JACKSON, Wyo. — The Teton County Board of County Commissioners discussed a new pathway on the east side of the National Elk Refuge, during their workshop on Sept. 12.
Pathways & Trails Coordinator Brian Schilling brought the item before the Commission to gauge their interest in developing a pathway between East Broadway to Twin Creek.
Schilling explained that the National Elk Refuge proposed the pathway to the County due to the increased number of vehicles using the road and to protect nonmotorized users, citing the 2019 accident that severely injured current Jackson Town Council member Jim Rooks. Schilling met with Elk Refuge staff in June 2022 to tour the area and discuss the overall concept.
According to Schilling, the initial discussion considered a 3.5-mile gravel surface pathway generally parallel to the Elk Refuge Road within 15-50 feet from the road edge. A paved surface was discussed but gravel “meets more of the feel and intent,” Schilling said during the meeting.
The first step would require a NEPA-level environmental analysis, funded by Teton County, which would require County staff to release a request for proposals (RFQ) for potential contractors. Schilling estimated the environmental assessment could cost between $50,000 and $100,000.
Construction costs of a gravel pathway are estimated at $300,000-$500,000 per mile. Maintenance of a gravel pathway is estimated at $1,000 per mile per year but can vary significantly depending on winter maintenance.
Commissioner Mark Barron shared concerns about seasonal closures, citing the closures on the west side of the refuge on the highway 89 pathway. He said he is reluctant to support the project without first knowing if the pathway would have seasonal closures but Schilling explained that the environmental assessment would determine that.
Commissioner Greg Epstein suggested that he wanted to see more interest from the community.
He said, “I kind of would love to see if there is a little bit of proof of concept by the public donating money. Is there really an interest? is there really a need? We are talking about a very small subsection of Teton County that likes to use the Elk Refuge Road or is it a much larger subsection?”
Schilling cited data collected from a 2020 public outreach process about the pathways system. “This project was identified by a fairly large number of people. It shook out in our scoring as the #11 project in a list of 100 projects,” Schilling said. “Numbers one through 15; we are working on all of those almost in some capacity.”
Friends of Pathways Executive Director Katherine Dowson was also present during the meeting. She said, “Of course, we want to help.” She said she would bring it to the board to see if they could contribute funding for the environmental assessment.
“I’d be happy to put one of our counters out there to give you an idea of the number of people [that use the road] and I think the public and hospital employees use that road all the time. It’s a place to go especially the first mile,” Dowson said.
In 2019, Rooks was hit by a car while biking on the same stretch on Elk Refuge Road. He sustained severe injuries from the accident and shared his thoughts about the pathway in a phone interview following the meeting on Sept. 14.
Rooks said while he didn’t volunteer to be the poster child for the need for pathways, he is happy to be able to bring attention to the topic.
“It’s unfortunate that a lot of times transportation issues aren’t dealt with until there is a fatality or injury and we see that with roadways all the time, Rooks said, “I think it’s long overdue and absolutely necessary and would become one more pathway in our incredible community-wide pathway system.”
Rooks pointed out that the pathway’s intent would be to protect nonmotorized users but would also protect drivers who use the road to access federal lands. “One angle that I don’t think is discussed enough is that the gentleman that hit me didn’t intend to hit me it was an accident all around. You definitely don’t want to get hit by a motor vehicle and second, you don’t want to hit anyone,” he said.
“I literally had an experience in the days after I got hurt when I was in the ICU and I thought, oh my god, I know how it feels to be the wildlife in town,” Rooks said, “It was very poignant.”
“I understand people want more access but the decisions need to be made first and foremost on behalf of the national elk refuge and what’s best for wildlife,” Rooks said.
As for the next steps, Schilling laid out the options to the Board, including doing nothing. “We could move forward right now, but that would require amending the FY23 budget,” Shilling said. “The other option would be to program funds for this into the FY24 budget but that budget wouldn’t come into effect until July 1 of next year.”
But noted, “this is not something I’ve mentally considered for this year’s work plan.”
“On my part for the financial piece im not necessarily interested in adding something to the budget I think it could be vetted alongside all of our other budgetary needs,” Commission Chair Natalia Macker said. To close the discussion, Macker instructed Schilling to bring back additional information on closures or potential closures, on no particular timeline.