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The New West: What is wild?



Let us hope JH tourism board succeeds in its ad campaign

CREDIT: David J Swift

By Todd Wilkinson EBS Environmental Columnist

It’s a tough thing being an official tourism promoter in a town that, for several months each year, bursts at the seams with outsiders. In addition to making cash registers sing, this tsunami of visitors invades the solace of community, jams roads, fills public spaces, and causes locals to dive for cover.

I’m talking not only about local people but also local wildlife with whom we share the woods.

No matter what one does, in fulfilling one’s duty, which is telling the world that the place you are pitching is an astounding one to be in, a tourism promoter can’t fully win.

By now, you may have heard about the Jackson Hole Travel and Tourism Board’s new advertising campaign. It’s called “Stay Wild” and as a creative execution by Minneapolis-based Colle McVoy, it’s brilliant.

In some ways, it’s also controversial. In other words, “Stay Wild” is a bold gamble that, if it works, could paradoxically appease the growing number of local people worried about the future of wildness in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

“Stay Wild” is reminiscent of Apple’s famous “1984” spot for its Macintosh computer that aired during a Super Bowl. It touted the virtue of tearing down the barriers of old thinking.

The 90-second “Stay Wild” spot features words lifted from Charlie Chaplin’s monologue in “The Great Dictator.” It proclaims the uplifting wholesomeness of escaping into wild nature and finding the freedom to do basically whatever one wants, shedding the limiting shackles of urban existence.

The ad flashes a heart-pumping gamut of outdoor recreation pursuits, intermixed with images of wildlife, including grizzlies, intended to symbolize how wild our region is.

Peter Aengst, Northern Rockies director of The Wilderness Society, is among many who were left nonplused. Inherent in the message of “Stay Wild,” he says, is lack of reflection. The piece promotes the pursuit of wild human behavior, with wildness of place treated only as window dressing.

It’s a complaint that’s also been leveled at many outdoor gear manufacturers and retailers.

“I’m concerned with how our culture increasingly equates the wild as only about human needs and adventure. Wildness is just as much about having the humility to restrain ourselves, including prioritizing other species needs over our own desires,” Aengst said.

Wildlife—the very basis of Greater Yellowstone’s uniqueness and the foundation of its nature-tourism economy—has limits of tolerance, thresholds for the amount of disruption species can handle from humans.

“Whether the Muries, the Craigheads, or many others, Jackson Hole has played a nationally significant role over many decades with wilderness thought and action,” Aengst said. “So, while I’m not in the marketing business, I’d like to think that the town would want to encourage visitors to come and ‘stay wild’ in more than just an adrenaline thrills context.”

I had an excellent conversation with Kate Sollitt, who serves as executive director of the tourism board, about the promotion. The goal of “Stay Wild” is to differentiate Jackson Hole from Aspen and Vail by emphasizing its wild grittier edge.

She’s well aware of the low rumble building out there, growing steadily toward a roar, with people saying Greater Yellowstone doesn’t need a greater volume of visitors; it needs to have more conscientious souls drawn to wildness becoming more aware of the ecosystem’s specialness and fragility.

Sollitt doesn’t disagree. “Stay Wild,” she says, is merely the start of a campaign that the tourism board hopes will result in connecting visitors to conservation groups working to protect Greater Yellowstone.

The Jackson Hole Travel and Tourism Board already knows that summer tourism needs no more promotion. That’s why it has focused its marketing spends on bolstering the shoulder seasons of fall and spring.

In fact, the outdoor recreation confab known as SHIFT was originally hatched by the tourism board to bring more people here in autumn. Today, SHIFT bills itself as a springboard for social discussions on the intersection of outdoor recreation and conservation.

More and more people, however, are questioning whether SHIFT organizers understand how industrial-strength recreation and more people inundating the frontcountry and backcountry are affecting Greater Yellowstone’s wildlife and the character of its wild landscapes.

“Stay Wild” is certain to attract more people to Greater Yellowstone. It may also accomplish something else equally as important: fueling a better conversation about the value of real wildness.

If “Stay Wild” really does result in visitors becoming more committed to protecting Greater Yellowstone, it could be game changing, because at the moment most tourism marketers in the region treat conservation of wild country only as an afterthought.

Todd Wilkinson, founder of Mountain Journal (, is author of “Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek” about famous Greater Yellowstone grizzly bear 399 featuring 150 photographs by Tom Mangelsen, available only at His profile of Montana politician Max Baucus appears in the summer 2017 issue of Mountain Outlaw and is now on newsstands.

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