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The New West: Wyoming falls behind, Jackson Hole thrives

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Jackson Hole's success is about more than the Tetons, just as Big Sky is about more than the allure of Lone Mountain. Healthy, inspiring environments attract smart creative people. The dynamic communities they build are better able to withstand booms and busts. Jackson Hole holds lessons for the rest of the state as half of the counties are losing population. PHOTO BY TODD WILKINSON
CREDIT: David J Swift

By Todd Wilkinson EBS ENVIRONMENTAL COLUMNIST

It’s soul-searching time in Wyoming, or at least it ought to be.

Once again, elected officials are pondering what to do next after squandering yet another natural resource boom—coal—that policy makers cockily vowed could never happen again.

Wyoming has a rainy-day fund, estimated to be about $1.6 billion, amassed from mineral taxes and investments but the coal industry is reeling. Ongoing budget shortfalls are expected as the fortunes of coal tumble and if a national recession hits hard it may be a devastating blow.

With the state at another painful crossroad, has the moment arrived when Gov. Mark Gordon and his lieutenants might objectively consider why Jackson Hole thrives as an enigma compared to the rest of the state where markedly different cultural attitudes prevail?

Gordon is smart. Being well educated and from Buffalo, he understands keenly the shortsightedness that has dominated the state legislature for decades—the false belief that Wyoming can somehow buck trends shaping the rest of the world.

As a whole, Wyoming is hemorrhaging people while Jackson Hole is swelling with mobile, skilled individuals who enthusiastically want to be there. The attraction involves more than the allure of the Tetons.

Wyoming is the only state in the Rockies, in fact, experiencing net out-migration. Half of Wyoming’s counties, not just those with coal mines and oil and gas fields, lost population. Teton County, meanwhile, is coping with a number of growth-related challenges.

In most of Wyoming, Sagebrush Rebels regard federal land ownership as an economic liability but in Teton County, with 97 percent of its area being public, its presence is a potent engine for job creation and attracting creative entrepreneurs crucial to having a dynamic 21st century economy.

In most of Wyoming, the shriller the right-of-center rhetoric the better the chances a candidate has of getting elected, while in Jackson Hole vocally defending President Trump’s controversial behavior, tweets and actions would get you soundly defeated. Trump carried Wyoming with 67.4 percent of the vote statewide in 2016; in Teton County he notched just 30.6 percent.

In most of Wyoming, Jackson Hole is viewed as a province filled with “socialists” and lefty “communist snowflakes.” In the Tetons affordable housing, bike paths, capital facilities supported by taxing visitors and even planning and zoning regulations are embraced as necessary public goods and those social amenities connote a community that is forward leaning, not backward looking.

In most of Wyoming, the science related to climate change is dismissed scornfully by legislators yet in Jackson Hole it would be impossible to get elected by campaigning as an overt climate change denier; in fact, a Teton County commissioner who is a trained geologist authored a report on the economic and ecological impacts of climate change to Jackson Hole.

If you remember, it wasn’t all that long ago that members of the school board in Cody, affiliated with the local Tea Party, claimed readings in established textbooks referencing climate change were based on “junk science” and represented attempts to brainwash kids with radical left-wing propaganda.

In most of Wyoming, wildlife carnivores such as grizzlies and wolves are treated with hatred, the Endangered Species Act is condemned and environmentalists are vilified as enemies, yet nature tourism in Yellowstone and Grand Teton generates $1.3 billion annually in economic activity and creates thousands of jobs. Two of the top attractions in those parks: bears and lobos.

In most of Wyoming, there is delight when U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney appears on Fox News yet in Teton County she is too afraid to hold a press conference with local media whom she knows would ask her tough questions. Despite having a home in Wilson, Cheney knows that were it left to Teton County voters to decide her political fate, she’d never be elected to Congress.

In most of Wyoming, there’s a cultural mindset that condones killing wolves and coyotes by any means, any time of day, any day of the year, including the running down of coyotes with snowmobiles for sport, while in Teton County elected officials are appalled by its violation of professional wildlife management standards.

In most of Wyoming, the spread of chronic wasting disease is treated with almost indifference compared to action plans being developed in other states yet in Teton County the controversial practice of artificially feeding elk triggering a potential CWD outbreak is a huge worry.

In most of Wyoming, anti-immigrant sentiments in league with President Trump view those coming across the southern U.S. border with Mexico as threats to the American way, while in Jackson Hole the Latino community is the heart and soul of the local service economy and important to the local social fabric.

Why is Teton County prospering? Why do outsiders, including right-wing billionaires, want to move there? What lessons does Jackson Hole hold for a state not keeping pace with its other neighbors in the Rockies?

These are questions Gov. Gordon ought to be talking about honestly and openly but would voters in most of Wyoming punish him at the polls for doing it?

Todd Wilkinson is the founder of Bozeman-based “Mountain Journal” 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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