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How A Gutsy Newspaper Helped Save The Natural Essence Of Jackson Hole

Grand Teton National Park, as we know it today, might not exist were it nor for truth-demanding media

The Tetons from east of Jackson Lake.  Imagine if these flats, today teeming with wildlife and serving a visual sightline to the mountains, were instead covered with a residential subdivision or commercial development all the way almost to the water's edge. While today these lands are treasured as a vital part of Grand Teton National Park's character, some fought against landscape protection.  Photo by Todd Wilkinson
The Tetons from east of Jackson Lake. Imagine if these flats, today teeming with wildlife and serving a visual sightline to the mountains, were instead covered with a residential subdivision or commercial development all the way almost to the water's edge. While today these lands are treasured as a vital part of Grand Teton National Park's character, some fought against landscape protection. Photo by Todd Wilkinson
Wilford Neilson is a name and a man seemingly lost to history. 

Or at least he’s irrelevant to those who believe the past means nothing and who take for granted the fact that special places exist on maps only because visionaries risked everything to keep them that way. 

Besides being a onetime Teton County attorney, Neilson was publisher of a newspaper that, while long gone, played a vital role in laying the groundwork for what Jackson Hole is today—the masterpiece of setting that drives our desire to be and go there.

What do I mean?  Few viewsheds in the world convey the sense of unblemished natural pristinity as the Tetons do. 

But imagine a sprawl of residential subdivisions and golf courses fronting the eastern side of the Tetons, filling the landscape between Kelly and the Snake River where elk, bison, pronghorn, moose, grizzly bears and wolves now roam. 

Picture the old historic dude ranches converted into gated communities and playgrounds for the wealthy. Visualize motorboats cruising up and down the Snake between Moose and the dam. Think of thousands of cabins and condo units potentially encircling Jackson Lake and dispersed throughout the Bridger-Teton National Forest in upper reaches of the valley.

Today, as you drive north out of town past East Gros Ventre Butte and see the open expanses of Grand Teton National Park unfolding before you, pretend that instead the viewshed resembled a human anthill, the kind found along the front range of the Colorado Rockies or Wasatch.

It easily could have happened and almost did. The miracle of what transpired instead could never be repeated.

In the day, which is to say the 1920s, 30s and 40s when Neilson’s newspaper, the Jackson Hole Courier, was in operation, the fate of this remarkable, globally-iconic valley turned precariously on the same kind of forces now synonymous with the Trump Administration: truth and facts being made casualties; lies traded as accepted currency to advance political opportunism; a maniacal naive promotion of the “free market”; and rational-self-interest—short-term greed—prevailing over a longer-term common interest. 

For a stretch, Neilson and The Courier went into battle with a rival newspaper, The Grand Teton, supported by local citizens who vocally opposed creation of the national monument that would eventually morph into today’s Grand Teton Park. 

Neilson was persuaded that conserving the heart of Jackson Hole would not lead to economic catastrophe as some claimed. After he sided with John D. Rockefeller Jr's  quest to buy up private ranches and homesteads (note: from willing sellers) and donate it to the federal government to form the basis for an enlarged national park, an advertising boycott was organized against the paper in an attempt to kill it and silence him.

Locals opposed to the monument concocted all kinds of conspiracy theories. The Grand Teton published them as a true proud purveyor of fake news. The community became bitterly divided when agitators, unable to gaze into the future, tried to marginalize, malign and defame the efforts of conservationists. They organized a mock armed revolt and drove a herd of cattle through the national monument in protest.
Locals opposed to the monument concocted all kinds of conspiracy theories.The Grand Teton published them as a true proud purveyor of fake news. The community became bitterly divided when agitators, unable to gaze into the future, tried to marginalize, malign and defame the efforts of conservationists. 
They spewed anti-government rhetoric, decried land-use restrictions and displayed a kind of narrow-mindedness still present in our time.

The Courier did not succumb to the pressure; it served as an important public forum and, in one of its finest moments, published a lengthy essay penned by Rockefeller with help from National Park Service Director Horace Albright, dude rancher Struthers Burt, local biologist/conservationist Olaus Murie and others that made the case for safeguarding the majesty of Jackson Hole.

Stories from The Courier were circulated in Congress.

Had The Grand Teton existed as the only newspaper in this valley, enabling distortion and cockamamie assertions advanced by proto-Sagebrush Rebels to win the day, landscape protection, that is today the basis for a nature-tourism-based economy now worth hundreds of millions of dollars annually, would’ve never happened. 

I spoke with Dr. Robert Righter, author of Crucible For Conservation: The Struggle For Grand Teton National Park this week after learning that Planet Jackson Hole was sunsetting its operation. If you’ve not read Righter’s classic, you need to; it will give you heart palpitations and butterflies in contemplating the “what ifs” if things had gone the other way.

As I’ve written in columns past, I praise the late Cliff Hansen, one of the early protestors of the monument. Hansen, a rancher, was a county commissioner who went on to become Wyoming governor and U.S. senator. In his last decades, however, Hansen said he had been wrong to fight protection. 

However, there are others in the valley who remain bitter and spiteful, as if Jackson Hole is the worse off for having its unique natural character preserved in perpetuity. These same kind of arguments have been used by locals whenever new national monuments and wilderness areas have been created—and there is not a single example where they've harmed the economy or failed to yield other kinds of dividends.

Righter told me he has an aversion to how Jackson Hole has become a modern enclave for the uber-rich (who live in a different stratum from normal folks) and he notes the irony that a member of that social class, Rockefeller Jr., a moderate Republican businessperson, knew what had to be done.

Today, Jackson Hole proliferates with right-wing second homeowners who routinely castigate conservationists as extremists the same way that anti-monument locals did. 
Why they live in Jackson Hole, why they choose to consciously deny the importance of environmental protection, why they portray it as merely a plot invented by liberals, why they aren’t more generous in supporting on-the-ground conservation in an ecosystem that has no rival, is absurd. 
Why they live in Jackson Hole, why they choose to consciously deny the importance of environmental protection, why they portray it as merely a plot invented by liberals, why they aren’t more generous in supporting on-the-ground conservation in an ecosystem that has no rival, is absurd. 

Neilson didn’t write to win a popularity contest. “He was a really good journalist who dug in and found the truth. He made a big difference. He proved to be on the right side of history,” Righter said. “Had he failed, had his newspaper been absent, the essence of Jackson Hole, at least as we know it now, would have been destroyed.”

This is reportedly the last edition of Planet Jackson Hole, a paper founded by Judd and Mary Grossman. They launched it as an alternative to the Jackson Hole News&Guide (a paper for which I long wrote a column).

When John Saltas of Salt Lake City Weekly purchased it from them, he reset the tone of Wyoming’s only alternative newsweekly. In recent years, Planet Jackson Hole has explored social, environmental and political issues not always covered by the mainstream. The paper has indeed had a fascinating roller coaster run.

I have a hell of a lot of respect for PJH editor Robyn Vincent. She’s feisty, courageous, a champion of underdogs (of which, in Jackson Hole these days there are many in the form of people and wildlife), and she’s willing to tackle contentious issues, including holding politicians to account (as they should be).

Neilson would’ve liked her. There can be no doubt: the latest iteration of Planet Jackson Hole would have come down squarely on the side of conservation during the battle over the monument.  As would Mountain Journal. 

Like The CourierPlanet Jackson Hole is now going away, joining other casualties of print journalism and leaving the News&Guide and digital start-up Buckrail to report the news you need to know—hopefully relying on verifiable facts, which add up to the truth, so essential to the lifeblood of a community. 

May they be a check on unchecked power and challenge short-term thinking; may they understand there are many things in a town worth more than money; may they aspire to function as a conscience for what’s right against what’s wrong. May they always succeed by considering citizens of the future.

Todd Wilkinson
About Todd Wilkinson

Todd Wilkinson is an American author and journalist proudly trained in the old school tradition. For more on his career, click below. (Photo by David J Swift).
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