TETON CREEK - THE TETON CREEK CORRIDOR PROJECT: PROTECTING A KEY RESOURCE IN THE GYE

 Photos provided by Shawn Hill

Photos provided by Shawn Hill

This article was originally published in Mosaic.

by Shawn Hill, Valley Advocates for Responsible Development

As more people move to the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE), development will continue to affect the region’s ecological health. For 17 years, Valley Advocates for Responsible Development (Valley Advocates) has advocated for responsible growth management in the Teton Valley of Idaho and Wyoming, working to preserve our corner of the GYE. However, we’ve found that focusing on future growth alone is not enough to protect our treasured ecosystem. In addition, our regional community must also work to correct the development mistakes of the past.

TETON CREEK CORRIDOR PROJECT

The Teton Creek Corridor Project (TCCP) is an attempt to help address some of Teton Valley’s past development mistakes. Begun in 2015, and expected to be completed by 2025, the TCCP is a $14 million effort to protect and enhance the Teton Creek corridor by not only restoring the creek’s ecological health, but also fulfilling many of Teton Valley’s conservation, recreation, and land use planning goals. Specific project goals include:

  • Improve native plant communities;

  • Increase winter elk habitat;

  • Restore year-round stream flows;

  • Enhance Yellowstone cutthroat trout fisheries;

  • Restore degraded sections of the stream channel;

  • Reduce development impacts; and

  • Construct a 4-mile recreational pathway to allow the public to experience and appreciate this tremendous ecological resource.

The genesis of the TCCP goes back to the mid-2000’s, when Teton Valley experienced an explosive development boom that severely affected some of its most ecologically-rich areas. Teton Creek was particularly beleaguered, with new resort and residential development ravaging riparian lands, dismantling the creek’s hydrology, and severely degrading fisheries and wild- life habitat.

After the Great Recession, development along the creek all but ceased, and the Teton Valley community made progress in adopting new growth control and environmental protection measures. But the damage from the pre-recession boom endures.

In response, four Driggs-based conservation non-profits—Valley Advocates, Friends of the Teton River (FTR), the Teton Regional Land Trust (TRLT), and Teton Valley Trails & Pathways (TVTAP)—formed the Teton Creek Partnership (TCP), and hired Legacy Works Group to facilitate the project’s implementation. Seed money was provided through a generous grant from the LOR Foundation. In addition, the partnership is continuing to raise funds from private, public, and nonprofit partners to complete the project

 Photo provided by Shawn Hill

Photo provided by Shawn Hill

TETON CREEK AND THE TETON VALLEY

Teton Creek is an active migration corridor, connecting the mountainous habitat of Grand Teton National Park and the Caribou-Targhee National Forest with the vast wetlands on the east bank of the Teton River. As it flows through Teton Valley, the Teton River corridor contains more than 5,000 acres of big game, wetland, and prime bird habitat. Numerous big game species use the corridor as winter range, including a local elk herd. Moose, deer, and large raptors are commonly seen within the corridor, and bears utilize the riparian habitat seasonally. Through extensive fish surveys, FTR has identified Teton Creek itself as one of the most important spawning tributaries for Yellowstone cutthroat trout, a native specie classified as “Greatest Conservation Need” by the Idaho Department of Fish & Game.

Teton Valley is growing rapidly, due to both spill-over from Jackson Hole and a burgeoning second home market. Between 2000-2017, Teton County, Idaho was the 23rd-fastest growing county in America, with its population growing six times faster than the nation as a whole. As it grows, post-recession development in the Teton Creek area is placing increased pressure on the corridor’s conservation-related qualities. Coming out of the Tetons, the creek parallels a haphazard development corridor between Driggs and Grand Targhee, and most of the creek’s 10-mile reach flows through private lands subject to development speculation. Complicating things further, previous development has altered the stream channel, moving massive amounts of sediment that destabilized the creek and put much of Driggs at risk for flooding. Other development- related encroachment into the corridor has fragmented sensitive migration habitat. In addition, the conversion of farmland to home sites continues to deplete the area’s shrinking supply of the agricultural lands that tend to be more compatible with conservation than residential development.

On top of all of this is basic economics. The combination of general development pressures and the attractiveness of the Teton Creek corridor has pushed land values to a level where large-scale conservation is cost-prohibitive for much of the corridor.

Recognizing all these pressures, the TCP formed to combine its members’ complementary skills with those of other interested parties to develop and execute a plan for conserving this key resource.

The focus of TCCP is the section of Teton Creek from Highway 33 upstream to Stateline Road, and ultimately into Teton Canyon and Grand Teton National Park. The effort has two goals: to maintain and enhance the public’s ability to access and enjoy the corridor; and simultaneously maintain and enhance its ecological integrity. Specific anticipated project outcomes include:

  • Protecting and enhancing the riparian corridor;

  • Protecting agricultural lands;

  • Maintaining and improving native plant communities;

  • Improving winter elk habitat;

  • Restoring degraded sections of stream channel to reduce flood risk to Driggs and improve stream habitat;

  • Making development along the corridor more in line with community goals; and

  • Building an initial 2.5-mile recreational pathway that will connect with a regional pathway system.

The TCCP will also strengthen habitat conservation by protecting riparian habitat against loss to the creek, and by developing water use plans that keep agriculture viable while increasing the availability of instream flows.

THE COMMUNITY’S VISION

The first step in pursuing these aims was for the four local nonprofits to develop formal governance and funding structures. Following this came the development of a comprehensive strategy and timeline, with each organization tasked with leading aspects of the project that fit within their specific mission. Importantly, the vision and goals of the TCCP as a whole are the product of collaborative work by the partner organizations.

The TCCP is acting in support of a vision that has been repeatedly laid out by the Teton Valley community. Teton Creek has been identified as a key resource for protection by numerous community-planning processes, including the Teton County Comprehensive Plan. Moreover, both the Teton Valley Economic Development Plan and the Teton Valley Recreation and Public Access Master Plan support the establishment of a pathway through this area. The partners have used these and other planning efforts as guiding documents to establish project goals and understand the community vision. Recognizing the importance of having community input throughout the entire process, the partners also developed an outreach strategy to engage local residents and local governments. The input, insight, and participation of the local community have been key to the project’s success.

The TCCP was designed to build on the strengths and past successes of the partner organizations. The planned pathway will tie into the existing Teton Valley trails system that TVTAP has supported and expanded throughout the valley. Habitat protections will ex- tend and enhance the 1,100 acres of conservation easements TRLT has already protected along Teton Creek up- stream and downstream of this project. FTR has already restored roughly 6,100 feet of degraded streambed along Teton Creek at a cost of roughly $2.85 million, and this project ties into those previous successes by removing the ongoing threats presented by the remaining head cut. Valley Advocates has drawn upon its relationships with both local government and existing and planned developments to ensure coordination between the project’s goals and the efforts of the public and private sectors.

To date, the project’s key accomplishments include:

  • Acquired 172 of the approximate 800-acre project area, land which will be protected and managed according to an approved plan;

  • An additional 178 acres is protected under conservation easement;

  • 162.3 acres of prime wildlife habitat protected, including 19.4 acres of wetlands;

  • 115 acres of farmland protected;

  • 2.6 cfs of water rights secured, roughly 10 percent of the

  • 25 cfs needed to restore the Yellowstone Cutthroat Trout lifecycle period and provide irrigation for farming;

  • 2.5 miles of connected pathway easements secured across 4 separate properties for a planned 4 mile pathway connecting Driggs to public lands in Wyoming. This pathway is further envisioned as a spur from a regional pathway system extending from West Yellowstone, MT to Jenny Lake in Grand Teton National Park.

THE IMPORTANCE OF COLLABORATION

Many of these outcomes were only possible through collaborative work. For example, while TVTAP has worked on numerous pathways in Teton Valley, the organization is not structured to hold pathway easements. For this project, TRLT was able to acquire pathway easements targeted by TVTAP, before transferring them over to Teton County.

Similarly, FTR relies on landowner permission to carry out vital stream restoration work. Through TRLT’s project acquisitions, FTR gained access to restore some of the most impaired sections of Teton Creek. Finally, Valley Advocates’ experience working with developers allowed the collaborative to approach subdivisions within the creek corridor about reconfiguring devel- opment to advance conservation and pathway goals.

Each of the TCCP partners recognizes a simple fact: Through collaboration, we not only have been able to produce outcomes that otherwise could not be achieved alone, but have produced outcomes that more fully ad- dress the community’s vision for Teton Creek. We believe our collaborative approach is a model that can be replicated by other communities throughout the GYE that face similar challenges balancing conservation with development.

Based on the initial success of the project, the TCCP partners are looking to implement the future phases of the project between now and 2025. In 2018, we have begun restoring riparian habitat along the creek corridor, restoring winter elk habitat and upland vegetation, and initiating construction of the first phase of the pathway directly adjacent to Driggs. In future years, our plan calls for us to continue to prioritize conservation of key habitat, expand stream restoration through all sections of the creek that pose flood risk to the City of Driggs, and expand recreational access for local residents. We anticipate a completion date in 2025, and at this time hope to have the most of creek corridor between Highway 33 and the Wyoming State Line protected, enhanced, and accessible to the public. Most importantly, we hope to have an example of – and catalyst for – other transformative projects in the GYE.

KEY TAKEAWAYS

  • Collaborations offer great promise in addressing complex conservation issues.

  • In Idaho’s Teton Valley, four conservation-oriented non-profits have combined to develop the Teton Creek Corridor Project (TCCP), an effort to help conserve and restore the Teton Creek and surrounding lands, as well as improve public access.

  • The project has aligned government, property owners, and developers with the community’s desires for the area, and its success offers a model for other areas of the GYE and beyond.

SUGGESTED NEXT STEPS

  • Raise funds to complete remainder of the project.

  • Engage public for pathway, park, and conservation plan details.

  • Identify other potential efforts in the GYE that could emulate the TCCP


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Shawn Hill is the Executive Director of Valley Advocates for Responsible Development and a fifth-generation Teton Valley resident. He earned his BS in Urban Planning from the University of Utah and MPA from the University of Wyoming. He has been a town planner in various Rocky Mountain communities, including Jackson, and is the organizer of the Mountain and Resort Town Planners Summit. He serves on the Editorial Board of The Western Planner. He can be reached at shawn@tetonvalleyadvocates.org


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