Though I’ve driven south on Idaho’s Hwy 33 in Teton Valley (ID) thousands of times, on a recent morning I took particular notice of the Palisades Range straddling the Idaho-Wyoming border. In an hour I’d be flying over the Range to better understand why it’s critical to the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.
The Palisades don’t get the attention or the traffic of their popular neighbor to the north, the Tetons, but this range provides solitude to people who don’t like crowds, as well as home for grizzly bears, wolverines, elk and mountain goats. Though I’ve lived in Teton Valley for more than 15 years, my time in the Palisades has been concentrated to the winter backcountry bowls and summer mountain bike trails off Teton Pass. I don’t know the core of the Palisades.
Our crew included pilot Bruce Gordon from EcoFlight, Pat Kearney and me from GYC, a professional photographer, Deb from the University of Wyoming’s Ruckelshaus Institute and Ethan from Idaho Rep. Mike Simpson’s office. We did a quick orientation of our flight path over the Palisades and then squeezed into the small plane for takeoff.
As we flew above the Snake River, it became clear how important the Palisades are to the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. To their north is Grand Teton National Park. To their south is the Snake River. The nearly 300,000 acres of the Palisades are dominated by high peaks and deep valleys shaped by glaciers. You have to be a hearty traveler to navigate the terrain, which also makes ideal habitat for the full suite of Yellowstone wildlife, including moose, grizzly bears and wolverine.
Like many areas being recommended or studied for Wilderness, the highest level of protection, the Palisades are in a state of limbo. For 30 years it’s been wild, but not yet Wilderness, and not really managed like wilderness. Some activities are allowed, like snowmobiling, while others aren’t, like riding motorcycles. This has led to confusion, conflicts, and frustration for users and land managers alike. Sadly, time may be running out for once-obscure spots like the Palisades. Thousands of visitors and residents are increasingly looking for more places to paddle, fish, hunt, mountain bike, ski, and snowmobile. The remote and hard-to-access areas of the Palisades could easily and quickly be lost.
As we flew over Big Elk Mountain and Waterfall Canyon, it became clear that this big, rugged landscape -- which provides refuge for big elk, mountain goats, grizzlies and solitude for people – should have more protection than a state of limbo. This in-between stage for the Palisades was never meant to be permanent. Now, by actively participating in the Wyoming Public Lands Initiative in Wyoming and through proactive leadership in Idaho, we can find a balanced approach to protect the Palisades before we lose the things that make it so special.
-- Kathy Rinaldi, Idaho Conservation Coordinator
Could there be a new wilderness bill in Wyoming’s future? Or will a new county-led initiative here mean the end of some protections for wild lands?
These are the questions raised as Wyoming counties begin to officially commit time and energy to the Wyoming Public Lands Initiative (WPLI). The initiative calls for counties to make recommendations for Wyoming’s 40+ wilderness study areas, including the Palisades.
Wilderness study areas (WSAs) are wild public lands that were set aside for their potential as wilderness, but have yet to be designated by Congress. These lands are in limbo, as Kathy points out here. And some of them, like the Palisades, deserve more than limbo. This critical artery of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem needs to be protected.
It’s early days. Teton County, which is home to all the wild lands around Jackson, is accepting applications for their committee through tomorrow. The process is likely to last several years. Right now we’re working with our partners, including Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance, Wyoming Outdoor Council and The Wilderness Society, to understand the WSAs and surrounding public lands, build relationships, and make sure that the county advisory committees include all Wyoming voices to decide the future of these public lands. For example, GYC’s Jenny DeSarro represents conservation voices on the advisory committee for Park County, which borders Yellowstone to the east. PK is making sure Teton County has access to professional, unbiased facilitators and that everyone who comes to the table is willing to collaborate. It’s all part of remaining vigilant, building coalitions, and making sure that wild public lands in Greater Yellowstone stay wild, and stay protected.