By Emily Mieure
Jackson Hole News&Guide
Via Wyoming News Exchange
JACKSON — A plan to increase Grand Targhee Resort’s skiable acreage by 50% has Teton County Search and Rescue officials worried about an increase in backcountry accidents.
The U.S. Forest Service recently accepted the resort’s 147-page master plan for consideration, owner and General Manager Geordie Gillett said. It proposes new chairlifts, new restaurants, more snowmaking, a zip line, an aerial adventure course and more.
“I know people are super sensitive to expansion,” he told the News&Guide. “This thing is, this is in conjunction with the master plan we got back from Teton County, Wyoming, for the base area. All the pieces need to work well together.”
Gillett is working with two development plans — one for the base area involving Teton County and another for upper-mountain expansions involving the Forest Service. The plans have been in the works for several years.
“I understand what makes us special,” Gillett said. “A big part of it is our vibe and low-key atmosphere. We intend to enhance that. I have no intention on ruining the experience here.”
While Gillett is certain the developments have been vetted and are appropriate for Targhee’s long-term goals, members of Teton County Search and Rescue are apprehensive about the potential for more backcountry rescues on the western side of the Tetons.
“It will open up a considerable amount of resort-accessed backcountry terrain, similar to Jackson Hole Mountain Resort,” Teton County Sheriff Matt Carr said. “We will have to react to that. To remain proactive we have a cache in Alta where we store emergency gear. But it’s the response time that’s the challenge.”
The Search and Rescue hangar in Jackson is 45 miles from Grand Targhee Resort.
“If we can fly the helicopter to get over there it isn’t bad,” Carr said. “But responding by snow machines can take two hours.”
Search and Rescue doesn’t fly at night. And it can’t fly in a snowstorm. Gillett argued the expansion could make it safer for skiers in search of steeper terrain. The resort proposed expanding into South Bowl near Peaked Mountain by adding an eastern lift, a western lift and a connector lift.
“Getting in there to mitigate the snow and manage it will provide more safety,” Gillett said.
But the general manager of seven years isn’t ignoring the rescue concerns. He admits his head of ski patrol has shared similar worries.
“Our ski patrol is highly trained and highly competent,” he said. “And we have a good relationship with Search and Rescue. They are prepared and explore areas outside our permit boundary just to be ready.”
Gillett said his ski patrol has an unofficial agreement with Search and Rescue. If rescuers are en route, ski patrollers can prep emergency equipment at the cache and start the operation before they arrive.
“Every minute helps. If someone is lost in the backcountry we make contact with Search and Rescue or vice versa,” Gillett said. “They have access to our radios, and we do trainings with them. At the end of the day it is the public’s land, and if they want to go back into it hopefully they are smart about it.”
Gillett said the plan still must jump through several hoops before work can begin. If everything goes as planned, the resort will double its number of chairlifts.
“Approximately 348 acres of new lift-served trails are planned, in addition to new and improved glades on both Fred’s and Peaked Mountains,” the plan states. “Terrain on Peaked Mountain is planned to be improved and expanded and a lift in the Mono trees area, up to Lightning Ridge, will provide round-trip skiing as well. A third lift, the Lightning Lift, similar to the Mono Trees Lift, was proposed initially with an alignment to the south and approved in 1994/95. Planned lift upgrades include realigning and extending the Shoshone Lift and the Papoose carpet. Finally, three new lifts — Crazy Horse, North Boundary and Rick’s Basin and two new teaching carpets are planned.”
Gillett said the earliest work could begin is summer 2020, but he said summer 2021 is more realistic.
The resort has to submit its formal letter of proposal to the Forest Service. After that, it has to be accepted under the National Environmental Protection Act and pass an environmental assessment.
“When you get to that level of higher scrutiny it goes to an environmental impact study,” Gillett said. “That will take 18 months, and we can’t do anything in that time. Then there’s a public comment period.”
Gillett said the plan is a natural next step for Grand Targhee Resort.
“These are the sort of things people expect and want,” he said. “That’s the goal of this. It’s not to swamp the place in skier visits.”