The following piece was first published in Planet Jackson Hole as a guest opinion by Craig Benjamin.
Jackson, WY – The Moose-Wilson corridor in Grand Teton National Park will always hold a special place in my heart. I’ll never forget the summer night I spent camping on the Death Canyon shelf with my little brother as we hiked the Teton Crest Trail. The beauty and serenity of the spring-fed pools bubbling up from the limestone left us awestruck. I’ll always remember that a backpacking trip from the top of the tram and out of Granite Canyon convinced my wife Stacy to plant roots in Jackson Hole 13 years ago.
I also remember using the Moose-Wilson road as a way to get where I needed to go. More than a decade ago while I worked as a banquet bartender for Snake River Lodge in Teton Village, we hosted “horse-whisperer” dinners at Diamond Cross Ranch in Buffalo Valley. I got to set up a hay-bale bar in a giant barn with picture-window views of the Tetons, watch a horse-whisperer show and hang out with a pile of festive people, all while being generously compensated for my time. It rocked. On top of that, we would rally down the Moose-Wilson Road to and from the event, having way too much fun going as fast as we could while trying to avoid the suspension-smashing potholes. Arriving long after us on its way from town was the truck carrying our provisions.
Here’s the thing, it is not the purpose of the Moose-Wilson corridor to serve as a transportation corridor for people trying to drive across Teton County. It’s a unique and special place to visit in Grand Teton National Park with rich wildlife habitat and remarkable recreational opportunities.
Recently, my experiences in the corridor have been memorable for the wrong reasons. One summer day in particular comes to mind, when Stacy and I decided to take the Moose-Wilson Road home after hiking in the park with the kids. We wanted to show them this special corner of the park and hopefully see a bear. Crawling down the clogged road behind a creeping chain of cars, we wearily weaved around potholes, not seeing any wildlife, while Stacy and the kids became carsick.
How did things get this bad? Over the past decade, significant private development south of the corridor has contributed to increased vehicular traffic on the Moose-Wilson Road. As my family experienced that day (and I bet you’ve experienced too), this increased congestion degrades the visitor experience, harms wildlife, and makes it dangerous for people to bike or walk on the road.
It’s not like we didn’t see this problem coming. In 2007, the Park completed a major transportation planning effort. A section of this plan identified strategies for decreasing vehicular traffic, protecting wildlife, making it safer to walk and bike, and enhancing the visitor experience on the Moose-Wilson Road. A few years ago, the Park proposed implementing one of the strategies to reduce traffic congestion identified in this plan, and some people in our community went bonkers.
Partly because of this political explosion, but mostly because of two key changes in the corridor over the past decade – the arrival of grizzlies and the opening of the Laurance S. Rockefeller Preserve – the Park launched a process to develop a comprehensive management plan. The goal is to determine how best to provide appropriate opportunities for visitors to use, experience, and enjoy the Moose-Wilson corridor while protecting Park resources.
Over the past two years, the Park has engaged in a transparent, science-based, and participatory National Environmental Policy Act process resulting in the recent release of the draft environmental impact statement (DEIS) for the management of the corridor. We should all respect this process and help protect the Park from political meddling.
Since the Moose-Wilson corridor is a special place to visit in a national park, not a transportation corridor, the Moose-Wilson Comprehensive Corridor Management Plan should focus on protecting wildlife and habitat. It should also focus on making it easy and safe for people to visit the area on foot, bicycle, or via public transit. You should not need a private motor vehicle to safely visit the Moose-Wilson corridor. It’s 2015, not 1955.
The preferred alternative attempts to strike a compromise and takes a few steps in the right direction – such as limiting the number of cars in the corridor to 200 at any one time, reducing the speed limit to 20 mph, and improving the road surface. However, it could more effectively protect Park natural and cultural resources while allowing opportunities for visitors to experience and enjoy the area.
Since increasing vehicular traffic on the road is by far the biggest issue impacting the corridor, the Park should take more aggressive measures within the existing developed footprint to reduce traffic, while also protecting natural resources and making it a safer and a more pleasant place to visit.
Specifically, the Park should improve the preferred alternative. Here’s how: by engineering the road with speed bumps or similar measures to physically slow down cars (making it safer for everyone, as research indicates that shared, slow-speed streets are some of the safest places for people to walk, bike, and drive). Analyzing options for corridor-appropriate transit (like shuttles) would also be effective, along with shrinking the size of some parking lots. Other ways to enhance the preferred alternative include maintaining vegetation along the road, and looking at creative options for balancing the impact to cultural resources with the need to realign the road away from the beaver ponds at the northern end.
Please join hundreds of your friends and neighbors, and thousands of people from across America, in commenting on the Moose-Wilson Corridor DEIS by January 15, 2016. Let Park officials know you appreciate their transparent, science-based, and participatory planning process, and the steps they have taken to discourage the use of the road as a transportation corridor. Tell them they can go further toward protecting wildlife and habitat in the corridor, while making it easy and safe for people to visit the area on foot, bicycle, or corridor-appropriate public transit. Please visit parkplanning.nps.gov/MooseWilson to submit your comments today.
Craig Benjamin is the executive director of the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance.