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Grand Teton plow driver works to keep roads and employees safe

A man cleans off the front of a snowplow with a window scraper
Kieran Hadley
Alex Roberts, the head of the South District Road Crew of Grand Teton National Park, clears snow from his plow amidst whiteout conditions in early March.

Workers in Jackson Hole face unique challenges to power the community. The beauty, wild nature and outdoor access the region offers are some of the great perks of life here. But servers, educators, nurses, home builders and more often have to deal with the high cost of living, long commutes and, for some, learning new languages for their jobs. 

In KHOL’s new Workers series, we get to know more about some of the folks that help our community thrive and what drives them to stay here. 

During the early hours of Saturday, March 2, most Teton County residents were snuggled cozily in their beds, sleeping through one of the heaviest storms to hit the areain over a decade. In the preceding 24 hours, the town of Jackson had received 17 inches of snow, while Jackson Hole Mountain Resort reported over 30 inches overnight.

While most Teton County residents enjoyed the storm from the safety of their homes, Alex Roberts and his fellow snowplow drivers at Grand Teton National Park experienced the wee hours of Saturday morning from the seats of their plow trucks, peering through frosty windows into whiteout conditions as they labored to keep roads open for drivers and emergency services.

“A day like today, it’s just kind of triage — doing everything we can not to close the highway,” Roberts said.

“Usually it’s these gentlemens’ days off,” he added, gesturing to the other plow drivers in the park’s plow maintenance shop. “But they came in because this is a pretty good storm.”

Roberts is the head of the South District Road Crew of Grand Teton National Park (GTNP), and manages a team which plows and oversees the roads in the southern half of the park, including the stretch of Highway 89 just north of Moose Junction.

“Our crew exists primarily for the winter operation. We’re here to keep the road safe for the public,” he said.

In the winter, Roberts’ primary objective is ensuring that the highway stays open to maintain access for emergency services to Togwotee Pass and the northern half of GTNP.

“If someone’s out there sledding on Togwotee Pass and has an accident, an ambulance needs to come through this way,” explained Roberts, as he drove north through the blizzard.

Moments later, the plow’s radio crackled to life, and an operator on the other end of the line reported that that exact situation had occurred. Due to Roberts and his fellow drivers, the ambulance was able to proceed.

A man speaks into a big rig radio behind the wheel.
Kieran Hadley
Alex Roberts responds to a radio call to clear an ambulance to proceed up the freshly-plowed highway towards Togwotee Pass. On March 2, his shift began at 5:30 a.m. and he expected to work until 8:30 p.m.

A long career at Grand Teton National Park

Roberts began his career in the park service after graduating from Ohio State University with a degree in parks, recreation and tourism management. Afterwards, he sought work out west, and happened to land at GTNP in 2010.

“At that time, I didn’t even know what Grand Teton was,” said Roberts. “I said, ‘Well, can I have a day to think about it so I can go home and Google it?’ And the first picture I saw was the iconic Schwabacher’s Landing with a moose in the background and I thought, ‘Yeah, I could live there.’”

Though he left for a short period to work at another recreation area in Texas, by 2014, Roberts had taken a permanent job at GTNP as a plow driver. He originally considered pursuing a career as a ranger but ultimately realized that maintenance was his calling.

“I get a lot of gratification out of seeing something done,” said Roberts. “Having a vision and seeing it accomplished gives me a lot of satisfaction.”

A man brushes snow off of the side of a snow plow
Kieran Hadley
Despite his challenging work conditions, Alex Roberts takes satisfaction from seeing his task completed.

In the winter, Roberts and his team focus primarily on keeping roads clear in GTNP’s southern district. In the summer, his job becomes more diverse and involves grading dirt roads, installing signs and working on projects to improve the park.

“A couple of years ago, we had the idea of trying to reconfigure the Lupine Meadows trailhead to incorporate a turnaround at the end to make it safer and more accessible,” Roberts said. “And I get a lot of satisfaction out of having those ideas and seeing them pulled off.”

Combating a culture of abuse and harassment

But being in a leadership position often means that Roberts spends more time focusing on people than he does pavement.

“Trying to find the balance of being a good leader for my crew, that’s the challenge I face these days,” said Roberts. “I want to make sure to honor them as individuals and respect the work they do.”

Working as a plow driver is a strenuous and high-stakes job. During winter storms like the one that buried Teton County on March 2, Roberts and his fellow drivers often put in 14- to 16-hour days. Making sure that his drivers are ready and willing to step up when needed requires paying close attention to their needs.

“I have a crew full of folks that will stand up and say, ‘Absolutely. Yes I will be there to help with whatever is needed,’” said Roberts. “It takes work to make sure to keep those folks feeling wanted so that they will respond when that call comes.”

Two people in fluorescent yellow vests talk
Kieran Hadley
Alex Roberts briefs another plow driver on the day’s priorities in early March. Managing the well-being of his employees in such a strenuous job is one of Roberts’ biggest challenges, he said.

And when the nature of your job involves living, working and recreating in the same place, it can be challenging to find work-life balance. Recent rankings have put the park service in the bottom 15th percentile of federal agencies in terms of worker satisfaction and well being.

Roberts is taking part in the park service’s newest initiatives to improve conditions for workers.

“I’m an instructor for a National Park Service program called Operational Leadership, which is about empowering staff at all levels,” said Roberts. “[The program] emphasizes a ‘see something, say something, speak up’ culture. An environment where people feel safe to be themselves and speak up if they feel otherwise.”

Roberts’ work within the Operational Leadership program has focused recently on making the park service safer for the LGBTQ+ community, a timely initiative in light of recent reports detailing widespread harassment within the service, particularly against minority groups.

“The park service was recently provided gender identification training through a local non-profit,” said Roberts. “It was excellent, and put things in a way that anybody can understand and relate with.”

Roberts also reported that his team has been working closely with Teton Adaptive to make trails and facilities more accessible for individuals with impaired mobility.

Housing challenges make for uncertain futures

Roberts currently lives in a spacious apartment within GTNP’s Moose Village affordable housing complexes, access to which is guaranteed by his job. But despite being somewhat insulated from Teton County’s housing shortage, it still casts a shadow of uncertainty on his plan for a future here.

“While I am so fortunate to be well-compensated and have affordable housing, I often think about, ‘will I have a 30-year career here and then have to move?’” said Roberts. “If I spend 30 years making this my home, my community, my foundation, what do I do when that’s over? That’s been pretty… pretty tough to grapple with.”

Roberts said park-provided housing is the only reason most of his colleagues can afford to work at GTNP.

“Without the housing, I wouldn’t be here. There wouldn’t be a whole lot of employees here. It’d be a much, much different landscape,” said Roberts.

A man sits at a table inside of what appears to be a home and pets a dog
Kieran Hadley
Alex Roberts and his dog Moose in his Grand Teton National Park apartment, which is provided by the park service.

Despite the challenges of his work, Roberts remains stalwart in his dedication to Grand Teton National Park. He said he hopes that the public can understand the effort and resources it takes to maintain the park and all of the services it provides, and aid the park service in preserving GTNP for future generations.

“Our mission is to preserve, protect and provide for Grand Teton National Park, and all park service units support that mission. It just takes so much to keep all of this running,” said Roberts. “And we’re all here because we love this place. We just want everybody to respect it and love it the same way we do.”

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