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Trails around this popular resort town in Wyoming have seen skyrocketing use in recent years. Extraordinary efforts by the National Forest land managers, combined with local nonprofit campaigns for responsible trail-use, have kept impending disaster at bay.

By Brigid Mander • April 11, 2022

I could hear the snowmobile coming long before it zoomed past me. After it did, the smell of burned fuel hung in the air while I scooted along the Nordic ski track with my dog. Here in Teton County, Wyoming, this heavily used, often crowded trail at the edge of the town of Jackson is one of the few which also allows motorized use. Swarms of Nordic skiers, dog walkers, and snowbikers greatly outnumber the occasional snowmobile, so the machine didn’t bother me. That is, until I came across long lengths of the ski track which had just been entirely obliterated in its tread. I flailed along without the track to keep my flimsy track skis pointing forward. I thought of cranky things to say to the obviously malicious sledder—didn’t he see the trailhead signs?—in the unlikely event I saw him again.

As the local population and visitors to the region have skyrocketed in recent years, stories of less-than-civil user conflicts have begun to rise. Friends recounted being lectured for “illegally” biking on Teton Pass trails by hikers, while going up a multi-use trail specifically built and signed for both mountain biking and hiking. They mentioned the right-of-way confusion that abounded on easily accessed trails, e-bikers poaching non-motorized trails, and dog owners who ignored wintertime leash laws and rebuffed entreaties by other users to leash up near winter wildlife closures. They told stories of backcountry skiers parked in illegal spots near trailheads, giving Wyoming Department of Transportation plow drivers high blood pressure and threatening access for all users. 

Courtesy of Teton Backcountry Alliance

Teton County trails serve as one of the gateways for millions of annual visitors to access Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Park, two of the U.S.’s most famous parks. The trails are also an adventure-sports destination in their own right. The Bridger-Teton National Forest (BTNF) estimates it sees 2.2 million visitors per year and manages 700 miles of primarily non-motorized trails. 

Increasing levels of use and user types has left their marks. Many locals, who have worked hard to build trails and good relationships throughout their communities, feel disenfranchised and angry when those trails are not only overcrowded, but used improperly. However, extraordinary efforts by the BTNF land managers, combined with local nonprofit campaigns for responsible trail-use advocacy, have kept impending disaster at bay: conflicts do exist, but the dominant trail-user experience is still a rewarding and respectful one. 

The idea is to have all the data for Teton County overlayed on a map to show where wildlife takes priority and where there is room to expand recreation…and to maximize the corridors we have before expanding by making them more usable for more user types for more of the year.

Chris Owens, Friends of Pathways

For example, on Teton Pass, a group of mountain bikers formed the nonprofit Teton Freeriders and worked with the BTNF to minimize trail conflict when downhill biking. Trail use was proactively separated before animosity could take root in the mid-2000s, including the creation of the first user-specific downhill-bike trail system in the U.S. on public land. The community agreed on certain uses being excluded from certain trails, and this act was a big step in setting a positive, cooperative local tone for the future.

“I’d say overall, the multi-use system has been working really well,” says Harlan Hottenstein, a Teton Freeriders board member. “In my opinion, signage could be a little better, but it seems to be effective in reaching locals and visitors alike.” According to Hottenstein, people generally use the summer trails correctly. “I can’t say for certain about bike traffic on the horse/hike trails but I am confident that it’s not happening much. Otherwise, I would be hearing about it from USFS,” he said. To address winter use and growing backcountry skier numbers, the relatively new Teton Backcountry Alliance has stepped in to provide clear information for crowded trailheads, parking, dog management, skintrack etiquette, and safety on Teton Pass. 

Nevels Media / Unsplash

In addition to human use, there is also a huge, multi-group communication effort underway on the importance of avoiding wildlife conflict. “This is a big picture concern that we have been contributing to through projects Neighbors to Nature and the Recreation-Wildlife Coexistence Project,” says Chris Owens, trails program manager at Friends of Pathways, a prominent local trails advocacy non-profit. “The idea is to have all the data for Teton County overlayed on a map to show where wildlife takes priority and where there is room to expand recreation…and to maximize the corridors we have before expanding by making them more usable for more user types for more of the year.”

Without the work of BTNF and locals willing to dedicate their time and effort into responsible coexistence and user behavior, attitudes on all the trails might be very different. “It’s an ongoing effort, but I take pride in where we are,” Owens says.

So when I saw the sled coming back down the trail, I waved him down and shelved my cranky assumptions. Instead, I explained the problem, and asked if he would avoid the set track in the future. He flipped up his shiny, full-face helmet and looked at the track while I waited in apprehension for his response. “I didn’t know that was for skiing! I didn’t even see it!”  he said, apologetically. He promised to stay off the track, and thanked me for letting him know. We parted ways cheerfully. As I skied up the still-wrecked track, I felt a lot better. And that, I realized, was a product of the example set for me by the broader community. 

Brigid Mander is a freelance writer, editor, skier, and frequent traveler based in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.

This is the first in a series of Trails are Common Ground “Local Takes”, which offers perspectives from trail users in their own community.