Where do we put the condos?

  • The Tetons from top of Fred's Mtn. near Grand Targhee Resort

    Michael B. Whitfield

DRIGGS, Idaho - This southeast Idaho town is like a forgotten cousin to the ski mecca town of Jackson, Wyo., 40 miles away on the other side of Teton Pass. The wave of development that has descended on Jackson has mostly bypassed this part of Idaho, even though both communities share a spectacular view of the Teton Mountains, a short drive to Yellowstone National Park and notable skiing. Idaho's Teton Valley remains mostly agricultural and the local ski resort, Grand Targhee, has never attracted huge crowds.

The valley's middle-of-nowhere location has always dampened locals' fears of its becoming "the next Vail," and it has remained a quiet, three-chairlift resort, 50 miles away from the nearest airport. The resort has only 96 hotel rooms, and there's not much night life.

As its new owner, George Gillett, puts it, Grand Targhee is "an incomplete resort."

Gillett: Never say die

Between a flurry of phone calls at his home in Vail, Colo., last summer, Gillett explained why Grand Targhee needs a makeover.

"We don't have guest accommodations (for) very many people. And because of that we can't afford to have the retail nor the restaurants," he said. Before he can build a new Grand Targhee, Gillett wants to work a land swap with the Forest Service: privately owned grizzly bear habitat for prime Forest Service real estate at the base of Grand Targhee.

This is just one more strategic move for Gillett, a ski industry magnate who owned Vail, America's largest ski resort, for seven years. He led it through a period of remarkable growth, until he went bankrupt in the early 1990s, when media investments went sour. Undeterred, Gillett bounced back. He convinced new investors to back him in the ski business a second time, and since 1996 has put together a portfolio of 10 resorts in four states, making his Booth Creek Ski Holdings the fourth-largest ski conglomerate in the nation.

The trade he's trying to broker with the U.S. Forest Service would give him title to about 190 acres of prime real estate at the base of Grand Targhee. In exchange, he's offering 330 acres of swampy forest, known as Squirrel Meadows, four miles south of Yellowstone National Park. The property is completely surrounded by the Targhee National Forest and, according to Forest Supervisor Jerry Reese, is "a significant chunk of the only inholding in our most productive (grizzly) bear management unit."

It lies within the designated "grizzly bear recovery zone" that surrounds Yellowstone National Park, and the Endangered Species Act requires federal land managers to protect key habitat areas for the bears, minimizing roads and other human incursions.

Yet this doesn't mean private property owners can't develop their inholdings, and Reese is worried that houses will spring up in Squirrel Meadows, destroying grizzly bear habitat.

Disputed values

Just how valuable Squirrel Meadows is to the future of the grizzly remains in question. Marv Hoyt of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition says Squirrel Meadows is not as threatened as Reese claims.

"Three hundred acres of that 330 is not only delineated wetlands, it's usually under water until the middle or end of June," said Hoyt. "So you've got about eight acres of land you could actually develop on."

Squirrel Meadows' owner, Salt Lake City Internet entrepreneur Spencer Kirk, who has sold Gillett an option on the property, has talked of building on the site. But Hoyt is willing to call his bluff.

"If we're going to have a couple of trophy homes on eight acres at Squirrel Meadows, the impacts of that are far less than the impacts of 900 ... condos up at 8,000-feet plus (at Grand Targhee)," said Hoyt. "The bottom line for the GYC is - if that has to be the trade-off - then we're going to opt for taking our chances with Squirrel Meadows being developed."

A local group, Citizens for Teton Valley, agrees.

"I certainly think conservation of Squirrel Meadows is a worthy goal," said Mike Whitfield, a wildlife biologist and a founder of the grassroots group, "but this whole thing is about a lot more than grizzly bears. I think in the balance what you end up with is a much greater loss."

This land is public

Most ski resorts lease public land for ski runs adjacent to privately owned base areas, and resort companies often rely on real estate at the base for most of their earnings. But at Grand Targhee, the profit-making potential is limited because real estate at the resort is owned entirely by the Forest Service.

The agency has negotiated an agreement giving the resort permission to build almost 700 new lodging units. The land would remain public, and new lodging could only be built incrementally, after certain thresholds of growth in skier numbers were reached.

That agreement would dissolve if the Squirrel Meadow trade goes through.

Locals are skeptical of Gillett's motives. They point to nearby property listed at $65,000 an acre and say Gillett is taking advantage of Uncle Sam by trading a swamp for ski-in, ski-out property. The already acrimonious debate is primed to heat up again when an environmental impact statement analyzing the trade, originally scheduled for completion last May, is released around the first of April.

Eric Whitney is the associate producer for public radio's High Plains News Service in Billings, Mont.

You can contact ...

* Supervisor Jerry Reese, Targhee National Forest, P.O. Box 208, St. Anthony, ID 83445 (208/624-3151);

* Larry Williamson, General Manager, Grand Targhee, Box Ski, Ski Hill Road, Alta, WY 83422 (307/353-2300 ext. 1300);

* Marv Hoyt, Greater Yellowstone Coalition, Idaho Office, 1740 E. 17th St., Suite F, Idaho Falls, ID 83401 (208/522-7927), e-mail: [email protected];

* Citizens for Teton Valley, P.O. Box 585, Driggs, ID 83422, e-mail: [email protected]

High Country News Classifieds