Weekly News Roundup: Friday, Aug. 20

Miss the headlines this week? Catch up on Teton County's increased COVID-19 risk, record national park visits and Western drought.
Both Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks have continuously broken visitation, trail use and backcountry camping records this year. (BlueBarronPhoto/Shutterstock)

by | Aug 20, 2021 | News

COVID-19 Risk Level Back Up 

The Teton County Health Department announced Thursday that it is adjusting its COVID-19 risk level system to align with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That change bumps the county into the “Red,” or “High,” risk level for virus transmission. Rachael Wheeler is the public health response coordinator for the county, and she said there are both similarities and differences to where we are now compared to earlier in the pandemic.

“Currently, we are looking at similar COVID levels to last November, but we do have vaccinations, which is great. And we know the preventative measures that work,” Wheeler said. “The other thing that is different now than before is unfortunately the Delta variant. It is much more infectious.” 

As of Thursday, the county’s two-week positivity rate for COVID tests is 5.5%. 192 new cases have been reported in that same period. To combat the spread, Wheeler said the county will follow CDC guidance, which now recommends wearing a mask indoors regardless of vaccination status in areas of high transmission. KHOL asked whether that means a new local mask mandate is coming.

“So, at this time, there is no health order that has been submitted. It’s possible that that could change, but at this time, no, there is no health order,” Wheeler said. 

Wheeler also reminds the public that while breakthrough infections among vaccinated people have been reported, the vaccines are doing a very good job at reducing hospitalizations and deaths.

Conservation or Federal Land Grab? 

Wyoming Congresswoman Liz Cheney introduced a bill Tuesday that would protect private landowners from Joe Biden’s America the Beautiful Act. Also known as the 30×30 Initiative, the president’s conservation plan aims to preserve 30% of U.S. lands and waters by the end of the decade. However, Cowboy State Gov. Mark Gordon said he doesn’t necessarily support this effort, speaking during a press conference on Monday. 

“Wyoming has no use for a federal land grab, and we are very suspicious about the word ‘conservation,'” Gordon said. “Sometimes it can sound a lot like taking private property rights, and that is something Wyoming will never accept.”

Cheney’s bill would provide assurances to landowners, saying they wouldn’t have to sell their land to the federal government in the name of conservation. But it would also essentially void all recommendations in 30×30, allowing states to reject any recommendations from the presidential administration. It’s unclear how much support Cheney’s bill currently has in Congress.

Another Visitation Record for GTNP

If the traffic and packed trailheads didn’t tip you off, Grand Teton National Park confirmed Monday that the park broke records again—in a big way—last month. Public affairs officer for the park Denise Germann said the number of visitors in July was up nearly 10% compared to July 2020. 

“So, statistics at Grand Teton National Park indicate that July of this year, July 2021, had the highest number of recreation visits on record for any single month in park history,” Germann said. 

Backcountry camping was also up about 15% compared to July 2019 and trail use, where it’s counted, was up by 21%. In light of the stress those numbers put on the park and Teton County, KHOL asked Germann whether the park is considering moving to a reservation system—as some advocates have argued for during the pandemic.

“Nothing’s being discussed at this point other than gathering information. We’re trying to understand our visitor a little bit better, so through a variety of studies and collection of data this summer, hopefully, we’ll put together some information that will help to make informed decisions.  But at this point, all we’re doing is looking at our visitor and looking [at] where they go, how they travel through the park, where they’re coming from, what the demographics are [and] what their expectations are when they come to the park,” Germann said. 

Specific sites being studied this summer include Colter Bay and the Taggart and Lupine Meadows trailheads.

First Official Water Shortage

For the first time in history, the Bureau of Reclamation declared a water shortage for the lower Colorado River Basin on Monday. And climate change is making it hard to predict when that might end.

The shortage was triggered by dropping water levels in Lake Mead, which supplies water to millions in the southwest. Escaping that shortage will rely partially on a turnaround of drought conditions that have lingered for over two decades. In the past, water managers counted on wet years to balance out the dry times. But that might not be the case anymore, according to Jennifer Pitt, who studies the Colorado River for the Audubon Society, a non-profit environmental group.

“Water managers like to say, ‘hope for the best, but make sure you’re prepared for the worst.’ And we can’t even tell you with certainty what the worst could be,” Pitt said. 

The first round of mandatory water cutbacks will start in Arizona and Nevada this January. If conditions don’t turn around, we could see similar and harsher cuts in 2023.

Though Wyoming is not in the lower Colorado River Basin and therefore won’t be directly affected by the shortage declaration, reservoirs the Cowboy State pulls from are at record lows, and the majority of Teton County is currently facing severe drought conditions. 

Alex Hager of KUNC in Greeley, Colorado contributed reporting to this story. More information on the shortage declaration is available here.

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