JACKSON — For all of its history, Snow King Mountain has been a small and mostly sleepy ski area, with slow lifts, relatively few people and familiar ski runs cutting through the forest rising over town.
The mountain as it exists today hasn’t been changed dramatically in a half-century, making it a rare ski area that’s suitable as a protected district under the National Historic Preservation Act. But that eligibility is now in question, due to proposed additions, expansions and changes whose cumulative effects could prove a tipping point.
“We have this resort where a lot of things haven’t changed in over 50 years,” Bridger-Teton National Forest Staff Archaeologist John Paul “JP” Shubert told the News&Guide. “It’s still being used as a ski area. There’s a setting and feeling, and all of that is well preserved.”
Few such quaint historic ski areas remain on the landscape today, he said. Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, for instance, surpasses the 50-year threshold for historic eligibility, but its runs, lifts and buildings have been overhauled to such an extent that the federal historic laws don’t come into play.
But not so at Snow King — until now.
“With this proposal we’re talking about changing a lot,” Shubert said. “Big changes. Having high-speed runs, different access points, a lot more runs and getting rid of and upgrading a lot of the existing buildings.
“It’s decreasing the integrity of the historic district — substantially,” he said.
A historic preservation consultant that Snow King hired, Ron Sladek, drew a similar conclusion.
“Sladek poses the idea that proposed development at Snow King Mountain Resort may have the cumulative result in the district being not eligible,” Shubert wrote in a 2019 staff report. “Snow King would potentially become ineligible if the character-defining features were removed or substantially altered and the relationship between the features became significantly diminished.”
Sladek hasn’t responded to the News&Guide’s request for an interview, but a copy of his report is attached to the online version of this story at JHNewsAndGuide.com.
Snow King advisor Jeff Golightly’s hope is that the improvement plans the resort has pitched won’t degrade the historic value of the ski area as a whole.
“We want to be able to preserve and catalog the historic nature of the mountain,” Golightly said, “while at the same time providing modern, safe infrastructure to allow for more people to enjoy the mountain.
“Three laps on a lunch break, wouldn’t that be great?” he said. “And you can’t do that on slow chairs.”
A National Historic Preservation Act compliance process that’s underway is happening concurrent to a National Environmental Policy Act review, which will determine the scope and nature of the changes Snow King Resort will be authorized to execute. Comments are still being accepted on the draft environmental impact statement, but they’re due by Tuesday.
The Snow King plans being considered are expansive, and include east- and west-side boundary changes, new backside development, more ski runs, a zip line, a gondola, new summit buildings, a mountain bike park, a yurt system and more. The changes originally proposed by the ski area adversely impact 14 of the 15 remaining historic assets that contribute to Snow King’s eligibility.
One of the four “alternatives” being considered, No. 4, is designed to maintain the current historic district eligibility. The main tactic is pushing new ski runs away from the existing, historically significant permit area, concentrating them instead within the east and west expansion areas.
Other than the historic ski runs themselves, like Elk and Grizzly, two currently eligible historic buildings are also on the chopping block: the Panorama House and off-load station from the summit lift.
Shubert, Snow King, the Wyoming State Historic Preservation Office, the Teton County Historic Preservation Board and others are meeting over the winter to try to come up with “mitigation measures” to offset the impacts. What those measures look like is not yet clear, to the chagrin of one resident who feels she was “boxed out” when she tried to participate in the process.
“The [draft environmental impact statement] does not provide any mitigation measures for adverse impacts to be commented on,” Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance Community Planning Manager Brooke Sausser said. “That basically tells the public, ‘Don’t worry about it, and you don’t have an option to comment.’”
Ski resorts and national forests from around the country reportedly have their eyes on Snow King as the Bridger-Teton and owner Max Chapman navigate uncharted waters modernizing a historically significant ski area located on federal land. Locals have been less tuned in to those historical district discussions, an issue that’s perhaps been drowned out by debate over expansions, zip lines and compromised wildlife habitat.
Shubert points out that the moniker “Town Hill” is another part of Snow King’s history. It’s a reflection, he said, of Jackson residents who have hiked and skied along its face since before the creation of the Bridger-Teton or a ski resort that fired up chairlifts every morning.
“The name ‘Town Hill’ is an interesting paradox because it’s owned by a private company, but the public tends to feel very entitled to it,” Schubert said. “That goes back a century. You think you have some ownership as a townsperson here? Well, it’s because people have been sending it off of Snow King for 100 years.”