JACKSON, Wyo. (AP) — For Chip Jenkins, superintendent of Grand Teton National Park, tightening up how the wedding industry is regulated in the park makes sense.
“This is not a private venue,” he told the Jackson Hole News&Guide. “We are public land, owned by all Americans.”
That’s especially true after requests for wedding permits in the park doubled in the past few years, increasing from 150 to 325 — a jump that coincided with the park’s busiest visitation year ever. And Mallory Smith, the park’s division chief of business and administration, said officials have received complaints about parties not complying with the conditions of their wedding permits, bringing in non-native flowers and asking other visitors to leave the area so they could have their wedding.
Changes the park made for the 2022 season, like allowing 330 permits for six “site-specific” front country locations, are intended to protect the park’s resources. Ditto the park experience for visitors who aren’t using the public place as a venue for their nuptials.
But for wedding photographers like Erin Wheat, whose primary business is shooting elopements in Grand Teton for people who want small, private ceremonies, the changes are a blow.
“I’ve lost four clients so far due to it,” Wheat said.
“Most of those people have a very specific reason that they’re doing what they’re doing,” she said. “In many cases the compromise with their family is that they are going to have photos.”
Her images, the photographer said, are often the reason clients are able to have the “day that they wanted” and “not have their parents permanently be upset.”
So she and some other wedding industry professionals in the Teton area are questioning park officials’ decision.
The new regs
Park officials pointed to the 330 permits planned for 2022, saying they’re not trying to cut back on the number of ceremonies permitted.
Instead, they said they’re trying to accommodate the past year’s demand in a sensible way. In the six front-country areas, a maximum of 40 people will be allowed, though the cap depends on the site. The locations are Schwabacher Landing, Mormon Row (separate zones for north and south), Mountain View Turnout, Glacier View Turnout, Snake River Overlook and Colter Bay Swim Beach. Schwabacher is already booked for 2022.
“We did, I think, a pretty good job looking at locations and picked locations that people commonly asked for for weddings,” Smith said.
Commercial photography will be allowed at all six locations so long as photographers get a separate permit. The process for getting one is set to be rolled out at the beginning of March, Smith said.
Ceremonies in the six areas will be limited to two hours, max. And the people getting married, rather than a wedding planner or relative, will be required to apply for a permit for the wedding, and to be able to reserve a site only between May 13 and Oct. 16, 2022.
For wedding ceremonies of less than 12 people held outside of those six areas — ceremonies Grand Teton is calling “dispersed” — the park is planning to offer permits above and beyond the 330 for the established spots, Smith said.
Those gatherings will be limited to an hour and will not be allowed in some locations, like String Lake, Inspiration Point and the six frontcountry locations.
“Dispersed” ceremonies will also be allowed in both front- and backcountry zones, just without commercial photography or other services.
Officiants will be allowed. Ditto others in the wedding party and children. Members of the wedding party will also be able to take photos, as long as they’re not paid.
The goal, again, is to follow the Wilderness Act, which prohibits “commercial enterprise.”
Some companies, like mountain guiding firms, fall under an exemption for commercial services necessary to realize “the recreational or other wilderness purposes” of the area.
About 40% of the park is managed as wilderness. But the regulations banning photographers from accompanying groups of 12 or fewer outside of the six designated areas apply parkwide.
Smith said that’s for “simplicity and clarity of message” and because officials think the sites they’re steering people to will meet demand.
“Those, we believe, can accommodate it,” she said.
Plus, Smith said, smaller groups can get married at one of the six established locations — and have a paid photographer shoot the ceremony.
“If somebody has 12 people they want to get married at the site specific location, they can,” Smith said. “Photographer or not.”
The increasing demand for tourists and wedding parties has put a strain on more remote park locations like Delta Lake, the scenic, turquoise and heavily Instagramed lake that’s become one of the park’s most prominent backcountry haunts.
Delta Lake is in a wilderness zone, and park officials have seen commercial photography in the area and received complaints.
“We’re trying to strike a really good balance of letting people continue to visit and recreate and appreciate that place,” Grand Teton Chief of Staff Jeremy Barnum said. “But at the same time, do we want to have things that are only going to add to the fracas, to the chaos and the pressure?”
Wedding photographers and planners agree that the park has a problem. But they’re not sure what the park has proposed is the right fix.
Tiffany Garcia, who runs Elope Jackson and has planned small weddings at Delta Lake as well as front-country locations like Schwabacher’s Landing, said that clients scheduling a November wedding won’t be able to get married in the park, unless they change the date.
“They may just get married in the national forest,” Garcia said.
Plus they’re unclear whether they’ll be able to hire a photographer to shoot portraits of them in the park before or after their wedding.
“There definitely is overuse,” Garcia said. But she thinks local wedding industry employees can help.
“If you book an educated photographer, or wedding professionals to be on site with you, they’re going to make sure you’re educated,” Garcia said. “They’re going to make sure you’re following the rules. They’re going to make sure that you’re safe.”
Wheat is one of those people. She’s leave-no-trace trained, certified in wilderness first-aid, donates 1% of every client session to conservation efforts and familiar with the park.
She worries the new policies will keep photographers who want to protect the place out of the picture and see fewer park-aware photographers take gifts, like a free hotel room, in exchange for shooting a wedding.
“It seems like it’s going to encourage people who already don’t care to not care more,” she said.
And she questioned why guides are allowed in wilderness areas but not wedding photographers, especially if they’re focused on ensuring wedding parties are traveling safely.
Jenkins said guides fall under the Wilderness Act’s exemption.
“There is some segment of the population that don’t have the skill sets in order to be able to go to some places, whether it’s skiing or climbing,” Jenkins said. “Providing the guide, as a way to be able to build that skill set and allow them to be able to travel safely and to be able to experience it, is what makes it necessary and appropriate.”
But Jenkins said a wedding photographer is not necessary to get hitched in the wilderness.
Smith added that the rules aren’t aimed at keeping people from doing so.
Wheat, however, said the bulk of her business is elopements in the side-country within a mile or a half mile of park roads. She’s only shot once at Delta, which is in a wilderness zone.
“It was not a wedding,” Wheat said. “I mandated that if they wanted to do Delta it had to be on a day other than their wedding because it was just too much.”
Wheat was critical of the park’s decision to roll out new rules without a public process.
“We wanted this to be a conversation, not a fight,” Wheat said.
Jenkins said the park promulgated the policies without a public process because it was “regulating commercial use.”
“Again, the fundamental purpose of the park is for preservation of the resource and for public engagement and enjoyment,” Jenkins said. “People operating a private business in the park is not our priority. We can, when it’s necessary and appropriate, allow it to occur.”
The superintendent said people can weigh in at any time, and it’s likely that the park would likely revisit the regulations based on public input — both from the wedding industry and others.
That could include, Jenkins said, the park getting “more complaints from people about how photographers and wedding parties behave.”