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The New West: What kind of prosperity destroys the foundation it is built upon?

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PHOTO BY DAVID J. SWIFT

By Todd Wilkinson EBS Environmental Columnist

The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is a dynamic natural region unique in the world. If there are twin piston communities driving the engines of change in our corner of “the New West,” they undoubtedly are Jackson Hole and Bozeman.

Greater Yellowstone faces many significant issues. The most immediate, happening in real time before our eyes, is the rapidly expanding footprint of human development as well as visitation to national parks in the ecosystem’s core.

It has always been extraordinary, at least to this journalistic observer, how little elected officials in the town of Jackson and Teton County ever communicate with their counterparts in Bozeman, Montana and Gallatin County.

Why is that? There is a lot they could learn from each other and, given what’s at stake and how their local decisions have consequences that ripple across the region, maybe it’s time they started scheduling annual rendezvous?

One thing is certain: the era when traditional, fragmented provincial thinking ruled and local jurisdictions could pretend they exist as isolated bubbles set unto themselves, is over.

The conundrums created by Jackson Hole’s limited private land base, and the spillover impacts resulting from it, are well-documented and undeniable. Also obvious is that Teton County, struggling with epic transportation, crowding and lack of affordability issues for middle and lower income people, will not grow its way out of these problems.

Stuffing more humans into the valley, be it through high rises, more motel rooms or privatizing public land and making it available to free market developers, is certain to exacerbate the troubles above rather than ameliorate them. Not to mention, there is the undeniable toll that more people, development, and recreation pressure is having on wildlife and habitat.

Up north, in Bozeman and Gallatin County, the problem is not lack of developable land but rather an abundance of it, with planners at both the city and county level today being unwilling, or incapable, of confronting jaw-dropping growth-related impacts. In some ways, the boom happening there makes the growth issues in Teton County, Wyoming and adjacent Teton County, Idaho seem, well, almost quaint.

In a long-form journalism piece published in Mountain Journal, the trajectory of where growth is headed was laid out using conservative statistics.

The trend goes something like this: At current rates of newcomers pouring in, Bozeman and the surrounding Gallatin Valley—current population around 105,000—will double in 18 to 24 years. If the inward migration continues—and there is evidence that once the infrastructure of development expands it easily could—another doubling beyond that would mean 440,000 people inhabiting Bozeman and the valley just past the middle of this century.

Contemplate for a moment the kind of transformative effect such a population—and the accompanying spillover—would have on the wild character and sense of place we cherish about Greater Yellowstone today.

Now, combine this scenario playing out on the northern end of the ecosystem with the growth-related problems already plaguing both sides of the Tetons and them getting markedly worse in the decades ahead. On top of it, add in the ballooning footprint of Big Sky northwest of Yellowstone Park.

Citizens in Bozeman got another sobering wake-up call this month when the city released the findings of a draft consultant’s report.

There are a few take homes from that and a related story appearing in the Bozeman Daily Chronicle (which you can’t read unless you are a subscriber). Here’s the first stunner: Home construction has not kept pace with job growth. Over 11,000 jobs were created in Bozeman alone since 2012. But the city added 800 fewer units than are needed to meet the needs of employees filling new jobs. Demand for more housing is high, and so are rents and real estate prices.

What it means is that, in response, elected officials will be eager to greenlight more development to try to catch up with housing demand being driven by job growth which is being driven by more development. Do you see the feedback loop that’s been created? The frantic boom is happening without practically any government reflection on the impact that development is having on Bozeman’s/Gallatin’s natural landscape.

The report estimates that Bozeman, at current growth rates, needs as many as 6,340 new housing options built by 2025—yes, 6,300 in just six years—to keep pace with people who need places to live, according to the Chronicle story. “Even working folks are dropping off of the ability to find affordable rentals, and so they’re finding themselves in that emergency shelter situation,” City Commissioner Terry Cunningham was quoted as saying.

The newspaper piece adds, “Developers have plans for another 1,000 residential units in Bozeman over the next year. However, consultant Christine Walker said many of those developments are geared toward luxury, not affordability.”

In future columns, I’ll be exploring the implications of the above but for now, here are a couple of undeniable truths. Desperate communities often are forced to do desperate, poorly-thought out things when they have no plan. Communities that fail to create fair and equitable living conditions for all citizens are also not likely to be sympathetic to the needs of wildlife nor are they places sensitive to the fragility of nature.

Right now, there is not a single ecologist on staff with the city of Bozeman or Gallatin County, which together represent the fastest-growing urban hub in the northern Rockies. What kind of economic prosperity destroys the very foundation upon which it was built?

If no one is raising the issue of what’s being rapidly lost in the natural environment, and elected officials express little interest in knowing why, then how can it ever be saved?

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