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The New West: How is industrial-strength outdoor recreation

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This map showing long distance migrations of a dozen different elk herds in Greater Yellowstone speaks to only one of reasons why this ecosystem is unparalleled in the Lower 48. The corridors only exist because they remain unfragmented by human development and large numbers of people using the landscape. Will they persevere given current development trends and outdoor recreation reaching industrial-strength levels? PHOTO COURTESY OF WYOMING MIGRATION INITIATIVE

better than resource extraction it is replacing?

By Todd Wilkinson EBS CONTRIBUTOR

For 30 years, Ray Rasker has been on the leading edge of thinking about this amorphous thing we call “the New West” which, in obvious ways, is very different from both the natural resource extraction-based “Old West” and certainly from the indigenous “Old Old West” whose presence remains after 12,000 years.

Early on, Rasker astutely identified that places like Bozeman, Jackson Hole and more recently, Big Sky, had economies driven not by how many board feet of trees were cut from national forests, cattle run on the range, or fossil fuels and minerals pulled out of the ground; instead, these New West centers benefitted from an increasingly-mobile workforce settling in such places based upon lifestyle considerations most enjoyed by the economic elite. 

 “Footloose” entrepreneurs, Rasker noted, were one subset of a still-ongoing economic boom.  Another were Baby Boomers and older (mostly white) folk able to exist on investment income. A third factor involved an emerging “service” sector not comprised solely of cheap minimum wage jobs in tourism but also health care providers, technology gurus and swelling non-profits. 

A fourth, but not cited enough, is the construction and speculative real-estate industry which really functions no differently than mining boomtowns of old exhausting resources—in our case a finite amount of land and its correspondent aesthetic sense of place.

Some businesspeople, like K.C. Walsh of Simms fishing waders (founded by John Simms in Jackson Hole) pulled up stakes in distant cities, bought a company and grew it in Greater Yellowstone. There are actually many similar manufacturers that attract quality employees who are drawn to living closer to public wildlands.

This factor has figured prominently in Rasker’s more recent research—analysis that has elevated the Bozeman-based firm he founded, Headwaters Economics, to a national stage. Headwaters is renowned for innovatively creating databases that allow, for example, residents of every county in the West to better understand the forces at work in their local economies.

Headwaters has been at the forefront of examining the rising costs of Forest Service firefighting efforts and the problem that half of the agency’s multi-billion budget is exhausted trying to save private homes unwisely built in the wildland-urban interface that has a higher probability of burning.

For journalists like me, Headwaters has been a valuable “go-to” resource. And recently, the outfit updated an earlier analysis showing that as people continue to pour into Bozeman/Gallatin Valley—the fastest growing micropolitan urban area in America—Southwest Montana is rapidly losing open space. But what are the non-economic consequences of that?

Here’s my criticism of Headwaters and it’s also aimed squarely at most conservation organizations, agencies like the Forest Service, every county and all of the high-growth communities in Greater Yellowstone. As many tout the economic prosperity of inward population growth and continue to push outdoor recreation, none are seriously addressing the transformative ecological impacts of more people using the landscape.

All of us love to play in the outdoors. It’s why most of us live here. It’s why we are more physically fit and healthier than the national average of most Americans. It’s the foundation for many businesses and job creators. And it’s why the overwhelming whiteness of the region has made it a target for questioning the motives of the conservation movement.

What’s lost in the latter, however, is what makes Greater Yellowstone unparalleled and which is part of a legacy that belongs to all Americans—its still-healthy populations of wildlife.

Amid all the cheerleading to create more access to the backcountry, more trails, filling the rivers with more floaters, and having state tourism bureaus spending many millions annually in advertising to promote our public lands, many of which are already crowded, no one is reflecting on the ecological toll being exacted.

How is the blind promotion of outdoor recreation any different from the colonizing forces of Manifest Destiny? I can provide readers with a list of prominent conservation funders that, for whatever reason, have been unwilling or resistant to discuss what many are calling the rise of “the outdoor recreation industrial complex”—a form of consumption that is as impactful as traditional resource extraction and likely more permanent. 

COVID-19 is revealing many now-visible horrors of outdoor places becoming deluged with a flood of people on public lands that exceeds the carrying capacity of those places. No one is willing to discuss limits and the virtue of emphasizing quality experiences that protect wildlife and natural values against over-exploitation.

If conservation organizations, government agencies, elected community leaders, and philanthropic funders are truly interested in saving America’s last best wildest ecosystem in the Lower 48—as gauged by healthy wildlife and its corresponding sense of place—they need to engage now.  

The nature of Greater Yellowstone will not be saved based on the unchallenged conceit that the more people who use—or exploit—a resource the better. That’s not being elitist nor is it being exclusionary to people of color. 

This, after all, is about understanding the destructive patterns of human population, of why and how most once-wilder places have been loved to death by mostly white people. Recreationists who reject wildlife conservation—and the environmental organizations enabling it to happen—need to acknowledge their role in creating a huge new New West problem.

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