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The New West: For ‘New West’ towns, it’s gut-check time amid huge change

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Many communities in Greater Yellowstone such as Livingston, pictured, are searching to find better ways to have prosperous economies and maintain healthy natural landscapes. But can the former thrive without harming the latter? PHOTO BY JOHN ZUMPANO
CREDIT: David J Swift

By Todd Wilkinson EBS Environmental Columnist

Sometimes, people say things that hold almost timeless value. A few years ago, Teton County, Wyoming Commissioner Luther Propst uttered the following observation to High Country News.

Propst said it in an interview as he was stepping down from the helm of an organization he founded, the Sonoran Institute, devoted to exploring the intersection of economy and ecology; in particular, highlighting the ways that wise landscape stewardship delivers dividends for human quality of life, community identity and last but not least, the non-human creatures that depend upon habitat protection.

“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. 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, surrounding by busted towns that are ghettos for workers,” he said.

On June 5 in Bozeman, Montana, the organization Future West is hosting an important conference focused on trend lines shaping the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and what remains of the wild and pastoral American West.

In a nutshell, the line-up of extraordinary speakers, all of whom have been in the trenches of “New West” issues, will dive deep into the catalysts for Propst’s concerns. It could not be more timely, especially as growth issues in Bozeman and Jackson are rapidly transforming not only the human landscape but casting ripple effects across public lands and neighboring communities.

When I spoke with Future West founder Dennis Glick, who years ago was a senior leader at Sonoran Institute working under Propst, he mentioned five almost jaw-dropping stats:

  • Bozeman—which forms the urban crown of Greater Yellowstone and affects communities within a wide range around it—is the fastest growing micropolitan area in the country. Yes, in all of America.
  • If the current growth rate of 3.8 percent continues, the population of Gallatin County, which includes and encircles Bozeman, will double in less than 20 years to almost a quarter million people.
  • Another driver of the unprecedented boom in our region is the resort community of Big Sky, located in the wild heart of the Madison Mountain Range and adjacent to the Gallatin River and Gallatin Range. All three of those are ecological hotspots in terms of their importance for wildlife. At Big Sky right now, there is $1 billion worth of new construction and infrastructure improvements currently underway—that on top of what already exists there.
  • In small town Livingston, where I live, a 132-acre subdivision was recently approved and Forbes Magazine named Livingston one of the best places in America to invest in vacation rentals. As I’ve noted in the past, such “best of” lists can actually be curses for the communities appearing on them because they attract an influx of more people that brings a host of problems if local officials aren’t prepared to deal with growth.
  • Teton County, Wyoming, is one of the richest, per capita, in America but living there is well beyond reach for people even earning middle-class incomes. Meanwhile, the robust recreational economy is surging but none of the land management agencies have any real sense of what the cumulative impact is on wildlife.

“This is gut-check time for those who love the world class values of the Northern Rockies: the wildest wildlands in the Lower 48, towns that have become known nationally for their high quality of life and wide open spaces where the deer and the antelope play while ranchers and farmers work the land. But for how much longer?” Glick asked.

I asked him how this boomtime is different from others.

“Our public wildlands are being stressed by climate change and ever-increasing impacts from outdoor recreation,” he said. “Our communities are struggling to manage new growth and many are becoming unaffordable for even the middle class. And farms and ranchlands are transitioning to subdivisions or amenity properties that may still provide refuge for wildlife but many are no longer welcoming to hunters. And the rural towns once joined at the hip with the ag economy continue to wither.

“Welcome to the New West,” Glick added. “It’s not the environmental paradise we had all imagined. And while it does have its bright side, if we don’t do a better job of conserving those things that we love about this place, its dark side will become ever more apparent.”

Future West’s conference, “Sustaining the New West: Bold Visions – Inspiring Actions,” takes off where a previous conference, held last year, ended.

“After reminding people of the growth trends affecting the region, we will go bold and offer some alternative visions for the future of our communities, our working landscapes and our wildlands,” Glick said.

“Then we’ll go really bold and share Western examples of efforts to plan for sustainability on a regional scale. Yes, I said regional. I know that has been taboo, but the jury is no longer out on this issue,” he said. “If we want to maintain the many incredible natural and cultural values of the West, we are going to have to start viewing, planning and managing this region on a landscape, if not larger, scale. That is, if we are really serious about conserving what is special about this place.”

Glick notes that many rural counties are struggling with issues that are serious but dramatically different from the ones confronting Gallatin and Teton.

“In many cases those rural folks are struggling and while some of them may think it’s say, environmentalists, that are the cause of their problems, it’s clearly much more complicated and oftentimes related to national and international issues and policies far from their ability to control. But there are things closer to home that they can, in fact, control. Perhaps the most important thing is their attitude,” he said.

“It goes back to the vision thing. Understanding the challenges—the real challenges and their real causes—is an essential first step in overcoming them,” Glick said. “When I hear my friends say that we need to ‘bridge the rural–urban divide,’ what I hear them say is, ‘We need to figure out how to get rural people to start thinking like us.’ That’s the wrong attitude.”

So, what’s a better attitude, I asked him.

“What we need to do is to enter into a mutually respectful dialogue that seeks to find some common ground. People want to be listened to, especially rural people and for good reason. It doesn’t mean we have to agree on everything. That will never happen. But I am confident that most Westerners can find plenty of things to agree on. The conservation community is starting to realize that ‘those’ people living in rural places can be or already are good stewards of the land.”

Future West’s conference will include the voices of the following speakers:

Dr. David Theobald from Fort Collins, Colorado, is a rock star in the field of conservation biology. His research on growth and climatic trends and their impacts on wildlife and biodiversity, and ways to mitigate these impacts, should be required reading for any Western conservationist.

Lain Leoniak was once employed as the water conservation officer for the City of Bozeman. Now she’s an Assistant Attorney General for the State of Colorado working on multistate water compacts.

Loren Bird Rattler has become a nationally known leader in planning for sustainability on a landscape scale as well as an eloquent spokesperson for Native American sovereignty issues.

Robert Liberty was one of the architects of Oregon’s highly esteemed now 45-year-old statewide planning and zoning efforts, and was the former executive director of what was arguably the nation’s premier NGO dedicated to promoting effective growth management.

Rancher Denny Iverson is a long-time member of the Blackfoot Challenge which is perhaps the West’s most successful rancher-led effort to conserve working landscapes, wildlife, water quality and rural community sustainability on a watershed scale.

Another is the mayor of Canmore, next to Banff National Park in Canada, considered a parallel town to Jackson Hole. John Borrowman has a good story to tell about a community that is concerned about both its environmental footprint as well as the quality of life and affordability.

“One of our conference speakers, Josiah Blackeagle Pinkham of the Nez Perce Nation, will share his thought on an essential foundation for all efforts to plan for and achieve a sustainable future for the West. That’s the critical need to nurture a true reverence for our homeland. It seems like we are losing that spiritual connection to our lands, waters, wildlife and communities,” Glick said, adding that “the rush to monetize the natural environment has eroded our appreciation of the intrinsic values of our landscapes—whether or not we are ‘using’ them.

“Without that sense of reverence there is no restraint, and without restraint, the hope of fostering a truly sustainable future for the West will, to paraphrase conservationist Bob Marshall, melt away like a snow bank on a hot summer day.”

Visit future-west.org to learn more about the conference.

Todd Wilkinson is the founder of Bozeman-based Mountain Journal (mountainjournal.org) and is a correspondent for National Geographic. He’s also the author of “Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek” about famous Jackson Hole grizzly bear 399, which is available at mangelsen.com/grizzly.

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