WyoFile today publishes 995 pages of public comments on a controversial plan to limit traffic on a sensitive byway in Grand Teton National Park, comments that until now the National Park Service has kept private.
WyoFile secured the comments through a Freedom of Information Act request. Individuals and organizations submitted 34,370 letters or “correspondences” about the park’s plan to limit traffic on the Moose-Wilson road between Teton Village and park headquarters in Moose.
At issue is the narrow, winding byway between the growing Teton Village area and Grand Teton’s interior. The road traverses sensitive wildlife habitat but has become part of the unofficial transport network in an increasingly congested Jackson Hole.
Grand Teton got correspondence from all 50 states and Washington, D.C. The geographic distribution of those involved gives an indication of who is interested in the federal lands belonging to all Americans. Californians submitted the most letters, accounting for about 15 percent of submittals. Wyoming followed at 11 percent, New York and Florida at 6 percent each.
The plan to limit traffic drew criticism from several groups including cyclists who sought a bike path, transit advocates who would see busses as a solution to congestion, commercial interests that could lose convenient park access, and residents who have used the road for years as part of their community network. The park proposal also garnered support from conservationists in favor of protecting the natural values of the corridor.
In finalizing its plan, the Park Service said it considered and responded to comments as required by law, and even went beyond. It did not, however, publish or make available to the public the letters people had written until WyoFile’s request.
Instead, Grand Teton summarized comments in those 34,370 “correspondences,” as the Park Service calls letters and emails, creating 67 comment topics. It then responded to those topics in its final environmental impact statement.
Not publishing the correspondences precluded the public from confirming for itself, short of filing a FOIA request, that Grand Teton had addressed all issues of concern and had summarized those issues accurately. Today the public now has that ability.
Grand Teton said it covered all the bases, whether it published the original comments or not. “We analyzed all the substantive comments,” said Andrew White, Grand Teton assistant public affairs officer. “The full text is available to anybody who asked for it.”
As of mid-May, WyoFile was the only entity to ask for the correspondence and authors. More requests could have resulted in publication by the government itself. “If we do receive three or more [requests], we do post on the FOIA reading room,” a website for government documents, White said.
Some of those involved in the Moose-Wilson debate said the Park Service should have made the letters available. “I do think they should have been published,” Melissa Turley said. She is executive director of the Teton Village Association, an entity involved in the years-long process to evaluate and regulate increasing traffic along the environmentally sensitive road.
“I think it’s a better [National Environmental Policy Act] process when it’s as transparent as possible,” said Bill Resor, whose family owns the Snake River Ranch and developments just south of the park. “Their publishing all comments is better.”
Substantive comments only, please
In making its decision about the road, laws require the Park Service to consider “substantive” comments, but not those that simply support or oppose an action. Federal officials have struggled for decades to describe this aspect of their planning and public involvement rules. Most agency solicitations for input are not popularity contests where people “vote” for their preferred plan, alternative or outcome. In fact, such comments are routinely discounted by agencies for any use other than indicating the level of interest in a topic.
“Comments in favor or against the proposed action, alternatives, or comments that only agree or disagree with NPS policy are not considered substantive,” Grand Teton said in describing the process.
Instead, agencies are tasked with considering and responding to comments that question information that’s presented, question the adequacy of an analysis, or present reasonable, unconsidered alternatives. Substantive comments “raise, debate, or question a point of fact or policy,” the Park Service says.
Because of intense interest, the Moose-Wilson analysis included responses to some non-substantive comments to clarify issues the public may have been confused about, White and park documents said. “So, we really went above and beyond,” he said.
The park received 34,370 “correspondences,” according to the final environmental impact statement. A correspondence could contain several comments. Of those, 1,625 were “individual correspondences,” the park said. Fully 28,947 were form letters from Sierra Club supporters. Greater Yellowstone Coalition members sent 2,313 form letters and members of the National Parks Conservation Association submitted 1,585 form letters.
A 7-mile lane in the quiet corner
The 7-mile Moose-Wilson road skirts the base of the southern Tetons through rich wildlife terrain. The corridor has two trailheads and the Laurance S. Rockefeller Preserve Center, an interpretive base that tells the story of the Rockefeller family’s conservation efforts in Jackson Hole. Part of that story is the donation in 2001 to Grand Teton of 1,106 acres of the JY Ranch the family used as a retreat. Rockefeller wished it would become a place of spiritual and emotional connection to the landscape.
The area is removed from the hustle and bustle of main park attractions like Jenny Lake, the Snake River and Jackson Lake Reservoir. U.S. 191 carries most valley traffic between Jackson and Moose. But the Moose-Wilson road has become increasingly busy as Jackson Hole has grown — enough so that the Park Service felt the need to address traffic effects on a previously quiet corner of the federal reserve.
In December, after years of studies, debate, and public meetings, Grand Teton decided to limit access to the Moose-Wilson corridor to 550 people or 200 vehicles at a time. The decision raised the specter of a long line of cars idling at guard stations at either end of the road, although information signs and other forms of communicating the status of access are possible. The plan will be implemented as resources permit and the traffic limits are only expected to be reached at times during peak season. The park said it would respond to changing conditions and data by using an “adaptive management” approach.
Some would see the debate as one pitting preservation against growth and convenience. As Teton County has grown, so has its traffic problems to the point any travel restrictions can result in a cascading series of bumper-to-bumper jams. Many residents resist the idea of upgrading roads to four lanes, yet lament the congestion during busy summer tourist months.
Also, Teton Village, 12 miles northwest of Jackson, has matured as a resort and has a marketing advantage in its location adjacent to the park’s southern boundary. According to calculations by the Teton County Planning Department and WyoFile, the village has approximately 3,742 “hot beds” or APOs [average peak occupancy, a unit of resort bed measurement] available to tourists.
Jerry Blann, President of Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, around which the village is centered, wrote in a comment to Grand Teton’s superintendent that the village is “your closest proximate Governmental entity” because it has several tax districts with elected representatives. For example, Melissa Turley’s Teton Village Association represents commercial interests in the resort community and is funded by a property tax in the village commercial district. There’s also a residential improvement and service district funded by property tax, a resort district funded by sales tax, a water and sewer district, a special fire district, and an architectural committee.
As a government entity, the Teton Village Association sought special status as a cooperating agency from the Park Service. The Park Service rejected the request.
That status would have allowed district representatives to preview and comment on pending park actions, among other things. In his comments, Blann recommended the park allow a transit system and a bike path, and he criticized other aspects of the park analysis.
How the park responded
As an example of how Grand Teton treated correspondences and comments, here’s the discussion of socioeconomic issues raised by letter writers. The park summarized the issue thusly: ”The National Park Service should further analyze the impacts on socioeconomics including visitor spending, tax revenue, and jobs.”
It then quoted from several letter-writers, without identifying them:
“Alternative C [the park’s plan] negatively impacts the residents and visitors of the region in multiple ways. It does not allow us to make feasible travel plans as we would not know of our ability to enter the Park in a timely manner through the southern entrance until we are ‘before the entrance’. Serious negative consequences will be incurred by adopting Alternative C because of the then increased traffic turning around at the South Entrance and driving along the already crowded road back to Jackson and around to the Moose Entrance, the gross negligence this method shows to give to the concept of sustainability as it will require far more consumptive driving than needs to take place, and it will negatively impact the most major economic engine in this region which is tourism.”
The Park Service offered a second quote from a commenter:
“There is no way that the businesses on the West Bank and in particular, Teton Village, will not suffer if Alternative C [the park’s preferred plan] is implemented. The vast majority of visitors to Teton Village in the summer months enjoy using the proximal south entrance to GTNP and this alternative greatly limits that usage.”
And a third:
“Also, this will unfairly and negatively impact owners of rental units in Teton Village. I certainly would be less inclined to stay there as a visitor if the proposed changes are put in place.”
Grand Teton then printed its response:
“Direct and indirect impacts to local economies are discussed under each alternative in Chapter 4. The National Park Service recognizes that changes in visitor use patterns associated with any of the alternatives could have some localized impacts on individual businesses or other establishments. However, the National Park Service anticipates these changes to be small relative to existing conditions and does not expect that any of the alternatives would affect overall visitation or visitor spending in the local community.”
The correspondences below are searchable by keyword once the document viewer is expanded to full size. Anybody wanting to research an issue or find who submitted comments can likely find that information without paging through the entire collection of correspondence, by clicking on the expand button in the bottom lefthand corner of the document viewer. The responses to the comments are contained in the final plan and impact statement.