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Ski Resort Life

Is Expansion the Salvation of Small Ski Areas, or Their Demise?

Ski resorts like Snow King and Grand Targhee say they need to grow to survive. Locals and conservationists aren’t so sure.

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Nestled on the western slope of the Tetons, Grand Targhee Resort has long held a reputation for being a skier’s mountain, a friendly hill with a down-home vibe that’s proudly differentiated itself from the frenzied atmosphere and hour-long lift lines at nearby Jackson Hole 46 miles away. So when the western Wyoming resort announced an 860-acre expansion plan last summer that would double its skier capacity and increase the resort’s footprint by 50 percent, it raised concerns among some locals, many of whom have moved over Teton Pass for the slower pace of life and better housing options.

Anyone who spent time at their favorite resort this winter likely noticed an uptick in traffic, parking scarcities, and lift lines. Despite the pandemic, the NSAA released resort numbers this summer reporting 59 million skier visits in the 2020/2021 season, cracking the top five seasons to date. Over 20 resorts around the country are looking to make major upgrades to their existing operations, with a handful of those proposing a dramatic expansion of their footprint.

Grand Targhee Resort expansion plan
The Grand Targhee Resort expansion plan includes new employee housing units, a new Mountain Operations facility, a 32-percent increase in parking spaces, and more. (Photo: Grand Targhee Resort)

The proposed Targhee expansion, which initially would have increased the resort’s boundaries by 860 acres, is accompanied by new and rebuilt lifts as well as a new 6,000-square-foot restaurant at the top of the Dreamcatcher and Sacajawea Lifts, and a whole host of other summer-use infrastructure including bike trails, ziplines, and a ropes course.

Scaling up is a natural part of any business, but at what cost does this come at for ski areas? Concerns at Targhee range from impact on threatened species (Teton bighorn sheep, grizzlies, lynx, and wolverines), to loss of backcountry ski terrain, to the strain it could put on a small community already struggling with housing and labor shortages and inadequate infrastructure. Not to mention the gridlocked traffic that has become one of the biggest pinch points for skiers to get to and from the mountain.

Gary Kofinas of the Teton Backcountry Alliance (TCBA), a non-profit advocacy group that focuses on safety, education, and conservation with regards to the growing population of backcountry skiers in the Tetons, invited a group of journalists to hike out to the proposed expansion site earlier this summer to see the terrain firsthand. During that hike, Mike Whitfield, Teton County Idaho Commissioner and lifelong resident, put it bluntly: “If Targhee becomes a big destination resort, Teton Valley is toast.”

While some in the local community are resistant to the resort’s broadening footprint, Geordie Gillett, Grand Targhee’s owner and general manager, says the resort has to expand if it is going to remain viable. “We’ve made the best with what we have, but I would be terrified for the future if we were to keep operating how we are now,” he says. “To keep operating and be competitive, we absolutely have to grow. Many ski resorts have gone out of business, and we need to get [Targhee] to a place where we’re not just one poor snow year away from shutting our doors.”

On the other side of the Tetons, the owners and operators of Snow King Mountain also say in order to remain economically viable, they too need to expand. Another down-home alternative to JHMR, Snow King boasts 1,571 feet of vertical gain rising to 7,808 over 400 acres in the center of town. Now, the quaint ski hill is going to change. Despite the outpouring of concerns from the public who showed up in droves for the official public comment period, in 2020 the Forest Service gave Snow King the greenlight for their entire master plan, which will more than double the resort’s footprint by adding terrain on the backside of the mountain, a gondola from town, summit restaurant, zipline course, and new mountain bike trails.

Snow King expansion
Snow King Mountain Resort expansion plans will more than double the resort’s footprint. (Photo: Courtesy of the Bridger-Teton National Forest)

Town residents and conservation organizations cited wildlife displacement, noise, and loss of Snow King’s character in their objection to the project, which would drastically alter the mountain landscape that sits right in the heart of town. Hiking around the mountain this summer, it’s impossible to ignore the large swaths of densely forested terrain that have been gauged out of the hillside in preparation for new buildings and lift cables.

While it’s easy to separate the issue into pro-expansion or anti-expansion parties, the reality is not so black and white. “We can have the good without the bad. Other communities have saved their local resorts without harmful development,” read a statement from the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance regarding Snow King’s expansion. “Mad River Glen is a community shareholder co-op. Steamboat Springs proudly invests in Howelsen Hill every year so it’s a great resort for locals and ski jump training and doesn’t become “Disneyland.” Our community could step up with co-op shares or SPET funds to build a new chair lift or gondola without all the harmful expansions. Or a small fee on commercial activity and real estate development at the base of Snow King (as is common in other resort areas) could fill the financial gap and make the ski area profitable year-in, year-out.”

One thing’s certain: growth is a messy process. Like many resorts in the country, Grand Targhee Resort operates on public land, leased from the U.S. Forest Service through a special use permit. When a ski resort wants to expand, it initiates the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), a law that requires agencies to ask for public input when proposing a project on public land. Hilary Eisen, Policy Director at Winter Wildlands Alliance, says that the murkiness largely has to do with the fact that there’s no set of federal guidelines for the U.S. Forest Service to look to make ski resort-related decisions. “Ski areas don’t really have set rules,” she says. “They have NEPA, which is great, but it’s not enough for [national] forests to make decisions. Congress has shortchanged the forest service for decades now. The agency is struggling, and they’re barely able to do the basic functions of their jobs.”

Another big concern with resorts spreading their boundary lines further onto public land is the loss of backcountry skiing, a sector of the sport that’s seeing more growth than resort skiing. Targhee’s South Bowl (part of the proposed expansion) is a popular backcountry ski zone that would be closed to all but downhill resort skiers. “Sure, the overall percentage of the forest service land that’s at stake is actually pretty tiny—hundreds of acres versus millions—but the devil is always in the details and those few hundred acres usually have elevated value over the rest of the forest,” says Eisen. “Everyone is looking for that magical combo of snow, terrain, and access, and that’s relatively limited.” Although backcountry skiers have gotten more organized over the years to fight for access, it’s still hard to compete with the financial power of the resort industry.

Targhee maintains that they are doing everything they can to keep the core “Targhee experience” alive and that their goal isn’t to turn into another JHMR. “I want to maintain the dialog with people who truly want to talk about it and come to an understanding. We’ve already changed the master plan based on some really good comments,” says Gillett, referring to the two lifts in the South Bowl area that have already been scratched due to avalanche concerns.

“The comments from scoping show that everyone wants to see Targhee survive and thrive,” says Eisen. “But we want to see them propose a plan with alternatives that don’t include expanding into these critical wildlife areas that would also take backcountry terrain away from skiers.”

As the sport of skiing continues to boom, resort expansion is a topic that isn’t going away.

It’s an issue, like many, that would benefit from collaboration and compromise, instead of a divided community. But that’s easier said than done.

“You can’t talk about ecosystems without talking about people,” remarked Kofinas while leading hikers through Targhee’s proposed expansion site. “Things are going to change, but what’s the best way to change while still remaining the same? It’s up to us to figure out how we can build the resilience of our systems so we can preserve our values.”