Our Park

By on September 17, 2014

Rendezvous Park takes shape on the banks of the Snake.

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Jackson Hole, Wyoming — Organizers for the new riverside park, opening to the public this Saturday, say they are not quite “open for business.” If they had it their way they might wait a little while longer until they are further along in the process of turning their 40-acre plot along the Snake River from a gravel pit to a natural park for the community’s enjoyment. But the unveiling of the Snake River Pathway Bridge this weekend is too good of an opportunity to pass up. They want users to at least get a taste of what awaits them as they cross the river from Emily’s Pond.

“We don’t want to confuse people with the opening of the bridge,” said Elisabeth Rohrbach, who was tapped to be the park’s managing director back in May. “They couldn’t wait for us to be completely finished. It still kind of looks like a gravel pit, but we’ve done a lot of work.”

That work includes ongoing studies by Biota Research and Consulting on the wildlife habitat use of the area, road and footpath implementation, pond and creek enhancements, and other improvements necessary for reclaiming land used for decades as a gravel operation by Owens Construction. Rohrbach said one of the first priorities of the nonprofit group that owns and operates the land was getting rid of the tons of gravel they inherited.

“We’ve sold a lot of gravel to the county for work they are doing nearby … at a very discounted rate. In fact, we donated 8,000 tons to help rebuild Budge Drive after the slide,” Rohrbach said. “We also just planted young cottonwoods in an area that was completely barren. We have obtained 35 CFS water rights to feed the ponds and streams within the property. That’s a lot. We are working on rerouting and realigning the roads and paths within the park. We have a lot ahead of us but we are really excited to invite the public in to see our space. Their space.”

The preliminary renovation phase for the property at the northwest corner of the junction at highways 22 and 390 includes trading gravel for reclaimed riparian habitat that will honor place, support the wildlife that has used the area for untold centuries, and create a space where recreation and educational opportunities will be unmatched in the valley. Already, Rohrbach and company have reclaimed eight acres of land disturbed by previous gravel operations; of that, 90,000 square feet of wetlands have been restored to riparian habitat and 7.25 acres of waterways have been improved for native trout spawning in the area.

The long-term plan calls for a 450-foot pond that will offer swimming and paddleboarding opportunities with a sandy “beachfront” for sunbathers. An additional meandering stream at the north end of the property will add value to the user experience and help keep the ponds cleaner. Restrooms, footbridges, and parking for 33 vehicles also are part of the future design model.

“These improvements are dependent on financing, of course,” Rohrbach said. “We are trying to be very cognizant of ongoing maintenance costs and have built them into our rather robust capital-raising campaign.”

The Rendezvous Land Conservancy, a nonprofit behind the park, has raised $2 million of a calculated $5 million budget needed to build and maintain R Park.

 

Acreage actualized

RLC was jointly created by Jackson Hole Land Trust and the LOR Foundation to administer, design, construct, develop, manage, and maintain the 40-acre natural park jointly created RLC. It’s a unique partnership that came together to rescue a 58-acre parcel of land, known then as River Springs, that had fallen into the hands of developer Jim Walter and his Crystal Creek Capital LLC.

“In 2010, this property that had been a commercial gravel pit was put on the market,” Rohrbach said, of the River Springs land that owner David Owens was looking to unload after the Board of County Commissioners in 2009 denied continued use of his gravel business there. “The Jackson Hole Land Trust was interested in protecting the property but a local developer beat them to the purchase. That opportunity was lost. The LOR Foundation learned of this and felt maybe it would be worth revisiting and approached the developer.

The Land Trust, along with Friends of Pathways and Snake River Fund had reportedly been in negotiations with Owens for the then three-parcel property as far back as May 2010. By August of that year, with a deal stalled on funding, Crystal Creek Capital swooped in and made the purchase with Walter stating publicly he would still be open to any offers to conserve the property.

Rohrbach said LOR didn’t feel comfortable owning the entire parcel so they sectioned off 18 acres and put that under their umbrella group, Green Investors LLC – an entity that also owns land adjacent to the Teton Raptor Center. The future of this northern plot is unknown. Rohrbach said it was outside of her group’s scope to speculate on whether this land would be developed or not. “If they ever wanted to deed it to us, we sure would take it.”

Some wonder if RLC isn’t creating a top-heavy nonprofit in building a park that will essentially have no unnatural added amenities. The group has hired Rohrbach to manage the park. They also are looking to hire an executive director and a permanent onsite caretaker for the park. Rohrbach explained the organizational structure was about more than just R Park.

“The thought of an executive director has to do with a longer-term vision for this organization. Rendezvous Land Conservancy aspires to be more than R Park. That is the current pilot project,” Rohrbach said. “An initial scoping plan shows there is a regional need for a privately owned company to own and manage property.”

Rohrbach said old school existing models call for government involvement where lands are identified as and targeted for public recreational spaces. She said the Land Trust was interested in acquiring the property but not holding it.

“Our vision for RLC is shaped by a feasibility study, which found that most conservation organizations in the West typically do not hold the fee title to parcels for any period of time. Many acquire conservation easements and some purchase property with the express intention of transferring it to a public agency,” RLC stated in a previous press release. “With the decline in public funds at all levels, resources are increasingly scarce to support this business model. At the same time, many rural communities lack public access to open space because they do not have the public agency infrastructure or local financial resources to acquire and manage those lands. RLC aspires to fill this regional need for an organization that is willing to own property and to support community conservation projects.”

With support and cooperation from the town, county, Wyoming Department of Transportation and Bureau of Land Management, RLC happened into the right place at the right time. The place is the terra firma Pathways was looking to land their Snake River Bridge on at the west bank of the Snake. An easement RLC gladly gave Pathways, according to Rohrbach. The time is now, this weekend. When Pathways and R Park celebrate their grand opening of the bridge to somewhere.

Pathways director Brian Schilling is excited about the new experience that awaits bikers and pedestrians. “The 22 Pathway connects directly to Rendezvous Park via the Snake River Bridge to the east and via the new 390 underpass from Stilson Ranch to the west. As it winds along the south edge of the new park, the pathway alignment allows users to experience one of the most scenic, enjoyable stretches of pathway in all of Teton County; providing access to the natural spaces, scenic walking trails, and open water and ponds of Rendezvous Park,” he said. “This extraordinary opportunity for the public to be able to experience the Snake River and the unique ecosystems adjacent to the river are made possible by the partnership between Rendezvous Lands Conservancy and Teton County, and the incredible vision of RLC to grant the county an easement for the bridge and pathway.”

 

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Community collaboration

Rohrbach is eager for people to become familiar with the natural park. RLC has made every effort to engage the community in the process of designing the space – something Pierson Land Works LLC, Harmony Design & Engineering, Gilday Architects, Flitner Strategies, and Hood Design Studio (Oakland, CA) have all been called on to contribute to – with numerous public input opportunities including a naming contest won by Maggie Gibson, Len Carlman, and Scott Steen.

“We liked the play on names,” Rohrbach said. “My park, your park, our park. R Park is for the community, shaped by the community.”

Rohrbach added that an overwhelming majority of nearly 500 online respondents were in favor of the park. Most cited walking, wildlife viewing, access to the boat launch, biking, cross-country skiing, dog walking and water-related sports such as rafting, human-powered watercraft, fishing and swimming as important elements they would like to see incorporated into R Park. The only ripples came from respondents worried about the inclusion of dogs, especially those off-leash, and larger picnic table areas like a pavilion, that could promote usage by bigger groups.

 

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In response, RLC is moving forward cautiously with respect to the inclusion of dogs and their owners. Rohrbach said they will allow leashed dogs only in the core of the park, permitting off-leash dogs to use the eastern-most portion of the park where it abuts the levee. The entire property will be self-policed by an onsite caretaker and RLC board members. Dogs and human activity will be prohibited in the western portion of the park during the winter season for the first three years while Biota conducts research to see how the new space impacts wintering moose that frequent the area.

“We purchased the property with the main intent of providing public access to this beautiful and special land,” Rohrbach said. “But we also want to be sensitive and considerate of the animal habitat we know it is. We have had scientists all over this property. It will be better than a gravel pit, I can say that.”

RLC will not groom park trails during the winter, preferring to leave the land in a natural state for any recreationalist wishing to cross-country ski or snowshoe. The park will also encourage levee users to enter the park through walking trails. Instead of a playground or other manmade amenities, RLC will construct or use existing “mounds” of gravel after reseeding them for users to climb on or sled down.

“We want to make people walking on the levee feel invited into park,” Rohrbach said. “We are also putting in these big knolls reminiscent of the gravel mounds of the past. Because of the berm between the property and the levee, you can’t really see the river from inside the park. So getting up on one of these knolls you will be able to see the river, the Tetons, and feel the breeze from up there.”

 

Future plans

RLC’s immediate concerns are rerouting the access road to the property. Currently there are two dirt roads that service the area – the south road, which is where river runners access the boat launch, and a north road that was used mainly by dump trucks hauling gravel. After encouragement from WYDOT officials, who said they would like to see only one ingress-egress off the busy Teton Village Road, RLC agreed to create a new road between the two existing ones, and reclaim the other two. That created an unforeseen and expensive consequence.

Recently, RLC was able to convince town and county officials to pitch in $140,000 toward a bridge that must be constructed over the Pathway. Originally, RLC had budgeted $160,000 for the bridge but later learned the expanse must accommodate heavy equipment accessing the dike for regular maintenance about three or four times a year.

“It wouldn’t have necessarily been our desire to have such a heavy road,” Rohrbach admitted. And since we gave the county the right-of-way with the bike path rather than say, ‘forget it,’ and we have a really strong relationship with the town and county, we decided to approach the town and county and see what our options were. They agreed to meet us halfway.”

The $1 million in Special Purpose Excise Tax revenue secured in 2010 has no impact on R Park, which Rohrbach stressed is not part of the SPET initiative. Some of that money will be used to facilitate a transfer of the 11-acre parcel immediately south of the park and north of the Wilson Bridge from the BLM to the county. It looks like plans for an overhauled “Wilson Beach,” included in that SPET initiative, are on hold in favor of seeing what types of usage develop at R Park.

Rohrbach said RLC is taking things slowly and making sure they involve the community in every decision. They know what they’re attempting here is the “first of its kind,” as Rohrbach put it. The future model of privately owned parks in Wyoming and the Intermountain Region will depend on how well received the park is, and how efficiently RLC can manage and finance the land.

So far, so good. Fred Staehr recently signed off on the project, giving R Park his full endorsement as president of the JH Land Trust board.

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“As partners and stakeholders in Rendezvous Park, the Land Trust supports the park design and plan, and looks forward to sharing this special place with the community,” Staehr wrote in a prepared statement. “And personally, as someone who has spent many days on the river and seen my two daughters and countless students grow up to value what is open, beautiful and wild about Jackson Hole, I believe providing the community and young families with this opportunity to get out on the park land and experience nature and the outdoors is a powerful way to foster a sense of stewardship and conservation ethic in the next generation.”

 

R Park & Snake River Bridge Celebration

11 a.m. to 4 p.m., Sunday, Sept. 21

Rendezvous Park

5351 River Springs Drive, Wilson

 

Photos provided by Rendezvous Park and Jason Snider


About Jake Nichols

Jake is a work in progress.

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