One man's trash could be another man's history
Park says what critic calls ‘crap’ might have historic value.
By Mike Koshmrl, Jackson Hole, Wyo.
September 19, 2012
Jackson Realtor and photographer Tim Mayo does enough wandering in Grand Teton National Park that he has turned up a lot of what he sees as “crap.”
Mayo, one of park’s most outspoken critics, spent much of last summer and fall identifying and documenting trash piles that are hidden from sight for all but a fraction of Grand Teton’s 2.5 million annual visitors. The park’s administration, meanwhile, is working to determine which refuse has historic value and is worth keeping.
Beginning this spring, Mayo began publicizing his finds by sending out “clean up the park” emails addressed to Grand Teton Superintendent Mary Gibson Scott.
The missives — copied to many National Park Service employees, journalists and even state politicians — include photos of what Mayo calls Grand Teton’s “environmental disasters.” The text is often caustic in tone.
“Superintendent Scott,” Mayo wrote in one June email blast. “I speculate that your days are filled with contemplation of new asphalt opportunities, investigating future development sites along the Snake River and attempting to corral overwhelmed sewer systems leeching into the Moose area groundwater, but I keep hoping that you can carve out a hundred here and a hundred there from the millions of taxpayer dollars you are sinking into your urban sprawl to remove dangerous and environmentally damaging debris around the park.”
A recent visit to one of the trash deposits that Mayo’s emails document turned up an impressive array of waste. Synthetic bailing twine, a refrigerator, rusted coffee cans, old boots, bottles and old appliances, among other objects, littered a dry creek channel in the Mormon Row Historic District.
“I estimate 100 yards of trash,” Mayo said during a late August visit to the site. “It’s pretty nasty. “This is primarily due to the people that used to live here. The park hasn’t done anything about it.”
Jackie Skaggs, a Grand Teton spokeswoman, is acquainted with Mayo’s calls to clean up the park.
“Some of it is considered historic and some of it is trash that we stockpiled and haven’t had the time or resources to clean up,” she said while visiting the same property on Mormon Row. “There’s a lot of unknown history that’s out there.”
Grand Teton has a full-time employee, Katherine Wonson, assigned to determining what’s trash or treasure.
The park has 697 historic properties distributed around 45 locations that span the park, from the valley bottom to high in remote canyons, said Wonson, a cultural resources specialist.
Of the 45 historic locations, 15 are underused and are not maintained the same way properties such as concessioner or park administration buildings are, Wonson said. Five of those 15 locations have been handed over to Grand Teton since 1999, after life leases expired on estates within the park boundaries.
The study of the historic significance of these sites — including the trash that comes with them — continues to this day.
In places, the mess is a mix of historic and modern junk and supplies, some of which the park has deposited in recent years.
The Mormon Row property with the dry, trash-filled creek bed, for example, is being used to store a new, bright-yellow pile driver. Just feet away are a collapsing, historic horse-drawn carriage and remnants from a movie set Wonson said dates back to 1952.
The creek bed itself also contains that mix of new and old, Wonson said.
“It appears most of the stuff on top, we can pull out,” Wonson said, indicating much of it was modern trash.
But the site, a community dump for Mormon Row settlers, also contains relics that Grand Teton is legally obligated to protect, she said.
If an object is 50 years or older, possesses historic significance and hasn’t deteriorated too much, it’s considered eligible for the National Register of Historic Places.
Parts of the creek bed, which is not listed in the register, fit the description.
In 1999, archeologists conducted a comprehensive inventory of contents from a nearby irrigation ditch, archiving everything from two ketchup bottles to a cow skull. They found glass bottles manufactured as early as 1902.
“Mitigation” of the site, Wonson said, would more than likely mean filling in the creek bed to preserve its contents, not hauling the stuff out.
In interviews, Mayo recognized Grand Teton’s quandary in having to preserve historic artifacts that are mixed in with modern messes.
The photographer also called for the park to get to the task before investing in new infrastructure.
“They’ll give you the same song and dance: ‘We just don’t have the money,’” Mayo said. “Take care of what you have first.”
In an email, Wonson said resources to undertake such cleanups are scarce and compete with funds to preserve historic structures themselves.
“While something like a rusted tractor or trash scatter may seem at first blush a park oversight or lack of tidiness, things are not quite so simple,” the cultural resources specialist wrote. “Remnants and vestiges from those that occupied the historic ranches, homesteads, dude ranches and other historic properties give us a glimpse into their lives that were very different from our own.
“There is more than meets the eye on the trash vs. treasure debate.”