By Jim Stanford on March 22, 2010
In the summer of 2001, I was learning to roll a kayak on the Snake River while the Green Knoll Fire raged south of Wilson. A friend and I were at the Wilson Bridge, where gravel excavation had created a new eddy.
As he sat in a chair on the bank reading a book and I paddled around the eddy, helicopters buzzed overhead ferrying buckets of water from the river to fight the fire. The air was thick with smoke, and ash was landing on the water.
It was like a scene out of Apocalypse Now. We laughed at the words of Robert Duvall: “If I say it’s safe to surf this beach, it’s safe to surf this beach!”
Over the next few summers, the “Wilson Beach,” as it became known, grew into one of the most popular recreation spots in Teton County. By 2005, the site reached its zenith as Redneck Riviera, with pickup trucks backed to the water’s edge for tailgating and a group of Georgia girls floating on an air mattress.
Alas, high water eventually filled in the swimming hole, and the river shifted eastward. The Georgia girls moved away. A community treasure was lost.
Now there’s an opportunity to bring back the beach, better than ever, as Teton County is considering a public park at the site.
Tonight the Snake River Fund and Friends of Pathways are hosting an informational meeting about the project from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Old Wilson Schoolhouse. Citizens are invited to learn more and give their input. Corey Milligan, owner of New West Knifeworks and SRF board member, is preparing refreshments, reason alone to attend.
Town councilors and county commissioners are considering 12 projects for the next round of specific-purpose excise tax, or SPET, funding.
SPET is an optional cent of sales tax used for public facilities. Tourists contribute roughly half the revenue. In the past this funding has paid for projects like pathways, the rec center, town sidewalks and the Historical Society museum under construction on North Cache (which is seeking additional funding).
Elected officials soon will decide which projects to place on the ballot for the Aug. 17 primary election. Voters don’t always approve every project; in 2008, for instance, citizens rejected a proposed $53 million jail.
Teton County Engineering Department has applied for $1.2 million for the Wilson Bridge Recreation Area, a public park that would feature a protected eddy for swimming, improved boat ramp, pathway access, more parking, terraced levees for better pedestrian access, and landscaping that would fit in with and enhance the natural riparian habitat. The project would be coordinated with the pathway bridge over the Snake River, planning of which is already underway. (In 2008, voters approved $6 million for the Highway 22 path and bridge.)
The Wilson Beach arose as a sort of historical accident, and although it was just a plot of dirt and river rocks, people loved it. There is no other spot like it along the Snake River to swim or recreate, unless you have a boat.
Little known is the fact that the beach and boat ramp are on private land. The landowners have been gracious in allowing public access. Fortunately, there is a large parcel of public land in the vicinity managed by the Snake River Fund for the Bureau of Land Management.
The BLM is slated to transfer this parcel to Teton County, a process that began in 1999, and adjacent landowners have been supportive. SPET funding is critical to complete the transfer and preserve public ownership and access.
You can help by writing town councilors (firstname.lastname@example.org) and county commissioners (email@example.com) and urging them to place the Wilson Bridge Recreation Area on the SPET ballot. Elected officials will decide in the coming weeks which projects make the cut, so time is short.
By August, we’ll all need a dip at the beach.
(Beach photo by Morris Weintraub/The Image Well)