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The New West: What kind of future are we now creating in Greater Yellowstone?

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CREDIT: David J Swift

By Todd Wilkinson EBS Environmental Columnist

Community transformation: what does it mean, what does it look like, how did it happen?

When I made my first visit to Jackson Hole in the early 1980s, and then after I moved there mid-decade, the valley was a very different “place.”

The kind of non-hustling quietude, so rare and fleeting today, was still abundant.

A trophy home costing seven figures to build was so anomalous that everyone in town talked about it. There was no affordable housing crisis or gated subdivisions with security guards. The runway at Jackson Hole Airport was shorter and the planes landing smaller. Strutting sage grouse outnumbered the count of landing Learjets.

Teton Village was rustic and quaint, kind of like Big Sky used to be too, a far cry from its current pretentious persona. Teton Pines, the subdivision designed around a signature golf course, had yet to be created.

There were no massive real estate plays happening on the other side of Teton Pass in Idaho. Mardy Murie, “the grandmother of modern American wildlands conservation,” still entertained folks over cookies and tea in Moose. The Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance, at least the early manifestation of it, was still feisty, having just successfully rallied citizens to fight off potential oil and gas development proposed for Cache Creek east of town.

Back then, there were no mountain bikes—not like they are today, nor the swelling tidal wave of users—no major wildlife safari companies, and except for dude ranch horse rides, guided climbing, hunts and fishing, river floats and skiing, there was none of today’s ultra-manic, opportunistic fervor to monetize as much of nature as possible.

Because of the heart-palpitating way the Tetons rise, Jackson Hole has always stirred high-adrenalin energy in people, though the vibe wasn’t so amped up as it is now. All these years, while locals vowed they never wanted their community to become “the Aspen of Greater Yellowstone,” that’s exactly what happened. And many Jackson friends I knew and relished have cashed out and fled, some moving to Bozeman.

Occasionally, I still come across notes from interviews I did with vaunted old-timers such as Cliff Hansen—a U.S. senator, governor and local county commissioner who fought against the protection of Jackson Hole as a national monument, claiming it would devastate the local economy. It formed the basis for creation of modern Grand Teton National Park. Later in his life, Hansen said he had been wrong to oppose to federal landscape protection.

I also interviewed Louise Bertschy, matriarch of the Turner clan who owned the Triangle X Dude Ranch located inside Grand Teton. The family, in a willing seller, willing buyer agreement, sold the ranch to the federal government and today they run it as concessioners. Bertschy is the mother of John F. Turner, a former national director for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and hunting outfitter-guide Harold Turner whose animosity toward wolves, environmentalists and the federal government for restoring them is no secret.

I spent time with John Clymer, a noted artist who, second only to Norman Rockwell, notched the most covers of the Saturday Evening Post. And I visited with the Hardeman Brothers (when they still ran cattle in the meadows outside of Wilson), and Mary Mead (daughter of Cliff and Martha Hansen, mother of current Wyoming Governor Matt Mead, who made a gubernatorial run herself, and who died tragically in a horseback riding accident.)

I also met legendary fly-fishing guide Boots Allen, Stippy Wolff, Weezy MacLeod (sister to Mardy Murie), newspaperwoman Virginia Huidekoper (who piloted a plane and documented Bill Briggs first-ever descent of the Grand Teton on skis), Jackson Hole Mountain Resort founder Paul McCollister, Bob Dornan, Ted Major who founded the Teton Science School, Inger Koedt, Doris Platts and others. That’s one of the dividends of being a young inquisitive journalist. You meet a lot of people.

If you don’t know of these people, then much of the above, related to the narrative of community change, probably holds no traction.

In the late 1980s, if you owned property in Jackson Hole before the boom, or worked as an enterprising land broker, you couldn’t believe how fast real estate prices skyrocketed. It used to be that ranchers were the only ones who were land rich-cash poor; suddenly nearly every member of Jackson Hole’s working class lucky enough to own their own home fell into that category.

If you cash out, you would only be able to buy half a house if you stayed and the thought of leaving the Tetons isn’t an easy one for many.

I write this knowing that the stories of how communities change are complicated and never wholly linear. And the same storm of transformation blowing through Jackson Hole and spilling over the Tetons into Idaho and down the Hoback, and even in the direction of Dubois, is sweeping across the Gallatin Valley and Bozeman.

As some human values shifted, something remarkable has happened on public lands. In many ways, if you consider the reintroduction of wolves and the recovery of both grizzly bears and mountain lions, they became wilder.

Those who hated predators still curse them and the lobo and bear conservation advocates, the same way indigenous people reviled the first settlers. Yet those who scream that things were “better” when cattle grazing was allowed to predominate other uses in Grand Teton National Park cannot deny the appeal that wild nature has in the 21st century.

As numbers of hunters declines nationally, far more people are willing to shell out good money to see grizzlies alive and hear a wolf pack howl. Like it or not, savor the “new” Jackson Hole or the era of old timers, but it’s a fact.

And, with changing attitudes and values comes new challenges. Everybody wants a piece of this place, and many now look out upon the landscape not as a fine place to grow a beef cow or turn a tree into merchantable lumber but how to recreate, which is its own kind of consumptive, industrial-strength natural resource use.

It is an economic driver but it’s also the backbone of why we choose to live here and not in Paducah. For those who want to live close to wild nature, it can be an economic struggle and one of the questions we need to ask is: Why should only rich white people—who represent proportionately a minority segment of the U.S. population—get to savor the dividends of conservation?

It’s a trend that is growing and yet it’s the affluent, too, who through their habits of material consumption and focus on living lives of perpetual play are fraying the very wildness they claim to love through their own desires to use it as a outdoor gymnasium.

Lacking is any reflection on what accelerating user numbers means for the very wildness that sets Greater Yellowstone and Jackson Hole apart. It’s been a topic conspicuously absent at the Jackson Hole SHIFT conferences where the emphasis is predominantly focused on use and not examining the habitat needs of sensitive wildlife in Greater Yellowstone.

I wonder: if SHIFT—which started with funding from the local Jackson Hole tourism board to promote shoulder season commerce—isn’t really discussing wildlife conservation in Greater Yellowstone, then how can it really claim to be a leader in exploring “the intersection between recreation and conservation.” It’s critics say it’s more about recreation and less about conservation.

Similarly, in a few weeks the Greater Yellowstone Coalition will be hosting a conference on recreation at Montana State University, yet the lineup of experts is sparse when it comes to seriously examining what the impacts of expanding recreation will have on wildlife and solace of our region.

Fifty years from now the people who come to Greater Yellowstone will revere us not for how many new trails we built or peaks we bagged or waterways in Yellowstone we forced open to boating, but by our own ethic of self-restraint.

Yes, we can “have it all,” we can “take” what we believe is “ours,” commodify it, use it up, and conquer to suit our own egos. Or we can choose to leave country untamed and ungentrified for those who follow to enjoy.

The shift we need is one that transitions away from being focused only on sating individual desires and venerating self-interest, to contemplating what’s good, too, for those who come after us or live beneath us. That, after all, is the essence of communities where mindful people want to be.

Todd Wilkinson is the founder of Mountain Journal ( where you can read his latest story about climate change. He is author of “Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek” about famous Greater Yellowstone grizzly bear 399 featuring 150 photographs by Tom Mangelsen, available only at His feature on the delisting of Greater Yellowstone grizzlies appears in the winter 2018 issue of Mountain Outlaw and is now on newsstands.

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