Wyoming landslide widens disparities between ultra-rich and local workers

The collapse of a vital highway connecting Idaho workers to Wyoming jobs is drawing new attention to a long-standing schism between the ultra-wealthy and those who care for them.

For years, billionaires and investors have pushed housing prices in Jackson, Wyoming, into the stratosphere, forcing workers to live farther and farther from their jobs.

Already burdened by long commutes, people who work in hospitals, outfitters and landscaping companies are now facing an indefinite road closure that is disrupting their lives, but not likely to have a impact on their wealthy clients.

What started as a crack in Teton Pass last week turned into a massive landslide that closed a 16-mile stretch of road that serves as the main gateway between Idaho and Jackson, Wyoming.

Transportation officials said the “catastrophic failure” would take several months to repair. In the meantime, a two-lane detour should be completed within a few weeks, according to the Wyoming Department of Transportation.

The rush comes as peak tourist season begins in the Rocky Mountains, where some 15,000 people are expected to travel each day to neighboring Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks.

Closing the Teton Pass, even for a few weeks, means cutting a vital artery for people who live in Idaho but work in Jackson, a mountain and ski paradise that has become a playground for Hollywood celebrities, business moguls technology and billionaires looking to get away from city life.

“The landslide really highlights the unsustainability of our community,” said Jacob Gore, a Wyoming native who is living in Idaho because of rising costs. “I just accepted that I would never own a home in Jackson unless I won the lottery.”

A damaged section of Teton Pass near Jackson, Wyo., Saturday.Wyoming Highway Patrol via AP

At St. John’s Medical Center in Jackson, about 20 percent of health care workers commute from the Teton Valley, across the pass. That includes 115 essential workers who must be on site every day, according to hospital spokesperson Karen Connelly.

Many of those workers face 12-hour shifts and can’t put in an additional four to six hours of driving per day, Connelly told Teton County commissioners this week at a hearing.

On average, more than 2,500 people commute daily between Idaho and Jackson, located in the wealthiest county in the United States, with a median income of more than $108,000, compared to Teton County, in Idaho, where the median income is $89,000, according to U.S. Census data.

Housing prices between neighboring counties vary exponentially. On the Wyoming side, the median home price is more than $3 million, compared to about $800,000 in Idaho.

The lure of snow-capped peaks and crystal-clear lakes has long attracted settlers and business leaders. Moguls like Ted Turner, Jeff Bezos and Warren Buffett each own hundreds of thousands of acres of land in the West, and the federal government controls about 50 percent of the land, from Kansas to the Pacific Ocean.

Competition to build, own and rent is fierce in the most desirable areas, including communities on the doorstep of national parks. Demand has only increased during the pandemic as remote workers looked to relocate.

“We’re working hard so that billionaires can have nice gardens to look at at their vacation homes where they spend a few weeks a year,” said Rory Nelson, who lives in Victor, Idaho, and owns a small business gardening. in Jackson.

“It’s heartbreaking because this is my home,” he said, adding that he now drives up to six hours a day due to road closures.

Many people living in communities like Victor and Driggs in the Teton Valley say they are now forced to choose between spending an entire day in the car or finding temporary housing closer to their jobs.

Gore, an Idaho resident, runs a wildlife tourism business and said he woke up to several missed calls from frantic customers and employees as news of the landslide spread. One tour guide, who lives in Driggs, chose to sleep in his car the night before an early morning outing rather than wake up at 3 a.m. to pick up his clients in Jackson at 6 a.m.

“If just one of these billionaires would step up and help, our community would change for the better,” he said. “But we don’t think about our workers until their favorite restaurant closes.”

Since the road closure, John Thomas Smaellie, a construction superintendent from Driggs, has been winding south on Highway 33 through a nearby valley and around a lake before turning north toward Jackson.

Although he describes the two- to three-hour journey as “absolutely beautiful,” Smaellie is missing a crucial moment away from his family. His 7-year-old daughter is their town’s youngest rodeo princess and requires hours of rehearsal and preparation before competitions, he said.

On Wednesday evening, rather than helping her prepare for an upcoming competition, Smaellie was stuck on the road.

A sign on Highway 33 in Victor, Idaho, tells motorists Sunday that Teton Pass is closed.Natalie Behring/Getty Images

“Is my job really worth missing out on these things?” He asked. “I know they’re going to have a temporary road, but is it going to last? Emotionally, it’s very taxing to be at work knowing that if I left now, I could get home on time.

Smaellie, a fifth-generation Driggs resident, has seen prices skyrocket in his hometown as Jackson’s “billionaires chase millionaires,” a popular refrain among locals.

When he was young, Smaelli’s parents bought a house and other investment properties with their public school salaries, he said. Smaellie, however, is forced to rent even as gated communities are built around him.

For its workers, who earn between $60,000 and $70,000 a year, even the rent is unaffordable. Six members of his team share a two-bedroom apartment, he said.

However, the idea of ​​relocating one’s family outside the region is inconceivable.

“I would like my children to see their father’s grave when I pass away,” he said. “I can go see my great-great-great-grandfather’s grave in Tetonia. This is where my bitterness comes from.

Like other areas that host luxury resorts, housing affordability in Jackson has been an issue for decades.

In 2020, the county set a goal of housing 65% of workers in its territory. Currently, the county is at about 60 percent, according to Housing Director April Norton.

“It’s recognized that if we don’t continually protect local workers’ housing, we risk running out of housing,” she said.

Chase Putnam, owner of a fishing outfitter in Jackson, opens his eight-person camper to anyone needing temporary accommodation. He bristled when asked about the affordability crisis and accused county commissioners of not acting quickly enough to secure housing for workers.

“I can barely put two pieces together and I’m the one stepping in?” ” he said.

When asked for comment, the board of county commissioners referred questions to the housing authority.

“If there is political will, then there are certainly things to look at,” Norton said of building more worker housing. “But it depends on the politicians, so we’ll see what happens.”

On Wednesday, commissioners approved an ordinance that will temporarily allow camping units and mobile homes in all areas until the road reopens. But since 97 percent of the surrounding land is owned by the federal government, it will largely be up to private landowners to accommodate those in need.

While a permanent housing solution won’t be possible for years, local residents are stepping up to offer immediate help. Melissa Thomasma, who lives in Victor, Idaho, created a Facebook support group after the landslide.

The nearly 2,000-member account is filled with posts from people offering RVs, carpooling and even audiobook credits for long trips.

“It’s a core value of our community,” she said. “You lend a hand when you can.”

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