For more than a week, a 2,000-foot-long mudslide has oozed an estimated 40,000 cubic yards of dirt across Highway 26-89 between Hoback Junction and Alpine Junction in western Wyoming, closing the only direct route between Jackson Hole and numerous bedroom communities in Lincoln County.
The Wyoming Department of Transportation said it could take 10 days until the slide stops and crews can clear the road, the Billings (Mont.) Gazette reported.
The mudslide has created headaches for the hundreds of commuters who drive to Jackson each day from Star Valley communities such as Alpine, Thayne and Star Valley Ranch. In addition, some community leaders are worried about the economic impact the highway’s closing could have as the summer tourist season approaches.
To ease the pain of the longer drive, more than two dozen Jackson Hole hotels and RV parks have offered discounts to Lincoln County commuters until the mudslide is cleared.
A more pressing worry in Star Valley, though, is how much the mudslide will hurt the local tourism industry.
Lincoln County already has the highest unemployment rate of any county in the state — 10.2% as of March — and Melanie Wilkes said many are nervous that closing Highway 26-89 will dry up summer tourist traffic heading up to Jackson and Yellowstone National Park.
“We do rely on tourism, and if people can’t get through here to get to that direction, we’re afraid that things are going to be even worse,” Wilkes said. “Everybody’s on pins and needles right now.”
In Jackson, business owners and leaders say the slide hasn’t had much of an effect on the local economy — yet. With tourist season not set to start until Memorial Day weekend, many whitewater rafting companies and hotels in the area haven’t even opened for the summer season.
But the concern now is that rumors will spread around the country that Jackson Hole is closed for business, said state Rep. Ruth Ann Petroff, R-Jackson.
When pictures of the Yellowstone fires hit the media in 1988, many tourists canceled their trips to Jackson, thinking wrongly that the entire area was shut down, she said.
“I’m worried about our summer tourism business,” she said. “We had a hit in tourism in the last few years, and we have a lot of businesses who are really struggling for survival, and they depend on these few months to pay their bills for the whole year.”
But so far, some of even the most vulnerable businesses haven’t lost a whole lot because of the mudslide.
Eric Byan, general manager of the Flying Saddle Resort on Highway 26-89, at the southern mouth of the Snake River Canyon, said that when news of the mudslide arrived, he became depressed. He worried about having to lay off workers or cut hours.
But during the past week, he said, he’s only had 10 cancellations. And about five people made new reservations because they wanted to wait until morning to drive over Teton Pass to Jackson.
If the mudslide had happened a month from now, during the height of tourist season, things would be different, Byan said.
“It would have been devastating,” he said. “I guess if it had to happen, now would’ve been a good time for it.”