- Associated Press - Saturday, August 29, 2015

JACKSON, Wyo. (AP) - Sherrie Jern has seen her fair share of busy summers over the 26 years she has run the Wildflower Inn, but she says things have been different this summer.

Moose still come to the secluded lawn of her West Bank bed and breakfast, to the delight of her guests. But some of her visitors are no longer going into town to shop or eat at restaurants. They are waking up before sunrise to avoid the deluge of cars and people at trailheads in Grand Teton National Park.

This summer even some of the tourists have had enough of the crowds and congestion.

“I think everyone has felt the difference this summer,” Jern said. “The fact that our guests are feeling it, too, I think is significant.”

Politicians haven’t been immune either.



“For me this summer was very emotionally draining,” Teton County Board of Commissioners Chairwoman Barbara Allen said at a meeting last week. “It’s not all about me. I recognize our businesses have to make money, et cetera. But it was different this summer, and I don’t know what that was.”

The people who say they have felt a difference insist that it’s not simply a matter of them personally being inconvenienced. It has to do with the valley’s character.

Cramming too much into a finite space can degrade some of the very attributes of Jackson Hole that make this place attractive for residents, visitors and the second-home owners who fall somewhere between, they say.

“I think it’s crazy this summer,” said Kelly Stirn, owner of the R Lazy S dude ranch. “We just keep on advertising, we just keep on bringing them in. I think people are finally going, ‘Whoa.’”

Much of the data on summer visitation and traffic hasn’t been tallied yet, but some of the preliminary numbers verify what many around the valley have been feeling.

Yellowstone National Park is smashing visitation records this year. Through July 2015 the park tallied 2.28 million recreational visitors, a 13 percent increase over the previous record year, 2010. Yellowstone officials say the rise would be even greater if it weren’t for a change in the way visitation statistics are calculated.

Wyoming Department of Transportation officials report that traffic on valley roads has been up between 10 percent and 15 percent from last year.

July statistics show 90 percent of hotel rooms were booked, compared with 88 percent in the same month a year ago, the Jackson Hole News & Guide reported (https://bit.ly/1KSEBND).

Elected officials have been quick to point out that it’s not just tourists who are to blame for the congestion and pressure brought on by the summer. It’s the general influx of people, from second-homeowners who stay just the summer to the seasonal workers needed to serve that many more human beings.

The ramifications can be wide-ranging, with traffic being the most visible and frustrating fallout for many people. Backups have been common during rush hour on Highway 22. But the implications extend even further. More summer workers add even more pressure to an already tight housing market.

These issues have come to a head most recently in a debate this summer among town and county officials about exactly how much more commercial growth should be zoned for in Jackson Hole.

Residents, community organizations and even former politicians have been pushing officials to not increase commercial development potential in Teton County above what has historically been planned for.

They have argued that the current ratio of residential to commercial development is already out of balance. The Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance commissioned a report, to be released later this month, that found just that.

Increasing the potential for more has far-reaching ripple effects, they argue, from ramping up overall congestion to increasing the need for more low-wage workers.

The majority of elected officials have been leaning toward keeping total growth at levels set in the 1994 comprehensive plan, but a final decision still has to be made. That could come in September.

Some have pointed out that many of the driving forces that contribute to situations like this summer - such as low gas prices and the continued rise of the national economy - are outside the community’s control.

“Any time we’re in this kind of a cycle it certainly brings up the question of what is the appropriate way to grow,” said Jackson Hole Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Jeff Golightly.

He has heard from businesses around town that they are “exceptionally busy.” He also has heard complaints about the impacts.

A question that some have begun to ask, including Jackson Mayor Sara Flitner, is whether this summer is a “blip” or the new normal.

Golightly believes the situation will stay the same until there is a downturn in global markets. Job growth has proved to be somewhat volatile and tied to market trends, according to an annual indicator report put out by planners earlier this summer.

“It’s very reasonable to think that this is how tourism will look like,” Golightly said, “notwithstanding a change.”

In the meantime it is important to figure out how to deal with the effects, he said. Getting more people to ride the bus or enabling people to live closer to where they work can help.

Politicians continue to look into ways to do those things. The visitor’s experience should be kept in mind, Golightly said.

“At some point the experience could suffer if we don’t all really think long and hard about what our future looks like,” he said.

But there are also other levers, outside of zoning and buses, available to the community to pull to address some of the same issues.

One idea that has come up recently is whether there is a better way to spend the lodging tax, 60 percent of which is used to promote the offseason and winter tourism economies in Jackson Hole.

Some have begun to ask whether the money could go toward housing.

Others have suggested taking a closer look at some of the programs used to promote visitation to Jackson Hole.

Regardless of which levers the community ends up deciding to pull, some say now is the time for action.

“We’re getting busy and people are starting to say, ‘Hey, wait a minute, this could be more than a blip,’” County Commissioner Mark Newcomb said. “When you look at exponential growth curves they get steeper fast, and that’s where we are. It’s time to get some stuff done, but the wheels turn slowly.”

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Information from: Jackson Hole (Wyo.) News And Guide, https://www.jhnewsandguide.com

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