The allure of skiing or riding in the backcountry is undeniable. Untracked powder, quiet approaches, small groups of friends and dogs. These days, there’s also the parking lot wait-and-shuffle game. On any given snowy winter day, the top of Teton Pass is hectic.
As the interest and participation in backcountry skiing has grown over the past few years, so have the pressures on access spots for these activities. Concerns grow over human-triggered avalanches closing the road or injuring a motorist, cars dodging pedestrians and dogs, and increasing traffic congestion. It is clear that these problems need to be addressed — enter Teton Backcountry Alliance.
In 2017, a group of avid backcountry recreationalists met to talk about how users could be part of the solution. Shortly thereafter, Gary Kofinas, accompanied by Tom Turiano, Kim Havell, and others, established the Teton Backcountry Alliance. Their goal was to raise public awareness of the issues and impacts of use, promote stewardship, and protect access to the backcountry. With a purely volunteer steering committee, they have made some big strides.
“Being part of the conversation on behalf of the backcountry users is a large part of the effort,” Kim says. “And bringing the perspective of other stakeholders back to the users is equally important.”
Kim describes her own heightened awareness of a plow driver’s risk on the road in high avalanche danger conditions after being in conversations with the Wyoming Department of Transportation (WyDOT). “The idea is, as we educate users, they’ll consider the road below as they decide where to ski off the top of Glory,” she explains. This kind of shared awareness is just the first step.
The Alliance sponsored a series of public meetings initially to gauge interest and gather user information. They also completed a backcountry user survey in 2019 about Teton Pass that sought comments on user concerns and suggestions. Informed by the results of the meetings and survey, the Alliance was able to initiate and support numerous actions.
The TBA Volunteer Ambassador Program was established in 2020 to support the Bridger Teton National Forest’s (BTNF) two paid backcountry ambassadors, including 15-year veteran Jay Pistono. Increased ambassador presence at parking areas at Teton Pass, Phillips Bench, and Coal Creek provide parking assistance and education to users.
Alliance leaders meet with WyDOT, BTNF and Grand Teton National Park (GTNP) officials to assist with signage and education programs and to ensure that users’ interests are part of agency decision making. User education materials — flyers, social media posts and online material — have been produced. A test shuttle program was launched in 2020, but was shut down due to the pandemic, although the Alliance anticipates relaunching in the future. And an Avalanche Beacon Park was installed at Coal Creek to help winter backcountry travelers hone their search skills.
As the Alliance matures, it recognizes the necessity for a voice in other conversations, such as the ongoing effort to create a management plan for the bighorn sheep habitat areas and the expansion plans at Snow King Resort and Grand Targhee Ski Area. “For instance,” Gary states, “as GTNP continues its work studying Teton bighorn sheep, backcountry users can be helpful … documenting the animals’ winter habitat use patterns and response to humans. This information can be used to improve our knowledge of human-sheep interactions and help guide future closure decisions.”
Both Gary and Kim agree the biggest determinant of progress is participation. “The more voices the better,” states Kim.
The Teton Backcountry Alliance subsists solely on private donations, and volunteers make up the workforce. “There are many (backcountry) users out there,” Gary adds. “We want and need to hear from them. We also need their support.”
The Teton backcountry is a very special place, at least in part because pristine wilderness resides cheek-to-cheek with civilization. The quality of and access to this wilderness playground is known regionally, nationally, and, increasingly, worldwide. The Teton Backcountry Alliance, in the hands of committed volunteers like Kim and Gary, can help protect these hallowed grounds — and our access to them.