PHOTO: Courtesy of Greg Epstein
PHOTO: Courtesy of Greg Epstein

A Skier Jumps to Politics to Help Save His Mountain Town

How one Jackson local transitioned from a world of big mountain skiing to trying to solve housing and transportation

Marquee Image: If there’s one guarantee in running for office, it’s that you’ll be kissing lots of babies. PHOTO: Courtesy Greg Epstein

Born and raised in Jackson Hole, Greg Epstein became entrenched in the ski world at a young age. When you're around skiing all the time as a kid, he says, "it's just what you do."

He was also politically engaged, even as he became a ski photographer while attending the University of Utah, and, afterward, as a producer for Teton Gravity Research, where he worked on numerous films, including One for the Road, Dream Factory, Paradise Waits, Tight Loose, Almost Ablaze, the bike film UnReal, and the Jeremy Jones' features Deeper, Further, and Higher. He also sat on the board of a local nonprofit advocating for pathways.

In 2014, he was nearly killed in an avalanche outside the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, an accident that left him with a broken pelvis, shattered right tib/fib, internal bleeding, and torn muscles in his abdomen. During the ensuing recovery, he decided he needed to do more to give back. It's been his mission ever since.

Last year, he ran for Teton County Commissioner, an election he won by about 400 votes. The five-seat board already includes Mark Newcomb, another Jackson native who was one of the world's preeminent ski mountaineers in the late 1990s. Now, Epstein, 46, faces the challenge of solving an affordable housing crunch where, halfway through 2017, the average sale price for a single-family home is $2.2 million, according to a midseason report from Fall Line Realty (which also referenced a home that sold for $53 million). Add to that a transportation problem exacerbated by increased tourism and commuters, as well as a growing mental health crisis, and you have a community that continues to grapple with its long-term health and viability. Certainly not just isolated to Jackson Hole, these issues are defining all ski towns in 2017.

Though he ran as a democrat, Epstein says he belongs to the "party of practicality." I recently sat down with Epstein to talk about his transition from ski industry insider to political figure, and what can be done to address housing, transportation, and growing cultural divides.

I'm not trying to glom onto any one sector of tribalism because I feel like any certain person deserves to be heard. Whether I believe what they are saying is one thing, but I'm not going to connect what they're saying to this tribalistic, partisan belief system. I'd rather hear them out.

I've skied my whole life. I ski raced and went to school at the University of Utah to make sure I was close to skiing. I've always lived in places where skiing and mountains were super accessible.

It's made me far more sensitive to what we as humans are doing to our planet. I think in some of these mountain towns, it is truly humans integrating into nature. I don't want to use the word 'encroaching' because we are part of the ecosystem or the environment, but we're right on the boundary lines of other habitats or ecological systems, and we're trying to figure out where we fit. Jackson is one of those places where 97 percent of public land surrounds us. It creates its own trickiness, so to speak.

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The first trip I did with TGR was in 1997 for Harvest. Brant (Moles) and (Jeremy) Nobis were shooting with TGR for the first time, up in Alaska. It was cool seeing what Alaska was all about and just watch Brant and Nobis absolutely destroy it.

As I worked (at TGR), I was watching these young kids kind of really sorta struggling to make it happen in Jackson. You'd have these conversations with young people saying, 'I want to work here, I want to do this, that and the other, but it's a struggle. My housing situation is horrible because a) the quality or cost or all the above, and b) salaries at times are hard to just make ends meet.' It all really makes it hard for people to have a quality of life.

At the same time, there's trade offs. You've got access to mountains, public lands, and all these great activities. People are willing to make sacrifices, so that's the conundrum.

One of the issues that many ski towns are facing is due to the fact that housing costs are high—there's high demand but low supply, and property prices are super expensive—it's caused people to move to outlying communities, mostly similarly to Aspen and Vail. People have to commute to their jobs and it puts a lot of strain on our infrastructure. In that way, transportation is totally tied to housing.

In 2014, I got caught in a pretty big avalanche and was lucky to come away with my life. Didn't come away unscathed, but came away with my life. That was a huge part (in my decision making), and I used it in forums and my introduction to the public as my impetus to give back to my community. For eight weeks, I was pretty much laid-up on the couch healing, and I couldn't believe the amount of energy and love and outright altruism of people in my community directed toward me and my healing and my family and my wife. People I didn't know or people we were acquaintances with were bringing us food. For seven weeks straight, we had a meal brought to our house everyday.

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In the early winter of 2016, I had a couple of people approach me to see if I was interested in running for Teton County Commissioner. The national political environment was pretty crazy. There was a lot of mobilization in the Bernie Sanders movement, the whole Donald Trump phenomenon, and the centrist establishment of Hillary Clinton and whatever. There was a ton of political mobilization especially with younger generations. It was the first time in my lifetime I saw huge chunks of young people become more engaged.

I pondered it for four months. Finally, in May, I decided to do it. Once I kinda said, 'I'm in,' my wife said, 'Let's go for it.'

I learned a lot. I had to do a lot of writing and had to solidify my views. There were a lot of forums and debates, and I had to put myself out there. That in and of itself was its own mini challenge. But it felt good to take myself out of my comfort zone and put myself out there. At the end of the day, I enjoyed it.

I learned that it's OK to be afraid and walk into the unknown. Use what you've learned throughout your life and whatever your core values are to help you get to your goal. I didn't know what to expect. I thought I might get my ass handed to me, or that my message might resonate with the people of Teton County or a particular demographic I was speaking to.

I knocked on a lot of doors. Myself and my campaign team, we knocked on 80 percent of the doors in Teton County.

That was the hardest part, to shake hands and have sometimes uncomfortable conversations with people. But it was great, because that's when you see that this community spans a lot of different places, a lot of different interests, needs, and things that you might not realize when you're caught in your own little clique of friends. That was a great learning experience for me and prepared me for where I sit now.

There are a lot of people who make sacrifices for the lifestyle. We want to have all the benefits that the public lands provide, but we have to balance that with having quality life to pay bills, having a nice place to live, not sitting in your car commuting two hours each way. It's a tricky balancing act. Unfortunately, it comes down to the haves and have-nots.

We know fundamentally that not everyone can live in Jackson. It's physically and virtually impossible. But, at the same time, who is it for us to say who should and shouldn't live here? If people are willing to lay it out there and sacrifice and commit and do all these things to make it happen, how do we provide the opportunity collectively for people to be able to stay in Jackson?

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The flip side to all of this, if we become just a straight resort town, where you basically bus the help in, service the people who come to a resort town, and bus them out, that's not a community worth living in or even worth fighting for.

I want to help balance what we are as far as public lands, air, water, wildlife, all these amazing things we're known for around the world, with this community of people who care, or want to care.

But we have to give them time in their lives or at least stability in their lives where they can say, 'You know what, the environment of Teton County and the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is really important it to me, and I'm going to fight for it.' But you have to give them the ability to have the time to even to think about it. If they are living hand to mouth, when does anyone have time to think about anything outside of their next paycheck?

Another thing that's become a pressing issue is our mental health and social services. The state of Wyoming is in a bust cycle. The funding that typically came from the state for social services has been pulled back, putting more emphasis on local government. That's really hard because I feel like the lowest common denominator of any community is being under-serviced. If they're not getting the needs or help taken care of, and we just sweep it under the carpet, that's the first break down of society. There's probably other people who say you build who you are. I totally agree, but there's also people who need help.

The lack of housing is the number one health-related issue in Teton County. If a family loses housing, it puts a lot of stress on the family. You don't know what's going on behind those four walls. Is it causing stress with the marriage, is it causing stress with the children? As a civilization and community, we hope we can mitigate that as much as possible.

If the goal is to house 65 percent of our workforce, then what we are going to do to get there? Wages aren't ever going to give you the ability to pay for some highly inflated piece of property.

I'm all about affordable rentals. If public dollars go toward rentals, the public holds onto the asset. It provides a recurring revenue stream to help pay for another project, but it takes time and start-up costs are high.

We also have to get employers and businesses and organizations to be part of the effort. That comes back to certain zoning issues, densities, parking regulations, and height restrictions on buildings. We as the elected body need to look at zoning and land development regulations to create the right kind of zoning that incentivizes the private sector to also get involved in building affordable housing. We have some work cut out for ourselves.

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The number one thing that other communities can learn from us in Jackson is having a comprehensive plan. When you travel around Teton County and see that all the agricultural land and view corridors are still open and we don't have development dotting every hillside, the reason is because we had a comprehensive plan that directed a planning department and ultimately land development regulations.

Whether it's building a roller coaster on the side of mountain or embracing the human-powered natural elements of tourism in Teton County, I hope we can redirect ourselves to sustainable tourism and tell that story. That's what's really special about this place.

It's not about building out Disneyland in Jackson Hole. I don't want to tell people to not come to Jackson, but if you're looking for Disneyland, there are other places to go. This is the place where you go hiking, biking, horseback riding, camping, fishing, just looking at gorgeous views, and wildlife watching. It's so rich. And there's a story to be told that other people can take from this community, if we can tell the right story, and take back to their community and say, 'This town had such an amazing pathway system, or had all this green space, or had all this access to rivers and public land.' We need to be telling that story to getting reconnected back to our planet. We have a really huge opportunity there, and to pay it forward.