Diverging paths: Park works to balance recreation and wildlife

This summer if you drove to Grand Teton National Park, you probably noticed the jagged peaks. If you were lucky you witnessed some wildlife. And more than likely you also noticed the cyclists — from the serious in spandex, to the jean-wearing, cruiser pedaling leisure rider.

This summer Grand Teton National Park celebrated the opening of a 6.5 mile stretch of pathway that runs from Gros Ventre Junction to Moose and connects to pathways already in place to allow for a road-free ride from Jackson all the way to Jenny Lake, about 22 miles.

Kelsey Dayton

Counters in place along the pathway have been found to underestimate use by up to 39 percent — they don’t always pick up individual counts in a group and don’t differentiate between different directions. Yet from early June to mid-October average use on the pathway system was estimated at 78 people per day at a counter south of Gros Ventre Junction and north of the Gros Ventre River Bridge, and 126 people at a counter a quarter mile north of the airport, according to the National Park Service.

The pathways garnered Jackson a gold-level bicycle friendly community rating from the League of American Bicyclists and national attention. Suddenly, it seemed that’s all anyone cared about was more pathways in the park, said spokeswoman Jackie Skaggs.

As pathways trend upward, it’s easy to understand the benefits; exercise, emission-free transportation, and connecting to the landscape. But at the close of what appears to have been a successful summer for the new pathway, many people still warn that pavement comes with a price that wildlife pay in the form of lost habitat.

Karen Oatey, a cyclist and pathway ambassador, no longer tenses as she makes her way along the highway, worried a truck or RV might swerve into her lane if the driver spots wildlife. The growing number of families Oatey talks to as an ambassador say they’d otherwise drive through the park if they didn’t have an option to bike. They are able to stop and take more pictures and see more moving at 8 to 15 mph, she said.

“It’s really a whole different perspective on seeing the park,” she said.

The push for pathways in Grand Teton really began in 1999 when Gabriella Axelrad, 13, was hit by a van and killed while biking through the park with her family. Gabriella’s family then returned to Grand Teton each year, organizing a memorial ride and advocating for pathways in the park to make it safe for non-motorized transportation through the park.

“That got the dialogue going and got the needle moving in terms of getting some pathway ideas underway,” Skaggs said.

The park and area has always been a draw for cyclists. Before the “pathways” were built, cyclists were forced to hug the shoulder of the road, crowded by motorized traffic heading to the park. In the spring, before the roads in the park open to cars, the parking lot at Bradley Taggart, just outside the road closure area, is often overflowing with vehicles left by those who have taken to the park road by bike or foot.

Grand Teton included pathways as part of its 2007 transportation plan, Skaggs said. The plan authorizes about 42 miles of pathways to be built in phases in coming years as funding becomes available. Future pathways in the park could connect South and North Jenny Lake, as well as run along Sage Brush Drive, which intersects with the highway at Gros Ventre junction, Skaggs said.

The Park’s first phase of the pathway project opened in 2009 with an 8-mile route from Moose to Jenny Lake. It was followed by a 7-mile stretch from Jackson on National Wildlife Refuge land near the National Elk Refuge, which is closed between Oct. 1 and May 5 to avoid stressing elk that cross the highway and into the refuge, said Steve Kallin, refuge manager. The pathway, which was funded by various sources, including Teton County, was built with the condition of the closure, Kallin said.

As the park has moved forward with its pathway plan, wildlife has also been a major consideration.

The park launched four studies on the impact of pathways on bears, elk, birds and pronghorn and found animals see the pathway as a potential threat and it has changed anima movements, said Steve Cain, senior wildlife biologist in Grand Teton.

Pronghorn moved about 175 yards away from the pathway, which resulted in about 1,000 acres of open sage brush along seven miles lost as habitat, Cain said.

Birds also moved their nests away from the pathway, shifting about 60 meters away, resulting in a habitat loss of about 330 acres.

“Wildlife respond quite differently to things like vehicles on a highway which they can habituate to because they are fairly predictable, unlike people on a trail or a pathway where people can approach them,” Cain said.

Cyclists bike along the pathway in Grand Teton National Park. The park is working to balance pathway development with wildlife needs.

None of the studies showed a major population impact to wildlife, but the pathway adds to the cumulative human impact on the landscape, Cain said.

While the study results don’t apply if pathways were planned for forested areas, what does translate to all future pathway development is making sure they are built as near the road as possible, to minimize habitat loss and impact on wildlife, Cain said.

“There’s no doubt that pathways have been a boon to the community and Grand Teton National Park in the sense that they’ve given thousands of people a safe way to recreate and also provided opportunities for pedestrians and cyclist to get to work without emitting greenhouse gases,” said Cory Hatch, wildlands director for the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance. Yet it’s important to remember a new strip of pavement in the park is going to impact wildlife.

The park did a good job keeping the pathway relatively close to the road to avoid a larger island between both pathway and highway pavement strips that also becomes lost habitat.

Hatch said he hopes the park continues to gain more information on how pathways impact animals and that future development avoid sensitive wildlife areas.

Balancing use and visitor services has always been a challenge for the park service, Skaggs said.

New activities like biking on pathways, gets people in the park. It helps those who might not hike on a trail, connect with Grand Teton. It’s important for the park to adapt to changing uses and demographics.

The park works to balance new development, by reducing impacts elsewhere, she said.

Pathways in National Parks aren’t unique to Grand Teton, other parks like Grand Canyon have bike paths, but it’s still a relatively new trend.

With the new territory have come unforeseen challenges, such as safety concerns at Gros Venture Junction, Skaggs said. Bikes zip across the road. People try to cross the highway. Cars turn at the intersection. There were several close calls, although no accidents, this summer, she said. The park is contemplating ways to mitigate the safety concerns, such as a round-about, with a federal highway safety engineer, Skaggs said.

Phase three of the pathway plans is expected to be a small stretch from Moose Junction to Antelope flats. The project, in the design phase, is proving more expensive than initially thought because of the need for a bridge over Ditch Creek. The project could move forward and the pathway stop about two tenths of a mile short of Antelope Flats road so a bridge doesn’t have to be built at this time, Skaggs said. A small portion of the funds might also be used to address the safety concerns at Gros Venture junction.

Talk to most people in the community and they are eager for more pathways.

Locals and visitors have embraced the pathway, said Mike Welch, executive director of Friends of Pathways.

“They get out from behind the windshield, get the kids out of the back seat, slow down and take in the wildlife, the fresh air and the scenery,” he said.

The experience is not just about the day-long adventure but about building connections with the park and biking, he said. The pathway system is helping create the next generation of cyclists, but also land stewards and conservationists.

— “Peaks to Plains” is a blog focusing on Wyoming’s outdoors and communities. Kelsey Dayton is a freelance writer based in Lander. She has been a journalist in Wyoming for seven years, reporting for the Jackson Hole News & Guide, Casper Star-Tribune and the Gillette News-Record. Contact Kelsey at kelsey.dayton@gmail.com.

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Kelsey Dayton

Kelsey Dayton is a freelancer and the editor of Outdoors Unlimited, the magazine of the Outdoor Writers Association of America. She has worked as a reporter for the Gillette News-Record, Jackson Hole News&Guide...

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3 Comments

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  1. These pathways are a fine success, but only because NPS studied, planned and analyzed before constructing. The same success has been sadly avoided in Wyoming’s “sacrifice zone” of the Powder River Basin, where studies, planning and analysis are eschewed and ridiculed, in favor of un encumbered development. We really could have it all if we’d just slow down as they did in the park.

  2. Kelsey: Great work on the pathway story…I was completely against the pathway because of the addition of more asphalt but have since reversed my opinion 180 degrees due to personal use, observation of families using the pathway and observing no measurable impact on wildlife.

  3. Great article, it brings up a great point about the impacts that we have on the environment even when we think we are doing the right thing and reducing those impacts wherever we can. Next time we visit Jackson you can be sure that we’ll be bringing our bikes!