the rural, winding road will be managed in coming years. To address traffic and safety in a fragile ecosystem, the park seeks a way to meet its dual mandate of accommodating recreation without permanently impairing natural values.
One idea — scuttled under protest — was to experiment with making the road one-way when it is open in summer. Moose-Wilson has become a link in the valley’s summer transportation network, connecting Teton Village and the west bank of the Snake River to the heart of the park.
As the park’s Feb. 6 commenting deadline approaches, some county officials insist that the function of the road between Teton Village and Moose not be curtailed and that some improvements may even be necessary.
“Moose-Wilson Road has been there for 120 years,” County Commission Chairman Hank Phibbs said Tuesday. That’s well before the park was expanded in 1950 to encompass it.
“It is by its very existence … part of the transportation system in this valley,” he said.
Park officials, including recently retired superintendent Mary Gibson Scott, have maintained that Grand Teton is required to protect the ecological tapestry of the corridor. They said that includes protecting threatened grizzly bears that frequent the area and that the county’s transportation problems are secondary.
Grand Teton spokeswoman Jenny Anzelmo-Sarles stated the argument succinctly this week.
“We maintain that it’s a park road and we manage it accordingly,” she said.
County officials contend that the National Park Service should consider Jackson Hole’s transportation needs because residents have continuously used the road for so long. The United States owns the road, park managers say, and they must manage it not for Teton County but for the entire country.
In 1992 the county’s three commissioners signed a county Transportation Master Plan Map that described Moose-Wilson Road’s “functional classification” as an “off-system road.” Another map titled “roadway jurisdiction” describes Moose-Wilson as a “Department of Interior Road.”
An engineer who authored the county’s 1992 transportation-system maps said the county should leave
the park out of transportation problems it created.
“The reason I’m so [opposed to] destroying park values to widen that road is because it would [be to] accommodate the traffic impacts of development on private land,” Jorgensen Engineering founder Pete Jorgensen said. “I don’t think we ought to be imposing that traffic on that road … if there are other options.”
The county imposed additional traffic on Moose-Wilson Road by approving and encouraging development along the southern, private portions of it, Jorgensen said. Left unchecked that traffic will force the park to rebuild all or portions of Moose-Wilson.
The road is about 10 miles shorter than the route from Teton Village to Jackson Hole Airport through town.
An alternative would be for the county to construct a bridge over the Snake River, Jorgensen said. That would allow cars to drive from Gros Ventre Junction and Jackson Hole Airport to Teton Village, he said.
County Engineer Sean O’Malley worked for Jorgensen between 1990 and 1995 when he and Jorgensen created the transportation maps. Unlike what Jorgensen and the maps say, O’Malley believes Moose- Wilson belongs in the Jackson Hole transportation system.
“It’s not that it wasn’t important to our transportation system, it just didn’t help us in our analysis of transportation issues,” O’Malley said of the omission of Moose-Wilson Road from the county’s transportation plan map.
County analysts treated the park’s boundaries as a “black box” with regard to even those roads needed for transportation within the county, O’Malley said. The map describes every road to Kelly, Moose or the Teton Science Schools’ campus in Grand Teton as outside the county’s transportation system as well.
The county is not trying to rewrite history, Phibbs said.
“It’s not something we’re trying to create,” he said. “We’re just describing what exists.”
While park representatives say traffic has increased they say it did not lead to the discussions on whether and how to modify the road. Safety — including that of cyclists and desires for a bike path — was one driver. So, too, was the park’s wishes to keep the road’s footprint small.
“Traffic volumes are a concern, and we know they have increased over the last 20 years, absolutely,” Anzelmo-Sarles said.
But that doesn’t mean the park must change the road to accommodate traffic.
“Why do something different,” she said. “We haven’t decided to do something different.”
The park ought to leave the road alone unless solid data shows a need to change it, Phibbs said.
“Traffic has not increased in the last five years,” he said. “In part it’s self-regulating — people who are in a hurry and want to go from Yellowstone to Jackson don’t choose Moose-Wilson Road.”
“The village and the county both are interested in using a bus to reduce vehicle traffic, if the traffic count and the numbers identify it as a problem,” Phibbs said.
Data may show otherwise.
The Preliminary Tube Counter Results study prepared by University of Utah researchers shows traffic on the road’s south end averaging around 2,200 vehicles per day last summer.
Another draft study — the Moose-Wilson Corridor Adaptive Management Plan — conducted in 2006 by the Western Transportation Institute of Montana State University. It showed 2,300 vehicles a day using the road in 2003.
The same study showed only 1,700 cars drove the road each day in 1991.
While traffic grew at a rate of 2.6 percent per year between 1991 and 2003, the 2006 study estimated 1.5 percent growth between 2003 and 2025. That would result in 3,600 vehicles per day.
Most of that traffic growth, according to the 2006 study, will come from Teton Village.
The draft Grand Teton National Park Moose-Wilson Road Safety Audit completed this year also anticipates increased numbers of drivers on Moose-Wilson Road.
The analysis recommends the park consider imposing restrictions. The recommendation includes restricting overall numbers or requiring permits.
The analysis also suggests adding a northern entrance station to the road to catch drivers heading south. Today, cars can drive in that direction without paying a park entrance fee.
That addition “could be a disincentive to commercial (taxi) trips, thereby reducing congestion and conflicts between users,” the analysis reads.
The county will support whatever conclusion the Park Service arrives at, Phibbs said, so long as the park bases its conclusions on facts and data.
Anzelmo-Sarles said the park wants nothing less.
“It’s a very special place worthy of our best effort, and that’s what we’re doing,” she said.