Editor’s Note: The following is a guest post written by Luther Propst and Dennis Glick. It first appeared in Mountain Journal.
The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem spans some 3,500 square miles, encompassing national parks, national forests, and wildlife refuges. It’s one of the largest, mostly intact temperate ecosystems remaining on the planet. While Yellowstone National Park and national forest lands constitute its core, by no means does the ecosystem stop at its boundaries. Rather, it reaches across tribal land, huge private ranches and valleys chock full of rural sprawl, second home subdivisions, and some 83 towns and small cities that house a half-million people.
For decades conservation advocates, public land managers, and local leaders have fought to keep the most damaging impacts of extractive industries at bay, with a fair amount of success. But today’s threats—including rural subdivisions, fast-growing towns, and unprecedented levels of recreation and tourism—are proving to be every bit as threatening to the ecosystem and its communities as what Charles Wilkinson labeled the “Lords of Yesteryear.”
Getting a handle on this newer generation of impacts requires a new approach for managing regional growth and an unprecedented level of collaboration and innovation of the kind that, like the ecosystem itself, reaches across local, state, and federal agencies and boundaries.
The Yellowstone region was hit hard by COVID-19 and associated lockdowns. The national parks closed their gates and experienced little visitation for several months. In Teton County, Wyoming, sales tax revenues—an indicator of the health of the tourism industry—plummeted 23 percent from the previous spring. Even Jackson Hole’s notoriously overheated real estate market ebbed—for a moment.
Then our collective consciousness determined that the danger was over, the lockdowns should be lifted, and the human hordes could go back to “normal.” Since then, visitation records at Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks fall with each passing month.
Even before the pandemic, Greater Yellowstone’s population was exploding, adding 125,000 people in the last two decades. “COVID refugees” and Zoom Boomers are only hastening the rate of growth.
Most infamously, the real estate market has rebounded and then some, hitting an all-time high for sales volume and pushing the median home price out of reach for even the highest paid local workers. No longer can they drive over the pass or down the valley to affordability, either: Teton County, Idaho’s, median home price shot up to more than a half-million bucks and it’s even worse in Bozeman, Montana.
In short, the challenges we were facing before the pandemic—wildlife habitat fragmentation and loss of winter range, declining water quality, disappearance of affordable housing, longer commutes, more wildlife-vehicle collisions, growing income inequality, increased impact of recreation on the backcountry, a growing disconnect between the sheer number of visitors and the facilities to serve them—are rapidly getting worse.
The result is an unprecedented and rapid decline in both wildlife habitat—the region’s defining asset—and the quality of life in Greater Yellowstone communities.
There was a time when it was possible to beat back the threats to the ecosystem by lobbying Washington and the public land management agencies to stop the mine, the timber operation, the overgrazing. That approach is now behind us.
Change in Greater Yellowstone communities is inevitable and desirable. Yet that change does not have to mean losing the very qualities that make the region attractive.
Just as these challenges reach across county, state, and agency lines, so too must the solutions. This is an ecosystem, after all, in which everything is connected, both in the natural and human-built world. Jackson is as intimately connected to Driggs, and Gardiner to Livingston, as the grizzlies are to the whitebark pine.
Therefore, advocates for conservation and community throughout the three-state region must collaborate to address the problems caused by a lack of this sort of integrative planning in the passed. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel—not quite. Rather, we can model our effort after the bi-state, multi-jurisdictional Tahoe Regional Planning Agency and build upon it.
We envision a new era of conservation and community planning in the Greater Yellowstone in which plans for public lands are developed in concert with local comprehensive plans. Those would be integrated with cross-county, tri-state water quality, transit, and workforce housing plans. More importantly, we envision putting in place meaningful measures—such as conservation easement programs or increased enforcement of environmental regulations—to protect and restore water quality and wildlife habitat. It is equally important to build diverse and attractive communities where visitation rates are in balance with carrying capacity, where growth is managed or even limited, and where people can actually live in the place where they work.
Only with a wide-ranging, ecosystem-wide, collaborative effort can we preserve what we value about the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. It’s time to act and to do so as one regional community and as a single ecosystem.
Luther Propst founded and ran the Sonoran Institute, chairs the board of the Outdoor Alliance, and got elected in 2018 to the Teton County, Wyoming board of county commissioners. He lives in Jackson, Wyoming.
Dennis Glick is the Director of the non-profit Future West and has been deeply involved in Greater Yellowstone conservation and growth management issues for over 30 years.