CREDIT: David J Swift

By Todd Wilkinson EBS Environmental Columnist

Next week the Bozeman-based organization Future West is hosting an important symposium focused on trend lines in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

Whether one is an elected official, public land manager, businessperson, outdoor recreationist or conservation-minded citizen, the one-day event on Wednesday, Nov. 29 at the Emerson Cultural Center in Bozeman comes at a timely, pivotal moment in the history of our region.

Right before our eyes dramatic changes are sweeping across the landscape and we feel, at a gut level, the character of our communities being transformed.

Future West’s conference, “Sustaining the New West: Conservation Challenges – Conservation Opportunities,” will bring together a number of big picture thinkers to help us make sense of it all.

“Everyone’s talking about how quickly the West is changing, but do we really understand these trends and what they mean for the future of our natural environment?” asks Dennis Glick, the founder of Future West, saying it’s time for leaders to seriously reflect on the pace of growth, rural sprawl, intensive outdoor recreation, transportation infrastructure and climate change.

“More important than just calling attention to these issues which cumulatively have far-reaching consequences for the northern Rockies, we’ll learn about the actions people and communities are taking to overcome these problems,” Glick says. “Unless we act, we are going to lose this place.”

Not long ago, Teton County, Wyoming, resident Luther Propst, whose career has been devoted to examining growth trends from Greater Yellowstone to the Sonoran Desert, made the following observation:

“The problem is that the Lords of Yesteryear never disappeared as we were promised and the challenges of the New West are far worse than we were promised,” he said. “I don’t want a West of man-camps and gas field booms, nor a West of precious tourist towns that exist to feed a global cowboy/mountain man/Disney/ski resort/New Age fantasy, surrounded by busted towns that are ghettos for workers.”

The 20 counties of Greater Yellowstone together are the fastest-growing rural region in the country. Bozeman, for its size, is one of the fastest-growing small cities in America.

Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks continue to meet or set visitation records. Jackson Hole is dealing with agonizing affordable housing issues and planning issues spilling over Teton Pass into Idaho. Big Sky is contending with dizzying real estate development and epic water treatment concerns.

In just two decades, at conservative growth rates, the total population of Bozeman/Gallatin County, Montana, will be equal in size to Salt Lake City proper. By 2030, there will be another 100,000 new homes in Greater Yellowstone. In the absence of thoughtful planning, many will be built in critical wildlife habitat and forested areas prone to being burned by wildfire.

The very values that set Greater Yellowstone apart in America and drive prosperity—its unparalleled wildlife, high air and water quality, and inspiring views—are being jeopardized by growth and the unwillingness/inability of communities to plan ahead.

Among those giving presentations are former Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker, who will speak about preventing planning mistakes; and Ray Rasker of Headwaters Economics on the value of protected landscapes for local economies and budget-busting problems being created for counties in battling wildfires.

There will also be discussions with Nobel Prize winning scientist Steve Running on climate change, chats about how highways are becoming death zones for wildlife, a look at human impacts upon wildlands by an unprecedented level of outdoor recreation, and an examination of the need for coordinated city-county planning to confront sprawl.

Besides the undeniable growth trends, Randy Carpenter, a planning specialist with Future West, says the biggest wildcard facing Greater Yellowstone is how the region could be inundated by climate change refugees.

The U.S. desert Southwest is expected to broil even hotter, bringing water shortages in decades ahead; meanwhile U.S. coastal areas are dealing with rising tidal surges and hurricanes. Where will people go?

Greater Yellowstone is attractive to people of means who can afford to live here, but there could be waves of others, he said. “The only thing slowing growth would be water challenges, particularly if we start losing our snowpack,” he said.

Unless attitudes change, growth patterns that have harmed other regions will be replicated here, he said.

“In the middle of a boom, we rarely hear about downsides,” Carpenter explained. “The boosters don’t want to hear it. They choose to live in denial and their attitude works as long as it’s not challenged. I’ve seen a lot of farms and wildlife habitat disappear but I’ve never seen a subdivision vanish. Concrete, asphalt, roads, traffic, noise pollution—they are forever. What we forget is that the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem isn’t just uncommon. It is an American treasure and the only one of its kind in the world.”

For more information on the conference, visit future-west.org.

Todd Wilkinson, founder of Mountain Journal (mountainjournal.org), is author of “Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek” about famous Greater Yellowstone grizzly bear 399 featuring 150 photographs by Tom Mangelsen, available only at mangelsen.com/grizzly. His profile of Montana politician Max Baucus appears in the summer 2017 issue of Mountain Outlaw and is now on newsstands.