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Clearing Muddy Waters Clouding the Jackson Hole River Parks Project

JHRPP

On Wednesday, August 9th the Jackson Hole News and Guide slammed the Jackson Hole River Parks Project (JHRPP) in a misleading front page opinion piece disguised as objective journalism. Local print media could better serve our community by striving for unbiased journalistic integrity on the front page and restraining editorial content to their “Viewpoints” section.

The proposed river park will be considered by Teton County Commissioners on Tuesday, August 15th, so the public record must be set straight.  Tuesday’s meeting is an ideal venue for “wildlife managers, water resource specialists, advocacy groups, and the river-running community” to express any opposition to or concerns about the proposed park.  A biased and inaccurate front page editorial masquerading as news only serves to shut down legitimate dialogue before it starts.

Tuesday’s meeting, scheduled for 9am at the Teton County Administration Building, will not grant full approval for the park but may get the ball rolling on Teton County’s rigorous conditional-use permit process.  If an agreement is reached with County Commissioners, JHRPP supporters will be in a position to begin negotiations with BLM, WYDOT, Wyoming Game and Fish, USFS, ACoE, FEMA, and any other concerned organizations.

The News and Guide’s front page skewering “Snake Play Park Faces Hurdles” is accurate that river park planners have a lot of hurdles to hop, but the article contains several blatantly misleading statements.

Most obviously, News and Guide misinformed it’s readers about the location of the proposed river park.  According to the News and Guide article, the park will be located “just downstream of the South Park bridge”.  This is geographically impossible due to a pair of boat ramps already occupying that space.  If JHN&G seeks to foment public opposition to the park, claiming it would be built atop the existing ramps is certain to upset many boaters.

In reality, the proposed park would be located *upsteam* of the bridge where an unsightly artificial dike comprised of old concrete and rebar currently exists.  A rapid called “Kitchen’s” currently presents a navigational hazard to boaters at that point in the river.

JHRPP DRAFT OVERVIEW

JHRPP DRAFT PLAN VIEW ZOOM

JHRPP CROSS SECTION

As is visible from a glance at preliminary plans, JHRPP planners hope to remove the current boating hazard and install a manmade wave constructed out of boulders between a deepened boat channel and the island to the North.  Fish habitat boulders are proposed for the shallower river channel along the North shore of the island.

A landscaped park would replace the existing industrial wasteland and additional parking would augment the busy boat ramp lot just downstream of the bridge.  A network of paths would connect the new park to the recently constructed public boat ramp.  A public beach and “swimming hole” would round out the JHRP facility.

In addition to creating a safer venue for local kids learning to kayak and surf than the Class IV rapids 20 miles further from town, the JHRP would provide locals from South Park, Hog Island, and Hoback Junction with a public space of their own similar to Wilson’s recently constructed riverside “R” Park.

Contrary to the JHN&G’s innaccurate labelling of the Jackson Hole River Park as the “Snake River Kayak Park” the JHRP is a public park designed to accommodate all users:  picnickers, dikewalking dogowners, swimmers, boatramp users in need of parking, etc.  It also includes a man made whitewater feature.  In addition to kayakers, that feature would benefit surfers, SUPers, and boaters of all stripes who’d like to get a little wet.  The proposed rapid would be designed to be easily avoided as well.  All of this is clearly ascertained by briefly perusing the proposed planning documents.

After dropping the ball on the most basic fact — the park’s location — the News and Guide article devotes 20 paragraphs to a half dozen voices opposing the park and a mere three paragraphs to two parties speaking in support of it.  Let’s take a good look at that opposition now.

SKEWING SCIENCE TO SKEWER THE JHRPP

The JH News and Guide article attributes a shocking statistic to Wyoming Fish and Game Aquatic Habitat Biologist Anna Senecal.  JHN&G reports, “the closest comparison she could find in terms of design and nature of the river is a channel-spanning whitewater park located in Gore Canyon of the Colorado River” that “is almost a complete barrier to fish movement — blocking 90-plus percent of passage for sucker species.”  To a casual reader, this statistic seems to leave the JHRPP dead in the water.

How accurate is this “design and nature of the river” comparison of the proposed whitewater park here and the existing park in Colorado?  Well.  Not very.

The Gore Canyon Whitewater Park in Colorado spans the entire channel of the river.  The proposed whitewater feature at South Park would span approximately half of one channel.  Except at extremely low flows there are two channels comprising the Snake River at the proposed location just upstream of South Park bridge.

Gore Canyon Whitewater Park at High Water
Gore Canyon Whitewater Park at HIGH Water.  The man-made feature spans the whole river.  Source: Hillard_etal_2017_PumphouseWWPFishPassageEvaluation SM
Gore Canyon Whitewater Park at Low Water
Gore Canyon Whitewater Park at LOW Water.  The man-made feature spans the whole river.  Source: Hillard_etal_2017_PumphouseWWPFishPassageEvaluation SM
jhrpp-cross-section.png
Cross Section of the Snake River at proposed JHRPP.  The man-made feature spans part of one channel.  Source: http://www.tetonwyo.org/cc/docs/StaffReports/2017-BCC/0619/0619-JH%20River%20Park%20Project.pdf

The Colorado River at Gore Canyon and the Snake River at South Park are also very different in terms of flow.  According to USGS historical records, the most recent 20 year average daily-mean flow of the Colorado River at Gore Canyon is 1075cfs.  The most recent 20 year average daily-mean flow of the Snake at Moose is 2846cfs and at the gauging station above Alpine it is 4462cfs.  There is no gauging station at South Park, but with the added flow from the Gros Ventre River, Fish Creek, and other waterways that join the Snake below Moose the daily-mean flow at South Park is at least 3x higher than the daily-mean flow of the Colorado River at Gore Canyon.

Of course actual river flows fluctuate greatly throughout the year and from one year to next.  The Colorado River at Gore Canyon rarely peaks above 5000cfs while the Snake River often peaks above or around 20000cfs, which is a 4x greater rate of flow.  This further discredits the notion that “the closest comparison… in terms… nature of the river is… Gore Canyon of the Colorado River”.

Also questionable is the JHN&G statement that Gore Canyon’s whitewater park “is almost a complete barrier to fish movement — blocking 90-plus percent of passage for sucker species.”  What Colorado Parks and Wildlife researchers actually said is that at relatively low water (860cfs) the “passable width” at which Bluehead Suckers could venture upstream was reduced by 92% compared to preconstruction conditions.

Passability Bluehead Sucker
Source: Hillard_etal_2017_PumphouseWWPFishPassageEvaluation SM

This means that — at a relatively low flow of 860cfs — adult Bluehead Suckers should still be able make their way upstream through the Gore Canyon whitewater feature but their options are limited to ~8% of the previous river width.  For juvenile Bluehead Suckers traveling at 860cfs that figure increases to 30% of the preconstruction river width.  This is certainly a dramatic reduction in passable width for the Bluehead Sucker but it doesn’t validate JHN&G’s broader blanket statement that Gore Canyon “is almost a complete barrier to fish movement”.

Jason Carey from RiverRestoration.org explained the situation to me as such:

The structure in Gore Canyon reduced the channel WIDTH available to fish passage from the full width of channel to ~10 percent of the width at that location. However that 10 percent of width is equivalent to 17 feet of channel at extreme low flows. 17 feet of passable width is similar to the width of the passable natural channel 600 feet upstream of the structure at low flows. At high flows (Above 4,000 cfs) the entire 100% (180 feet) of channel at the structure is open to fish passage equivalent to existing conditions 600 feet upstream.  Passable width reduction is not an indicator of actually creating a barrier to fish migration.

The only statement closely related to “almost a complete barrier to fish movement” has been that the structure “may be a total barrier to some fish as some flows and further analysis is needed” This statement is based on flow conditions when it is unknown if fish are migrating upstream and again the natural channel provides a similar barrier at these flow conditions upstream and downstream of the structure.

The Gore Canyon structure was designed, permitted, and constructed with the acknowledged impact of an additional fish migration obstacle similar to those fish migration obstacles upstream of the structure. The Gore Canyon structure had a requirement to capture and control the entire flow of the Colorado river as dictated by the State of Colorado. This increased the challenge for fish passage. This is not a requirement of the structure proposed on the Snake River and therefore the structures and sites are not directly comparable.

Soooo… if lower flows and a full span feature at Gore Canyon pose a potential problem for upstream fish migration, 3x higher average flows on the Snake combined with the half span feature proposed here sounds like a double whammy solution.  More research is certainly warranted but it seems neither the rivers nor the wave designs are notably similar.  Thus we see a local example of how science can be skewed to make a point.  As William Shakespeare so eloquently put it, “The devil can cite scripture for his own purpose.”

To be fair, perhaps Wyoming Game and Fish Habitat Biologists chose to compare the JHRPP with Gore Canyon because research on the environmental impact of whitewater parks (WWPs) is in short supply.  The impact of WWPs on fisheries and river ecology does need to be studied in more depth.  It seems the general migratory habits of Western river fish also need to be studied in more depth.

There are currently dozens of WWPs dotting the US and dozens more in the works.  Some of these parks probably do not meet the needs of migrating fish and stand in sharp contrast to what a natural river looks like.  Some of these parks look more like dams with steep spillways than natural rapids.  The recently constructed Boise Whitewater Park comes to mind:

081516_boiseriverpark_peytonbanks
Boise Whitewater Park.  Photo by Peyton Banks.

Of course, no one is proposing a damlike structure at South Park.  We’ve got too many damn dams in Teton County already, most notably the gigantic Jackson Lake (Reservoir) Dam in Grand Teton National Park.  If local environmental activists *really* wish to shut down the overdevelopment of Jackson Hole and increase the migratory range of the Bluehead Sucker, that ecosystem-splitting eyesore has got to go!

Seriously.  But would being underwater hurt property values on the West Bank too much for Wilson NIMBY’s to bear?  Probably so.

All jokes aside, even if the JHRPP is never built, perhaps open dialogue and further inquiries into the environmental impact of Jackson’s proposed whitewater park could help aid the ecologically responsible design of parks elsewhere.  If it is built, perhaps the JHRPP could serve as an example of what an ecologically sound whitewater park can look like.

Either way, we’re better off opening real dialogue and sticking to the facts than skewing science to manipulate public opinion.

CURIOUS COMMENTS FROM CHARLIE SANDS

In the interest of further exposing opinion disguised as front page news, it is important to note that News and Guide coverage of the JHRPP leads off with sarcastic remarks from Charlie Sands, a man who has made millions of dollars over the course of a 56 year career spent commercially utilizing the Snake River:

“It’s like putting a climbing wall or an elevator on the Grand Teton,” said Charlie Sands, longtime owner of Sands Whitewater. “I told the county, ‘If you’re going to allow that, I want a Ferris wheel up there.’”

Sands called the river park “ridiculous,” and he worried it would be a burden for scenic floaters and fishing boats to pass through. The county, he said, ought not to allow private businesses to “screw around” with a public good like the Snake.

If Sands’ comments in the JHN&G about private businesses “screwing around” with the Snake are to be taken seriously, perhaps he should take a look in the mirror before criticizing a local non-profit trying to build a public park.  Does he ever wonder what the local environmental and “Disneyfication” impacts of his 56 years of commercial river use have been?  Do you?

For decades prior and currently at unprecedented levels, commercial rafting and fishing trips run all day, every day, all summer long from far North in GTNP to far South in the Snake River Canyon.  How does heavy commercial use along almost the entire length of the waterway affect fish, terrestrial wildlife, and overall ecosystem integrity?  How does the impact of one man-made wave spanning half of the river in an already developed location compare to the combined impacts from a daily flotilla of tourists and anglers forking out big bucks to ride the local equivalent to Disney World’s Splash Mountain?

One stark example comes to mind.  Back in 2003 a Sand’s Whitewater camp cook started the East Table Creek Fire which burned 3600 acres, took 50 firefighters and seven helicopters to contain, cost $3.2 million dollars to fight, shut down the highway and river in the canyon for a week around the peak of the summer tourist season, and permanently changed the character of the Wild and Scenic Snake River Canyon.  In 2003 Sands was billed $3.2 million to cover the costs of the blaze, but paid only $1 million when the legal dust settled in 2009.  This prompts the obvious question: who’s gonna foot the bill for Charlie’s Ferris wheel atop the Grand Teton?

Charlie Sand’s opposition to the JHRPP is like the Ringmaster of a Circus ridiculing the notion of adding another ride to the carnival he helped start, but my intention is not to butt heads with or excessively criticize Mr. Sands.  Sands was one of the first two people to drop into the S&S (Sands and Simms) Couloir, so respect for his skiing is certainly due.  And as a transplant from the East Coast, he made a respectable name and impressive fortune for himself in the exclusive community out here: that’s commendable as well.

Truth told, the blame for bias does not lie on Sands’ shoulders, but on the media that chose to use his words to further their own front page agenda.  Did Mr. Sands call the paper to submit a statement or did reporters from the paper call him in search of a quote?  Yesterday I called and emailed Mike Koshmrl and Allie Gross (the writers of Wednesday’s JHN&G article about the JHRPP) but neither has gotten back to me.  My guess would be that they contacted him.

Quoting a longtime raft company operator about the JHRPP is like asking a crusty dude rancher if he supports building mountain bike trails in the public forests where his wealthy guests ride.  It’s like asking an old school Teton mountaineer if an artificial boulder park should be built at the base of Snow King.  It’s like asking President Trump how Teton County should best meet the needs of our much needed immigrant workers.  It’s a dirty trick often played by the media to hide a biased outlet’s stance behind an independent citizen’s opinion.

Not surprising in light of the editorial on the cover, this week’s JH News and Guide also published a 1/2 page opinion piece on Page 5 entitled “Don’t waste time, cash on kayak play.”  This “Guest Shot” by Sue Larie accuses JHRPP of requesting county funds be used to design, build, and maintain the proposed river park.  Conversations with Aaron Pruzan of the JHRPP lead me to believe these statements are false, but we’ll all find out more at the meeting on Tuesday.

What we do know is that the JHRPP is a non-profit hoping to build a free public park supported by private donors.  The proposed park would be located in an area that was already heavily developed decades ago and building it would help clean up the mess created by the dike builders of a previous generation and the highway/bridge construction crew currently occupying that land.  The JHRPP has been in the works since 2012 and is still years from full approval, but it seems like someone at the JHN&G wants to nip it in the bud.

If the JH News and Guide seeks to inform it’s readers with reputable reportage they could learn a lesson or two from Buckrail’s coverage of the JHRPP that also came out on Wednesday.  Buckrail’s coverage effectively answers the questions who, what, where, and when in it’s opening sentence without any apparent bias.

JACKSON HOLE, WYO – The Teton Board of County Commissioners will be reviewing and discussing a proposed whitewater park on the Snake River near the South Park boat ramp on Tuesday, August 15, as part of their regularly scheduled County Commission meeting starting at 9am.

Members of the public will have the opportunity to provide comment on the proposal. Currently, the Jackson Hole River Parks Project (JHRPP) is requesting that the Board of Commissioners direct county staff to initiate the planning review process, which could involve beginning a Conditional Use Permit process. Commissioners will not be considering approval of the overall project; rather, they will be discussing how it should proceed through the County’s planning and community review process.

Representatives from the JHRPP, as well as consultants from River Restoration (RRO) and Parks and Recreation staff, provided an informational presentation to commissioners in late June.

This potential project is in the beginning stages, and the Board of Commissioners hopes to solicit input from a diverse set of stakeholders and interested citizens to help guide the outcome.

Teton County Commissioners Kayak Club Proposal

FULL DISCLOSURE FROM YOUR WRITER

Anyone still reading is probably well aware that this article exposing bias in the local print media is biased itself.  That’s the difference between a private website and a public paper.  Plus, of course it is: all media is at least a little biased, from the topics reported on to the stances taken by writers and editors.  Ethnocentrism injects bias. Accepted societal norms and assumptions inject bias.  Commercial interests and advertising relationships inject bias.  Special interest groups, governments, and NGOs inject bias.  Personal opinions inject bias.

That said, mainstream news’ job — especially at the local level and on the front page — is to get the story as straight as possible.  A misleading article in our local paper ridiculing a local non-profit attempting to build a park deserves to get called out.

My own bias on this topic is a product of my experiences surfing, kayaking, rafting, and reading about the Snake River.

I’ve read the recent headlines about three deaths in the river this year.  A few years ago I watched a girlfriend wearing a good life jacket get sucked down for 20 seconds in the hydraulic just downstream of Haircut Rock.  I’ve seen similar things happen several times to strong surfers at the Lunch Counter.  I’ve swam a friend to shore who went into shock after almost drowning while trying to learn to surf there, and I’ve witnessed another surfer saving an unresponsive child who fell out of raft that flipped in the Big Kahuna rapid just upstream.  I’ve gotten sucked down myself several times and came up scared and sputtering wondering, “What if the river didn’t let go when it did?”

I’ve talked with a living legend local pro snowboarder who has always wanted to learn to surf the Lunch Counter but is still scared of it in the wake of the tragic 2001 incident when a local teen was pushed in and never resurfaced.  His body was found two years later in the Palisades Reservoir.

Despite the dangers, and like many of you reading this, I’ve grown to love playing in the river and think the local kids should have a safer place closer to town to practice their whitewater skills before braving the more unpredictable and dangerous Class IV rapids in the canyon.

In my opinion, a public whitewater park won’t increase tourism to Jackson Hole.  It won’t be advertised like the hundreds of local businesses and pair of National Parks catering to tourists are.  The proposed wave itself could only accommodate a handful of users simultaneously while the park could be a great asset to underserved locals in South Park, Hog Island, and Hoback Junction.

PS Mainstream media bias is why the Wall Street Journal never asks how the privately-owned Federal Reserve Bank gained the right to create fiat currency out of thin air and charge interest on all dollars in existence.  Bias is why the New York Times never asked the question, “What really happened on 9/11?”  Bias is why we never see an Editorial in a mainstream paper that ponders whether or not America’s endless “War on Terror” is in fact an act of global terrorism.  Bias is why mainstream environmentalists rarely ask how all those unnatural cirrus clouds up in the sky might be contributing to climate change.  We’re all biased in our way, but some biases are much more dangerous and destructive than others.  I’m biased myself and couldn’t help but throw all that in there.  One Love.  Peace.  –Max Mogren