MOUNTAIN JOURNAL 5-6-19 Development On Private Land in Jackson

May 6, 2019

Original story: https://mountainjournal.org/growth-is-pushing-parts-of-jackson-hole-to-burst-at-its-seams

 

Is Development On Private Land in Jackson Hole Causing The Community To Burst At Its Seams?

 

Award-winning writer Susan Marsh, a former Forest Service naturalist and wildlands manager, expresses worry that is on the minds of many in her famous valley

 

 

The town of Jackson, hub of Teton County, Wyoming and a busy hive of human activity, may look quaint from the sky.  However, the tentacles of its tourist-driven economy extend in every direction. Even though 97 percent of Teton County is comprised of public land, intense development pressure on private land has exerted direct impacts on wildlife and community character. A more insidious force is outdoor recreation putting more intense pressure on public lands. While the consequences of that have left many in denial, there is rising social angst over whether the wild essence of the valley can survive, observers say.  Photo courtesy EcoFlight (http://ecoflight.org)
The town of Jackson, hub of Teton County, Wyoming and a busy hive of human activity, may look quaint from the sky. However, the tentacles of its tourist-driven economy extend in every direction. Even though 97 percent of Teton County is comprised of public land, intense development pressure on private land has exerted direct impacts on wildlife and community character. A more insidious force is outdoor recreation putting more intense pressure on public lands. While the consequences of that have left many in denial, there is rising social angst over whether the wild essence of the valley can survive, observers say. Photo courtesy EcoFlight (http://ecoflight.org)

Teton County, Wyoming is one of many in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem struggling with conservation of wildlife, clean water and native plant communities in the face of burgeoning human occupation. Until recently we might be forgiven for considering this valley buffered from the kind of sprawl one sees around Bozeman, Montana on the north side of this bioregion because only 3 percent of this county is privately owned.

But public land is not guaranteed, as western lawmakers seek ever more clever and devious ways to usurp it. In the meanwhile, this region remains among the last strongholds in the Lower 48 for the wild world we claim to revere.

But for how long?

Federal land-use policies change with elections and are greatly influenced by the secretaries of agriculture and interior. We think acts of Congress like the Endangered Species, Wilderness, and Clean Water acts protect everything from our wildlands to the water we take for granted when we turn on the tap at home, but we see these landmark laws under constant attack. They have given the endangered a few decades of breathing room, but I find no assurances about the future.
While public land is dominant in Teton County, it’s also true that the small percentage of private land is not to be discounted for its importance for wildlife habitat and movement across the landscape. A prime example is the Snake River between Grand Teton National Park and the south end of the valley. Beyond the river lies a riparian forest, important as a corridor for wildlife migration and nesting habitat for birds, from warblers to eagles.
Teton County’s stated mission is to “preserve and protect the area’s ecosystem in order to ensure a healthy environment, community, and economy for current and future generations.” The county admits that existing development patterns have been problematic, for anyone who can afford to wants to locate in one of the exclusive subdivisions in the county, removed from the noise and congestion of town. Who can blame them?
The Jackson Hole News and Guide publishes an annual magazine called Headwaters: Conservation in Greater Yellowstone. Jackson economist and town council member Jonathan Schechter publishes the annual Mosaic: The State of the Tetons Ecosystem. The articles and commentary found in the 2018 editions of both magazines, along with the publications noted above, bear a remarkable similarity. We seem to know pretty well what the problems are and many experts are available to suggest ways to confront them.
It might look like wild Shangri-la to newcomers from Los Angeles, Houston or New York City, but imagine being a moose or elk having to navigate the deepening gauntlet below. The National Elk Refuge exists because poorly planned development usurped wapiti of winter range and migration corridors more than a century ago. Ecologists say that development and human activity either results in extirpation of wildlife or it leaves creatures becoming "half-wild" meaning they lose their instincts and are no more wild than a white-tailed deer on a golf course. Jackson Hole markets itself as being a last bastion for wildness but can an expanding human footprint and wild animals really co-exist?  Photo courtesy EcoFlight and Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance
It might look like wild Shangri-la to newcomers from Los Angeles, Houston or New York City, but imagine being a moose or elk having to navigate the deepening gauntlet below. The National Elk Refuge exists because poorly planned development usurped wapiti of winter range and migration corridors more than a century ago. Ecologists say that development and human activity either results in extirpation of wildlife or it leaves creatures becoming "half-wild" meaning they lose their instincts and are no more wild than a white-tailed deer on a golf course. Jackson Hole markets itself as being a last bastion for wildness but can an expanding human footprint and wild animals really co-exist? Photo courtesy EcoFlight and Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance

 

The national forests where I worked in Greater Yellowstone—the Bridger-Teton and Custer-Gallatin— were far enough below any numbers-based carrying capacity that we could largely rely on asking people to practice no-trace camping. The number of rules were, and are, minimal—limits on party size, setbacks from water, and in a few cases a ban on campfires at high elevations where fuel is scarce.

We still get by with these rules, but that could soon change. In wildland areas near large cities, the only way to maintain some semblance of a backcountry experience and environment is to limit numbers.

I guess that number, depending on how the people are distributed, is the carrying capacity until we no longer mind jostling for a tent site and don’t care if the lake shore is a ring of bare, compacted ground.The same seems to go for our communities. We can and do pack more people in, but how much crowding and noise is too much? The main question to me is not whether we care, for it’s obvious that many of us do. But what can we do about it?

We have many publications and reports at our fingertips that offer good summaries of specific problems and steps needed to address them. And important steps are being taken to hang onto what is precious and irreplaceable in our environment. But not everyone has the same definition of precious. Property in Teton County is increasingly seen as an investment or a place to live in luxury. Voluntary low-impact lifestyles are few and the people who live them are seen as Luddites or cranks.

The Jackosn Hole Conservation Alliance’s State of Wildlifereport focuses on a few species that represent habitats of great concern: greater sage grouse for sagebrush/bunchgrass steppe, northern goshawk for the mature forests. How many people in the community have seen the grouse strutting or a goshawk maneuvering with lightning speed through dense branches? If they have no clue about these species and what they depend on, they are unlikely to care about them.
What percentage of the growing population of Jackson Hole knows that we have a designated wilderness in our back yard, or even what wilderness means, other than a place where “I can’t ride my bike”?

Our county presses on, doing its best to balance the needs of wildlife with human growth. It has worked with the highway department to place safe wildlife crossings under some roads, and sponsors with non-profits a system of conservation easements that have resulted in the protection of close to 24,000 acres, many of which are adjacent or in proximity to the Snake River and its historic floodplain.

The Teton Conservation District has initiated a volunteer trout-friendly lawns program which helps landowners maintain their grounds without sending harmful runoff into streams.
And I must also mention the county’s land development regulations. We have specific standards for wildlife-friendly fencing and the maximum size of buildings allowed in the rural-zoned parts of the county. Or, we did.

During the most recent session of the Wyoming state legislature, representatives from distant counties decided to tell Teton County what it can’t require to protect its precious wildlife resource. This includes the above-mentioned direction on wildlife friendly fencing and retention of the rural character of areas zoned so through limits on structure size.

We deal with so many hurdles to finding the balance between growth and preservation it’s easy to become jaded and discouraged. You never know when progress will be thwarted through legislative meddling, the purchase of a large and habitat-rich property by an entity bent on altering it completely (and most often legally), or the overwhelming in-migration of more people who want to live in the region for the same reasons most of us live here already. Again, who can blame them? But how can we welcome more while preserving what most of us love?

Each of us has to answer in our own way. I try to do everything I can think of, making lifestyle choices and engaging with my elected officials. But I don’t want to lecture or tell anyone else what to do, which is why I feel I must end this essay with a question. One thing’s for sure, we’ll be challenged more as time passes, and I hope we are up to it.

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