CREDIT: David J Swift

By Todd Wilkinson
EBS Environmental Columnist

About 10 years ago, as the Jackson Hole economy continued its transformational shift into overdrive with no turning back, the Sonoran Institute held a conference in the Tetons. Invited were commissioners from a number of rural counties in “the New West.”

In reflection, the issues that were confronted—ag lands being converted to development, rising fiscal challenges, gaps opening between haves and have nots, living wages, affordable housing, impacts on wildlife—seemed almost quaint. At least at the time compared to where those same issues are today.

Commissioners from non-booming counties in the northern Rockies got to see, firsthand, what consultant and former Jackson Hole Chamber of Commerce executive director Suzanne Young called “the upside of the downside of growth.”

Young didn’t speak at the event but earlier she coined the term in an interview I had with her while writing a story for Jackson Hole Magazine about the chamber’s “Power of Place” marketing slogan.

Every commissioner who came to Jackson Hole was looking for the same thing: the secret formula that allows a community to achieve sustainable economic prosperity without sacrificing the often-intangible elements that make their place special. And no one wanted to become Jackson Hole or Bozeman.

Ironies, paradoxes and hypocrisies can be found everywhere, though the challenges of inward population growth are now being manifested in every town that has become a magnet for pilgrims fleeing cities for the perceived Holy Grail of a better life.

Meanwhile, many of the down-home icons of our Western river valleys—ranchers and farmers—are selling off their cows and, by personal choice, some are getting into the far more lucrative real estate business. An act once considered heresy.

Working class locals, who are credited with emanating community charm to wealthier outsiders eying new places to settle, are sent packing because they and their kids can’t afford to own property.

In scurrying over the mountain passes to other less-expensive bedroom communities, refugees cause police and fire departments, schools and road maintenance crews to become overwhelmed as their swelling numbers outstrip the ability of government to deliver essential services.

Growth happens, and dominoes of what towns used to be begin to fall. Economies seem to be roaring along swimmingly, but in hindsight, as citizens ponder the tradeoffs of what was gained and what was given up, the feeling of lament toward “new prosperity” is like the old Peggy Lee song: “Is That All There Is?”

I mention the Sonoran Institute because no other organization at the time was doing a better job of examining the upside of the downside of growth. Now, ironically, the founder of that nonprofit, a true out of the box thinker, Luther Propst, is running for the county commission in Teton County.

Sonoran didn’t paint growth as “good” or “bad,” or undesirable, or necessarily counter to the values, both real and mythological, that shape local community identity.

Yet as its staff eco-economist Ray Rasker (who now runs Headwaters Economics in Bozeman) noted, in stating the obvious, counties that fail to plan for the consequences, and costs, of growth are destined to be negatively overwhelmed by them.

As one visiting outside county commissioner was heard saying: “In our town it’s okay to utter the ‘s’ word (sprawl) but people take offense when you say the ‘z’ word (zoning).”

Rasker has divined numerous insights over the years, but in his hometown of Bozeman the impacts of growth are more personal. Bozeman, like Jackson, is a more dynamic community than it used to be, but something has slipped away.

“It used to be that when the college students left in summer, the pace of things quieted down,” he said a decade ago. “This year it was busy all the time. When I walk downtown to the coffee shop, it’s full but I don’t know as many people as I used to. When I get off the plane at the airport, I couldn’t catch a ride home.”

In the gridlock of poorly designed transportation infrastructures, amid the honking and sprawl, the biggest casualty was, and continues to be, the loss of civility.

A decade ago, Rasker and a friend were riding their mountain bikes in the Gallatins south of Bozeman and both remarked how cyclists don’t wave to each other anymore as they blow by one another on the trail.

As a group of young twentysomethings surged by without exchanging pleasantries, Rasker’s friend turned around and hightailed after them, eventually forcing them to halt and get off their bikes.

For a few minutes, Rasker said, his middle-aged friend lectured the startled lads. Frustrated and annoyed, he told them: “This is a friendly town, God damn it! We need to be nice to each other!”

Where does the small-town friendliness that drew us here, the sense of interpersonal connection we all live for, begin and end? This, too, is another paradox of the New West.

Todd Wilkinson is founder of Bozeman-based Mountain Journal (mountainjournal.org) and a correspondent for National Geographic. He also is author of “Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek” about famous Jackson Hole grizzly bear 399 featuring 150 photographs by Tom Mangelsen, available only at mangelsen.com/grizzly.