THE BUZZ: River of No Return

By on August 16, 2017

Commissioners vote down river park on the Snake for now.

Young river enthusiasts extolled the virtues of river recreation to elected officials during a packed Board of County Commissioners meeting Tuesday. Photo: Shannon Sollitt

JACKSON HOLE, WY – Conservation and recreation frequently go hand-in-hand. Outdoor recreationists make the best conservationists, some argue, because they are personally vested in the land on which they play.

But they were at odds at a county commissioner meeting Tuesday during a discussion about the Jackson Hole River Park Project. In front of a room filled to capacity with river recreationists, county commissioners voted against authorizing Jackson Hole Kayak Club to submit a Conditional Use Permit (CUP) to the Teton County Planning Department. The next step, commissioners hope, is for recreationists and conservationists to go back to the drawing board to draft a plan that “enhances [the Snake River] while still providing the recreation resource,” County Commissioner Smokey Rhea said.

It was a familiar sentiment in local politics: commissioners unanimously agreed that the project has merit, and none of them wanted to kill it completely. But a majority—Board Chair Mark Newcomb, Commissioner Natalia Macker and Commissioner Paul Vogelheim—didn’t feel like they could confidently push this project forward yet.

“Any project we’re a part of, because we have these scarce resources, has to be carefully weighed against whatever else we could be doing,” Newcomb said. “I need to be able to look at this comprehensively.”

The Board of County Commissioners was not tasked with approving or rejecting the project and its merits. Instead, it was asked to consider authorizing an application for a CUD, which would have included a review of the project over the course of six months. They did not give such authorization, but encouraged all entities who might have a stake in the project to continue working on a plan.

Jackson Hole River Park Project is now six years in the making. It was first presented to the public in October of 2011, and has undergone a series of design plans, fundraising and procedural hurdles to get it to where it was Tuesday. In January, it secured a $500,000 pledge from an anonymous donor. The concept includes a greenway and eddy where visitors can swim, picnic and recreate. It also includes an in-water feature—a man-made wave, or series of waves. Proponents say such a feature is popular in other states across the U.S., and would provide a controlled environment for budding kayakers to practice in. But others were wary of the impacts of a man-made interruption in the Snake River.

“There’s a lot to potentially lose as the area gets more developed,” Leslie Steen, Snake River Headwaters project manager, said. “I’m concerned with any proposal that would potentially place this at risk.”

The primary ecological concern among conservationists is the impact a water park would have on the fish ecosystem. Back in 2015, Wyoming Game and Fish reported that the river park, if only on one side of the river, would have minimal impact on fisheries. But Anna Senecal came to the board with more skepticism Tuesday. In studying the impacts on similar features in Colorado, the lesson is “the degree of uncertainty cannot be mediated by careful survey.” In other words, no amount of observation can predict how to mitigate unexpected consequences.

“This is a big project and a large undertaking,” Senecal said. “Other structures that were predicted to pass fish, do not.” Even if approving a CUD isn’t an endorsement of the project, Senecal said, “it is an acceptance on behalf of the board of that level of risk and uncertainty.”

Still, proponents countered, the CUD application is exactly what would allow them to evaluate those risks. Kayakers and river recreationists are the best stewards of the river, Corey Milligan argued, and if at any point in the process it became clear that the impacts on the environment outweighed the benefits, project directors would be the first to pull the plug.

“Every single one of us is a conservationist first, and a recreationist second,” Milligan said. “We want to maintain and improve the quality of life for people that do live here. There are three generations of activists here ready to get this project done.”

Indeed, the floor of the commissioner chambers flooded with young kayakers offering support of the project, both in the form of physical presence, and in testimony. Ten-year-old Lucas Milligan shared that the park would not only benefit him, but his 70-year-old grandmother who “always wants to watch us kayak,” but is left watching GoPro footage instead. “There at the river park, she can watch us kayak and have her dreams come true,” the young Milligan said. “I love the river and would never do anything to hurt it.” 

The discussion lasted almost two hours, to both the chagrin and encouragement of commissioners. Vogelheim said he had also received 166 emails “and counting” from engaged citizens prior to the meeting. “There’s clearly a passion from our community with regards to this issue,” Vogelheim said. “It’s nice today to see the multi-user interest. The community is engaged.”

Vogelheim and Macker echoed Newcomb’s feeling that while the project may have merit, they were not ready to move forward with a CUP. Instead, they asked for a way to “channel the entities” of all concerned parties. “how do we bring these organizations to the table, and come back with community-wide recommendations?” Vogelheim said.

Commissioner Greg Epstein fought hard to allow the Kayak Club to move forward with the CUP process.

“We have a community partner who is very interested and very engaged, and willing to put together something beneficial for the entire community,” Epstein said. The sheer volume of emails is the most he’s ever received about a single issue in his short tenure on the board. “We’re sitting amongst a room of river experts … Look around this room right now at all these people who are advocates of the river. The years of experience is amazing.”

While commissioners voted 3-2 against the CUP, they encouraged all stakeholders in the room to keep the conversation going, and come back to them with perhaps a more holistic plan. Ultimately, the project is still the county’s because it’s on their land, Macker noted.  They have a duty, then, to make sure the “right stakeholders are at the table.”

Aaron Pruzan, director of Jackson Hole Kayak Club, says there is still hope for the park moving forward. “I don’t think this was a ‘no’ about the project,” he said. “It was a ‘no’ about the CUP being the vehicle. I’m excited about the possibilities still.”

If anything, Pruzan said, this is an opportunity for the community to come together and really decide what they want. “We found a lot more common ground with people that have expressed concern, than just clear opposition.”  PJHs

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