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Brief History of Grand Teton National Park Pathways and new Moose-Wilson Corridor EIS Underway – How we got here, and time to comment, again!

For decades, at least since the late 70’s through the 80’s and 90’s, many in the Jackson Hole community, along with many park visitors, sought to improve bicycling and walking access to Grand Teton National Park for people to more safely and enjoyably visit the park without a motor vehicle. There was keen interest in enhancing green, low-impact people-powered visits to the national park, and the bicycle was viewed as an ideal way to visit the park. But there was concern over increasing vehicle traffic and bikes safely trying to share the narrow park roads.

Grand Teton National Park produced a bike plan in 1978, but no action was ever taken to implement the recommendations. When Teton County launched the Jackson Pathways in the 90’s, numerous meetings were held with the park superintendents to encourage Grand Teton to join in the pathway planning, yet the National Park Service steadfastly refused to consider pathways.

Then tragedy hit in July 1999 when 13-year-old Gabriella Axelrad was struck and killed while riding her bike on a family vacation near Jenny Lake. There was significant public outcry over her death. The park service responded with a multi-year transportation study process. Yet in the end that study process simply recommended more studies.

Then on Easter Sunday 2001, a second bicyclist and former park employee Jeff Pool was struck and killed while riding in Grand Teton National Park. The outcry picked up. US Senator Craig Thomas took up a keen interest, and there was a concerted effort to push the park service to do something. Wyoming Pathways Executive Director Tim Young worked for the National Parks Conservation Association at the time, and led a successful 5-year effort to build pathways for visitors to safely bike and walk in Grand Teton. At that time, NPCA supported a safe pathway along the main park roads from Jackson to Colter Bay and along the full Moose-Wilson Road. Sadly, such a simple idea was quite controversial. Several other national and regional conservation groups were opposed to the pathway concept. The Grand Teton Superintendent even went so far as to claim it was better for people to just stay in their cars.

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Jeff Pool Crash site in Grand Teton National Park.

The Park Service conducted a second multi year planning process for a Grand Teton NP Transportation Plan EIS, with a Record of Decision finally issued in March 2007. Near 90% of public comments support the pathways. In the end, the NPS made a courageous forward looking decision and approved 42 miles of pathways in Grand Teton, running along the main highway from the south boundary to Moose, along the Teton Park road from Moose to Jenny Lake, Signal Mt., Jackson Lake Lodge, and Colter Bay; and it included a pathway along the southern 3.5 miles of the Moose-Wilson Road, and widened shoulders on the Gros Ventre Road.

A plan is not a pathway, and to push the Park Service to actually do something, Senator Thomas secured congressional funding of $10 million for the first pathways. Even then, the first step the Park Service took was to take $1 million off the top for wildlife studies and to study how pathways might hurt the visitor experience of people driving in the park. Senator Thomas was furious.

Finally, after a favorable decision in 2007, the first pathway 7-mile section from Moose to Jenny opened in late 2008 – a total success for visitors and the park from day one.

By 2012, Teton County completed a key six-mile pathway connection from the Town of Jackson along the Elk Refuge to the park border at the Gros Ventre River, and the NPS constructed the 6-mile connection to Moose. That created a continuous 20 miles of pathway from Jackson to Jenny Lake which has become highly successful with visitors with virtually no impacts on wildlife or park resources. US Senator John Barrasso secured an additional $2.9 million in 2011, and the park just completed a new 1.2-mile section that connects Moose Junction to Antelope Flats road, opening up new loops on the east side of Grand Teton NP. There has been some preliminary planning for adding pathways along the roads near Jenny Lake, but no funding yet.

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Gabriella Axelrad’s parents David and Liza visit the park pathway built in her memory.

These visitors are experiencing Grand Teton National Park in a new, low impact fashion that is healthy for visitors, a terrific experience, and achieves the National Park’s Mission.

The good news is the before and after wildlife studies conducted from 2007-2011 showed basically no impacts from the pathway along the Teton Park Road between Moose and Jenny Lake. The NPS also conducted two social science studies, which looked at the visitor use before and after the pathway. The visitor results showed off-the-chart visitor satisfaction with the experience and showed that more women, kids, and older people were using the pathway than had been on the road prior, just as advocates had predicted. Sadly, the park cherry-picked the wildlife studies claiming some minor impacts, and suppressed the results of the positive social science studies that showed such high visitor enjoyment.

The net result of all the studies and seven years of actual use show the Grand Teton National Park pathways to be total success – a fantastic visitor experience with negligible resource impacts and few management problems. The Grand Teton Pathways are among the best things to happen to the park in decades, and the park now embraces the success.