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Forest service extends public comment period for Targhee

Driggs

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DRIGGS — In a small back room of the old courthouse that served as traditional chambers, a thick, three ring binder was handed to each of the then-Teton County, Idaho, commissioners. Former Commissioner Roger Hoopes opened the bound plans, the new pages cracking as he flipped through the future of Teton County, Idaho and more specifically, Grand Targhee Resort.

The room was mostly empty.

At the time, Hoopes, himself engaged in the planning process of River Rim Ranches, a private golf resort and community on the far north end of the valley just above the Teton River, remarked on how lovely the Grand Targhee plans looked in the binder. The other two commissioners, Mark Trupp and Jay Calderwood, nodded in agreement and wished Geordie Gillett, the resort’s owner, “All the best.”

That was 2006, at the height of the county’s development boom, and this was one of the many highlighted moments that defined the political sentiment of the day. Development knew no limit and local leaders believed Grand Targhee Resort could not dream big enough to hold the scope of what was currently being subdivided in the valley — more than 7,000 lots approved for development at that time. After all, it was the pioneering farmers who established Grand Targhee, trading combines in the fall for snow groomers in the winter hoping to drive the quiet side of the Tetons’ economy year-round. Trupp himself counted as both a farmer and a groomer at the time.

Fast forward 14 years, and Grand Targhee Resort’s master plan has been accepted by the Caribou-Targhee National Forest, having provided enough reason to expand both winter and summer uses just above Alta, Wyoming, and only accessible through Teton Valley, Idaho. The resort now teeters on the precipice of moving from the “family ski hill” to a destination in the Tetons that rivals competitors in an industry looking to redefine itself in the face of warming winters and demands for more than a day on the slopes.

But is the public paying more attention to this than it did in the early days of three-ring binders?

So what are we commenting on?

Grand Targhee and owner Gillett, working with the development group S.E. Company, have the nod from the Forest Service to create a variety of expansions to the resort, but the largest and most significant includes the expansion of ski terrain into Teton Canyon. The expansion calls for adding 1,200 acres to the already 2,500 acres currently in use under a special Forest Service permit. Then roll in two mountain top restaurants and five new lifts (not including the already approved, yet to be built, Peaked quad lift). For perspective, the South Bowl expansion into the canyon boasts three additional lifts that can manage up to 1,800 skiers an hour, according to the master plan.

“We’ve been working for the last two years in setting the stage for this next step,” said Teton Basin Forest Ranger Jay Pence this week.

The next step is assessing the environmental impacts that the master plan build-out could have just 12 miles from downtown Driggs.

But the public comments suggest that there is a lack of understanding of what the Forest Service is looking for.

There are the comments that elicit, “Thank you for your comment,” said Pence. And then, he said, some comments address the issues that the expansion could impact such as water, wildlife, dark sky and social-economical impacts on the valley. These comments provide teeth that will be addressed in the draft environmental impact study (EIS) document set to be completed in January 2021.

Here are some of the comments:

  • “I don’t want to see Targhee get any bigger.”
  • “The GT expansion proposal looks good. Consider my opinion to be in favor of it. I’m also in favor of more ski areas of any size.”
  • “I oppose this project, keep wild places wild.”

But this next step is unique, as Valley Advocates for Responsible Development laid out Monday evening. Hosting an online tutorial on how to engage with the federal public process, the evening’s event saw more than 50 people Zooming in for the nonprofit planning watchdog’s how-to for Grand Targhee expansion.

Executive Director Shawn Hill kicked off the event by stating matter-of-factly that this planning process is unlike one through local government jurisdictions. This is federal, Hill said.

To date, 34 comments have been submitted, despite Pence extending the commenting period from 30 to 45 days, or to Oct. 12.

“VARD is neutral on the expansion plan because there is so much information forthcoming,” wrote Hill in a follow-up email to EastIdahoNews.com. “When the draft EIS is released, we’ll take a position and will likely identify our preferred alternative. Right now, we’re trying to get as many folks as possible to submit comments before the scoping period closes on Oct. 12.”

Comments may be submitted online here.

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