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The Wild West: How Do We Deal With Its Rapid Transformation?

Mountain Journal intern Jordan Payne gets a crash course on the New West and titanic forces shaping its future

In my academic studies at Whitman College, we look at the sweep of human history that has happened between the Mississippi River and the Pacific Coast, where I was raised. Many of my instructors ask us first to, as best we can, consider the long presence of indigenous peoples in North America, followed by the arrival of Europeans beginning 500 years ago, and then make sense of the era that some call “the Old West.”

Against this background, we are asked to ponder today’s amorphous “New West.”

When I arrived in Bozeman for the summer, my first assignment as an intern for Mountain Journal was attending a conference hosted by the non-profit organization Future West that brought together leading figures dealing with 21st-century issues. For me, it served as a great, nearly-overwhelming introduction to many of the concerns that will influence how my generation relates to the West over the course of our lives.

From discussions about population growth and water challenges being brought by climate change, to wildlife migrations, lessons learned from cities like Portland, Oregon, resort destinations like Lake Tahoe and perspectives brought by leaders with the Nez Perce and Piegan Nations, Future West founder Dennis Glick and his staff had a line-up that forced me consider the New West in ways I didn’t back on campus.

Here are some of the highlights:

Dr. David Theobald, a geographer at Colorado State University in Fort Collins and consultant with the firm, Conservation Science Partners, laid down the foundation by showing the increasing connectivity and footprint of humans in the west, while the species dependent on migration and high mobility are increasingly restricted to a limited range. 

Bozeman, depending on the source, is the first or second fastest-growing micropolitan area in the country. With a growth rate above three percent, Gallatin County will double in population in just 20 years. 

As the largest urban center in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, the growth of Bozeman, where roughly 50 percent of the growth is occurring within the county, can have serious consequences for the wildlife around us. A proponent of informed action, Dr. Theobald focused on elevating the level and quality of information the audience had access to. He also challenged the present growth and nature of outdoor recreation around the West and its effects on fragmentation. 

Lain Leoniak, who helped bring the city of Bozeman into the modern age in thinking about supply vs. rising demands, expanded the perspective with her work today as an attorney with the state of Colorado. 

Leoniak is involved in the contentious negotiations over allocation of water throughout the Colorado River Basin and tensions between headwater states like Colorado and Wyoming with California and Arizona. 

This year, heavy snows yielded relief to the basin in terms of precipitation but had the moisture not arrived there could have been conflict. Every human endeavor in the arid West, after all, including the capacity of communities to thrive or wither, and along with it, economies and natural ecosystems, relates to water, the most precious natural resource.
Sprawl as it appears along the Front Range north of Denver.  As yourself: why doesn't the abundance of wildlife found in Greater Yellowstone exist in many corners of the Colorado Rockies or Utah's Wasatch or the Sierra-Nevada. Should their models for confronting growth be emulated in the Northern Rockies or do we need to chart a different course—and what would that be?  Photo courtesy Ecoflight.
Sprawl as it appears along the Front Range north of Denver. As yourself: why doesn't the abundance of wildlife found in Greater Yellowstone exist in many corners of the Colorado Rockies or Utah's Wasatch or the Sierra-Nevada. Should their models for confronting growth be emulated in the Northern Rockies or do we need to chart a different course—and what would that be? Photo courtesy Ecoflight.
Bozeman’s growth is a concern of many, and most residents in Greater Yellowstone have heard the word “sprawl” and shuddered to imagine housing developments spreading into the hills and mountains. This phenomena has already happened along the Front Range of Colorado and the Wasatch in Utah.  Dr. Theobald highlighted the increasingly connected web of human communities which has led to fragmented habitats and incomplete ecosystems no longer capable of supporting sensitive species like grizzly bears or even wolverines.

 In order to preserve not only the scenic value of Greater Yellowstone, but the ecological function, clear delineation between urban areas, working landscapes, and wildlands is necessary. Animals need space, and lots of it. Dr. Aerin Jacob, a scientist with the Yellowstone to Yukon initiative. works to connect a natural corridor from the Red Desert of Wyoming all the way through Canada up to Alaska.

John Borrowman, mayor of Canmore, a small town outside of Banff National Park, which lies inside the Yellowstone to Yukon area, spoke of his town’s work to reconcile the needs of wildlife with those of Canmore residents. 

Canmore is surrounded by National and Provincial Parks and is physically limited by these boundaries. This restriction, alongside Canmore’s popularity and access to the Northern Rockies has led to a housing crisis, with dramatic population growth and skyrocketing housing costs. By building extensive affordable housing, removing incentives for bears and elk to enter town, and creating town that is economically, socially and environmentally sustainable, Canmore is confronting major “New West” issues that revolve around human compatibility with places that still possess their high natural values. The clean division between urban centers, rural areas, and natural lands is rarely dictated as firmly as in Canmore, where the parallels to Jackson Hole and Bozeman are striking, but Borrowman is concerned about sheer growing numbers of people overwhelming the natural amenities.

Dr. Robert Liberty from Portland State University has spent his life working to improve Oregon’s zoning laws and is nationally known for his big-picture thinking. The results of how Portlandia and the state of Oregon have dealt with sprawl is clear. And contrary to those who claim having clear urban-rural boundaries have stifled development, prosperity, job creation and lead to lack of affordability compared to Bozeman, Liberty said those notions aren’t true. He also noted that no matter how compact Bozeman makes it development or tries to focus density in the downtown core, it will not stop scattershot sprawl in the county. A coordinated planning and zoning blueprint is essential if the goal is protecting the open rural countryside which is not only important for traditional agriculture, but it is the only way that such things as wildlife corridors can be preserved.
Contrary to those who claim having clear urban-rural boundaries have stifled development, prosperity, job creation and lead to lack of affordability compared to Bozeman, Robert Liberty said those notions aren’t true. He also noted that no matter how compact Bozeman makes it development or tries to focus density in the downtown core, it will not stop scattershot sprawl in the county. A coordinated planning and zoning blueprint is essential if the goal is protecting the open rural countryside which is not only important for traditional agriculture, but it is the only way that such things as wildlife corridors can be preserved.
Oregon has achieved what Dr. Theobald hails as an imperative. Just outside Portland, Oregon’s largest city, for example, is a rich agricultural area in the Willamette Valley, an area set aside exclusively for ranching and agriculture. Oregonians decades ago went to the polls and passed a measure that resulted in its urban growth boundary and it applies to every town, large and small, in the state.

Farmers and ranchers are not permitted to build subdivisions in the agricultural zones, and as a result, there is not the kind of landscape fragmentation that exists across so much of America. Cities and towns are clearly contained, and sprawl is all but non-existent. Dr. Liberty was quick to concede that Oregon is not Montana, but much of what he has learned can be applied here, he said.

The largest zoning-related threat to Greater Yellowstone, and more specifically the Gallatin Valley, is low-density rural housing. If even 200 rural homes are built in the county, they could impact an area the size of Bozeman. One of the main criticisms directed at the city of Bozeman and Gallatin County has been the absence of a clear strategy for dealing with growth.

Cindy Riegel, county commissioner for Teton County, Idaho, spoke about becoming a bedroom community to Jackson Hole. She says there is a need to have a larger conversation about the blending of distinct urban centers, working lands, and wild spaces, not only as a conservation approach, but as a way to preserve the rich ranching tradition of the region.

Turning to her community and the towns of Victor and Driggs, Idaho, Ms. Riegel hopes to turn community input into legislation. Devin Middlebrook, another elected official and member of the Tahoe Basin Regional Planning Agency which has dealt with explosive growth coming from California, told of his similar experiences. Both Riegel and Middlebrook live and work in regions where second homes abound and focus on the needs of affordability for full-time residents is an important step towards consensus and community action. 

Legislation is not the only answer to conservation issues, and it is important to consider other ideas and opportunities. Loren Bird Rattler, a program manager for the Blackfeet Nation Agricultural Resource Management Plan Team, discussed how we need to consider ourselves as part of the ecosystem, Josiah Black Eagle Pinkham, an ethnographer and storyteller from the Nez Perce Nation, explained through history and allegorical stories that we rely wholly on the natural world to provide us with food and shelter, and we should treat it with the respect that it deserves. They also spoke bluntly about the need for diverse perspectives and of the destructive centuries'-old colonial thinking of only seeking to monetize assets in nature. Fragmentation is not only occurring physically on the landscape, but it is evident in the disjointed way that those of European ancestry have approached a larger and more whole relationship with the earth. 
Pinkham and Bird Rattler spoke bluntly about the need for more diverse perspectives and of the destructive centuries'-old colonial thinking of only seeking to monetize assets in nature. Fragmentation is not only occurring physically on the landscape, they noted, but it is evident in the disjointed way that those of European ancestry approach the larger and more whole relationship with the earth. 
Mr. Pinkham brought us into his cultural identity through storytelling. Long ago, the story goes, the animal people heard of the coming of an animal that would not have the means to take care of himself. He would have neither the fur to keep warm, nor would he have the strength or skills to feed himself. The animal people decided it was their duty to help this new animal, and so some provided nourishment, some showed how to make shelter, some shared the knowledge of how to forage, and some provided skins and furs to keep it warm and dry. When this animal came, when we came, the animals sacrificed themselves in order to take care of us, and as such, we must treat them with immense respect and gratitude. 

Diversity, he pointed out, does not just involve bringing a broader array of humans into conversations but giving a voice to wildlife whose needs for survival can make people smarter about how they interrelate with the landscape around them.

Denny Iverson, a rancher and board member of the acclaimed Blackfoot Challenge collaborative effort near Lincoln, Montana, called for a coalescence of broader thinkers, too. (NOTE: the “Blackfoot Challenge” is not related to those involved with the Blackfeet Nation; it refers instead to the corridor of the Blackfoot River). Mr. Iverson is a second-generation rancher in the Blackfoot basin who initially saw ranching as a career that he would leave. But as his children grew up with the Blackfoot as home, he realized he couldn’t leave this place. 

Ranching became a way of life for his children, and so he turned to The Blackfoot Challenge, a community conservation initiative led by landowners along the Blackfoot to create a balance with the rugged wildlife and landscape around them. This sense of place and the work that he does turned into what he calls a land ethic, a way of living that changes the cultural perspective on how we and our children interact with the land around us. Because, as Dr. Theobald and Dr. Jacob were so quick to admit, the problems facing nature and the solutions to them are not something technological, rather they are cultural.
Theobald and Jacob were quick to admit, the problems facing nature and the solutions to them are not something technological, rather they are cultural.
Pinkham and the Nez Perce aim to perpetuate the time-tested relationship with the land and ensure the survival of the entire biotic community. The idea of maintaining a sensitive relationship with the land and holding the survival of nature above one’s own is imperative to protecting and restoring the beautiful places that give us life, and an understanding of that in one way or another, from Bird Rattler’s proposal of sustainable ranching and economic growth for the Blackfeet to Canmore’s progress towards sustainability, is central to any real environmental work. 

Mountain Journal’s own Todd Wilkinson, who moderated the Q&A panels for the conference, asked of each of the dozen presenters to share one bold actionable item to wrap up the day. Here is a compilation of the instructions they suggested. I think they are recommendations for those of my generation to heed:

° ° ° ° You do not need to have an answer to want change, instead realize you are the person who has to start the conversation. 

° ° ° ° Leave behind elitism and whiteness that plague environmentalism, and rather than just invite native voices, working voices, and minority voices, seek them out. 

° ° ° ° Turn your passion into an informal advocacy group and gather your friends and fellow concerned community members to make change. 
Rethink the givens.

° ° ° ° Run for office. Get someone elected. 

° ° ° ° Educate yourself. Embrace the humble notion you can learn something. Educate those around you. 

There are many more bits of helpful insight. At the end of the day, real change starts from the bottom up, in your home and your community but all Americans have an interest in the future of the public land West.

As Future West declares on their site, “Change is inevitable. It can happen by default, or by design. What is your vision for the future of our communities, rural landscapes, and wildlands?” Dennis Glick asked.

As each and every panelist expounded, real work is dependent upon what you do once you have an idea. Collaboration and community engagement are not only beneficial, but looking to the success of the panelists, they are best way to effect change. Still, that does not mean hard difficult decisions can be avoided, nor should they. 

With a resource like water, which serves as a metaphor for everything we do, you can't pretend there is more when a river runs dry. 
Jordan Payne
About Jordan Payne

Jordan Payne is Mountain Journal's 2019 summer intern. A native of the West Coast, he is a student at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington. 
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