pass survey

The results from a survey of the Teton Pass winter recreation crowd is in, and skiers and boarders say they’re OK with the idea of paying for parking, temporary closures and programs to get the word out about how to behave.

The online survey, conducted by Teton Backcountry Alliance in mid-April, gathered 1,020 responses to open-ended questions to identify key problems and solutions, short-term actions and long-term actions. About 88 percent of the respondents were from the greater Teton area, including Jackson Hole, Wyo., Teton Valley, Idaho and Idaho Falls. The other 12 percent were from around the country and the world.

Teton Pass winter recreation has increased significantly in recent decades and has reached a boiling point with over-crowded parking areas and skier-triggered avalanches blocking Highway 22 and threatening safety. The Teton Backcountry Alliance was formed to address the threat of restrictions or closure to winter activities on Teton Pass.

“We’ve got to get through a couple of winters without skier-triggered avalanches on the road,” said Bridger-Teton National Forest Resource Manager Linda Merigliano. “There’s been one or two every winter. And that’s too many.”

Survey respondents identified avalanches, user behavior and highway safety as top concerns. The most common solutions suggested included temporary closures of certain areas, more education, better parking, building snow sheds or a tunnel, shuttle services, carpooling, better signage, parking permits and fines against violators.

“(The survey) really says something about people’s care about this particular place and their concern,” said Gary Kofinas, a resource management professor at the University of Alaska who has a home in Wilson, Wyo. Kofinas is chairman of the Alliance’s steering committee on the survey and was instrumental in tabulating results. “It’s striking that there’s that much interest. From a social science perspective, it means that we have a representative sample. We can almost generalize the population of users ... this is the perspective of our community of users.”

Merigliano said from the Forest Service’s perspective, the survey is helpful in telling them what the public is thinking, and it agrees with feedback they get from full-time Teton Pass Ambassador Jay Pistono. Pistono spends his days at the pass during the winter helping manage the crowds and educating pass visitors on proper skier/snowboarder etiquette.

“A lot of people would consider it a junk show, but considering the way it was back in the ‘80s when there was really no sense of organization, we’re getting better,” Pistono said. “Even though there are more folks up there, it’s come around.”

An interagency committee with representatives from Wyoming Department of Transportation, Wyoming Highway Patrol, the Caribou-Targhee and Bridger-Teton national forests, Teton County Sheriff’s office, and Teton County Search and Rescue is tasked with seeking long-term solutions to the problem.

“We are trying to provide access for people who want to enjoy backcountry skiing up there, but at the same time highway safety is paramount,” Merigliano said. “We have got to get to a point where a simple slogan that we have on our signs is: ‘If you want access you’ve got to be responsible.’ We have to get the message out in a more compelling way that it takes every single person acting appropriately. The vast majority of people want to do the right thing. But it only takes one person to ruin it for everybody.”

One such incident occurred this past winter when a snowboarder set off an avalanche riding the Twin Slides area of the pass after a heavy snowfall.

“It cost (Wyoming Department of Transportation) more than $7,000,” Kofinas said. “That doesn’t include the cost to the Forest Service or the cost of employees losing income and employers losing productivity. We really have to put it all in perspective.”

“The difference with these skier triggered avalanches is that they are in the middle of the day,” Merigliano said. “There is more likelihood of vehicles being trapped and because it is an unexpected kind of an event, people won’t be able to plan for it. People end up being stuck on one side or the other and can’t get home to family or pets or things. There isn’t much tolerance for that.”

Most survey respondents favor temporarily closing Glory Bowl and Twin Slides, particularly after major storms make the features ripe for avalanches.

Merigliano said the highway department and the Forest Service has put up signs in hopes to educate visitors, but feels strongly about having more pass ambassadors to help Pistono teach user accountability. Survey respondents also favor that idea with 87 percent wanting more on-site ambassadors.

“There’s enough people who kind of know what’s going on, and we’re hoping they’ll spread the good word in terms of an educational sense,” Pistono said. “In the long run, the consequences of that is access. A lot of it has to do with whether or not we put avalanches on the road.”

While groups hammer out long-term solutions, such as parking passes, snow sheds, tunnels or permit systems, Teton Backcountry Alliance hopes to glean a code of ethics for the pass from the survey responses. Kofinas said he is still in the process of distilling the ideas from the 3,000 replies.

“Hopefully we can publish a simple code of ethics that we put out there, and we recommend that people follow,” he said. “We can use social media and other ways to get the word out. I’m hoping that our community does some self-regulating to the extent possible.”

The full Teton Backcountry Alliance survey report can be found at tinyurl.com/pr-teton-survey.