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Can Sprawl Be Tamed To Protect Wildlife And Ag Lands? Liberty Says Yes, But....
April 15, 2021
Can Sprawl Be Tamed To Protect Wildlife And Ag Lands? Liberty Says Yes, But....
In part 2 of MoJo's interview with national planning guru Robert Liberty, we discuss urban growth boundaries. How might they work in Greater Yellowstone?
Eventually, exurban sprawl always wins out. For this small band of elk in the Gallatin Valley within the fastest-growing county in Montana, there's little time to play. Photo courtesy Holly Pippel
by Todd Wilkinson
Among conservation biologists, their point is one that bears repeating over and over again for people who either are unaware or may not realize the extraordinary times we are living through. The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, because of its full complement of large mammals found here—in populations that still readily move across the landscape seasonally—has been dubbed “America’s Serengeti" and it's not a marketing slogan, they say.
Nowhere else in the Lower 48 does a comparison to the world’s other great iconic bioregion, in southeastern Arica, exist.
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But here’s the reality: along with a human footprint that already was established over the last century, posing problems for wildlife migration, the tendrils of development today are expanding ever faster.
Growth and its spillover effects emanating from places like Bozeman/Gallatin County at the northern end of Greater Yellowstone, and Jackson Hole/Teton County in the ecosystem's southern half, are forces that many people have difficulty wrapping their minds around.
Brent Brock, a conservation biologist with the Wildlife Conservation Society and using data compiled by Headwaters Economics, told Mountain Journal in a recent chat that 62,000 acres of land, in just four counties encompassing Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks, were converted to residential and commercial development between 2000 and 2010.
The two iconic national parks mentioned above reside at the geographic center of Greater Yellowstone and the figure of land development, Brock says, doesn’t include rippling impacts it has on adjacent private and public lands. Those counties are just four among 20 that comprise Greater Yellowstone in three states. Many elected officials in those counties are averse to forms of planning and zoning to safeguard not only wildlife but agrarian traditions—farming and ranching—that defines the way many denizens think about land.
"From a wildlife perspective, what I'm concerned about most is what's happening to ranches, animal winter range and connectivity," Brock said. "And what's also not considered is just the impact of more people bringing more traffic onto and between public lands. That figure was between 2000 and 2010, with a Great Recession folded in there. Since then, development has increased and that doesn't even include statistics related to Covid-19 and inward movement of people to buy and build on rural property."
62,000 acres of land, in just four counties encompassing Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks, were converted to residential and commercial development between 2000 and 2010. Many of those acres now have structures, driveways, fences, yard lights, horses, barking dogs, and a lot more permanent human activity. On top of what was there before, they were not added as a contiguous mass of private land subdivision but often manifested in a scattershot fashion.
This is where Robert Liberty comes in. Communities and counties that have no plans for confronting inundation of development often have lost the essence of place and its record is written across the Rocky Mountain West, he says. Liberty is a nationally-respected expert on planning who himself has sought to find the elusive holy grail—the perfect nexus between urban livability and a healthy connection to nature on the fringes of growing metropolitan areas.
Greater Yellowstone stands apart by itself as it doesn't fit the profile of typical planning problems involving densities, real estate values, disappearing agrarian land (and farmers and ranchers), expanding exurban sprawl and rising costs to bring services such as law enforcement and fire protection, road maintenance, water and sewer to far-flung residential neighborhoods and even school bus routes.
Nowhere else is more at stake, in terms of a remnant of wildlife that used to roam widely in the West, than in Greater Yellowstone. Below is part two of an ongoing Mountain Journal conversation with Liberty that has become even more timely as real estate sales and development fueled by people moving to Greater Yellowstone in covid times has elevated public concern about growth to a level it’s never been before.
Just east of Bozeman, a traditional farmstead is enveloped by creeping residential and commercial dveleopment. Any boundary between "urban" and "rural" is haphazardly arranged with no organization. Worse, yes pockets of "open space" exist but over time they hold less and less value for wildlife, save for "weedy" white-tailed deer that can thrive almost anywhere while elk, mule deer and moose cannot. Photo by Todd Wilkinson
Part 2 of Interview With Robert Liberty
TODD WILKINSON: As an observer who has studied and prognosticated upon the patterns of booming development before, some have likened you to a weather forecaster who is able to see the atmospheric factors that lead to a storm front coming in. How urgent would you describe the need for planning in Greater Yellowstone’s highest growth counties?
ROBERT LIBERTY: Based on what I’ve seen and the trendlines that have accelerated with more people coming as a result of covid, I would say very. Growth was already a serious issue before the pandemic.
TW: Our last conversation, more or less, focused on the failure of states and counties in the Northern Rockies to adequately protect the world-class wildlife diversity still found here. What you said resonated strongly with readers far and wide throughout the interior West. Several folks wanted to know if there is any place that has successfully stopped exurban sprawl.
LIBERTY: Yes, and we were discussing what has happened for the last 50 years in Oregon.
TW: First, though, let’s recap how the last interview concluded. I asked if you believe that a region can really “have it all”—human population growth, rapidly expanding development and maintain a healthy, biodiversity-rich environment? That’s the unchallenged premise that is always claimed by developers yet they can cite no example where a region like this where wildlife survived rapidly growing human population pressure. People want to know is there a reason to have hope?
LIBERTY: I said theoretically, yes, but that we need to first redefine “economic development” so that it doesn’t merely mean prosperity based on consumption of finite nature. I noted that we are seeing redefinition happen within the social justice movement and regenerative economy thinkers, as in agriculture, but not with protection of biodiversity, at least on the scale of landscape intactness that still is present here.
"I would say Oregon does not have a special story or success to boast about with wildlife, as Greater Yellowstone does, except insofar as we have curbed most rural sprawl, which is your major challenge." —Robert Liberty
TW: You are recognized as a thought leader in talking about Oregon’s urban growth boundary which essentially creates a hard line between urban development and let’s just call it “countryside” which, in many parts of the West, functions like a transition zone to public lands.
In Oregon, is it true that the implementation of urban growth boundaries statewide has largely meant that ticky-tacky, unsightly leapfrog sprawl, which also is more expensive for taxpayers to service, does not occur there? If true, how did it happen.
LIBERTY: Oregon’s SenateBill 100, passed in 1973 with support from both Republicans and Democrats, mandated the adoption of new land use plans and regulations conforming to the state goals, including drawing urban growth boundaries around every city, regardless of size, and the protection of farm, ranch and rangelands outside the urban growth boundaries.
TW: What you just said is important. It’s worth repeating: Every city and county in Oregon adopted land use plans and regulations. And every community has an urban growth boundary. Among the beneficiaries are farming and ranching culture. The reason I’m highlighting it is because stopping exurban sprawl and protecting working ag lands and undeveloped rural tracts is the paramount issue facing high growth communities in Greater Yellowstone and other mountain valleys. What was the impetus?
LIBERTY: Oregonians wanted to preserve the ways of life of rural people and the character of non-urban lands, just as citizens in a different effort led by a Republican governor came together and sought to protect the Pacific coastline and guarantee access to 99 percent of the beachfront, which people consider a proud accomplishment.
Every city and town in Oregon has an urban growth boundary that emphasizes development inside it and protection of farmland, forestland, open space and rangeland around it. It is part of the culture of living in Oregon.
TW: How did the policy of urban growth boundaries in Oregon go into effect?
LIBERTY: Senate Bill100 and the implementing goals and rules are based on some very simple ideas: Making and keeping a clear distinction between urban areas and rural areas; allowing and encouraging more efficient use of land needed for urban development while protecting farmlands, ranchlands, forestlands and natural resources outside urban areas.
TW: How does that work within the context of halting or at least slowing exurban sprawl? You noted in the last interview that you are not impressed with how development has been handled in Gallatin County, where Bozeman is located, over the last several decades.
LIBERTY: Urban development takes place only inside of urban growth boundaries. Every city, regardless of size, has an urban growth boundary, including towns with populations of less than 50 people. Adjoining cities share a common urban growth boundary. The 24 cities and parts of three counties in the Portland area, for instance, share a metropolitan urban growth boundary.
TW: From the perspective of development, what is supposed to happen inside the urban growth boundary?
LIBERTY: Inside urban growth boundaries development is supported, facilitated and promoted and must be compact, contiguous and efficient. Development inside urban growth boundaries is less costly to service by taxpayers, too. Urban development does include the creation of parks and the protection of some natural areas inside the boundaries, same as they exist in cities across the country. Outside urban growth boundaries in Oregon the land remains available, again, for farming, ranching, forestry and natural resources and ecological services.
TW: In Greater Yellowstone, those kinds of lands are vital for maintaining healthy wildlife passage for animals that move across both public and private land. So, as you say, population growth in Oregon is accommodated inside urban growth boundaries with an emphasis on promoting density but that’s somewhat different from merely talking about “infill.” Could you elaborate?
LIBERTY: Only a few people know about the densification part of the urban growth boundary story in Oregon, and its legacy is very impressive. In the United States residential zoning has been used for nearly a century to separate different types of housing— large-lot single family housing into one zone, small-lot housing in another zone, apartments in yet other zones and manufactured housing located in flood plains, near train tracks, etc. In most American cities the overwhelming share of lands zoned for residences is for single family homes which occupy a lot of land mass.
TW: What was behind the thinking historically?
LIBERTY: The effect, and the intent, was to separate people by income and thereby pretty effectively by race as well. It is common for cities, especially suburbs, to completely prohibit lower-cost types of rental housing. This type of zoning is called “exclusionary zoning” because it was intended to exclude whole categories of people. As you can imagine, in addition to its social effects, it also has very serious environmental impacts. Exclusionary zoning is a primary driver of sprawl …and driving—commuting— itself.
TW: How did Oregon deal with exclusionary zoning?
LIBERTY: Oregon’s land use program outlawed exclusionary zoning in the late 1970s, at least as practiced at the level of an entire city. Every city had to zone land for the full range of housing – including manufactured housing and multifamily apartments. It also prohibited cities from using zoning to block subsidized housing.
TW: And the results?
LIBERTY: The results were pretty striking. A lot more types of housing were built, especially in the suburbs. The average minimum lot size in single family zones across the entire Portland metro area dropped from more than 12,000 square feet per lot to a bit more than 5,000 square feet and the amount of land zoned for apartments tripled, in four years.
TW: In Bozeman, elected officials and planners have promoted accessory dwelling units such as homeowners being allowed to build rentals on top of garages based on the argument that packing more people into the city would de-accelerate sprawl in the county. But it hasn’t worked because of Gallatin County’s very weak planning and zoning regulations that have encouraged sprawl. Still, how did seeking higher density play out in Oregon?
LIBERTY: First, I have to chide you for describing adding small apartments on single family lots means “packing in more people.” American cities are much less dense now than they were 100 years ago. Now, back to your question: in 2017 the Oregon legislature legalized accessory dwelling units on single family zones in most cities in the state and in 2019 the Oregon legislature passed legislation effectively ending single family zoning for all cities over 10,000 people. For cities over 25,000, duplexes, triplexes and four-plexes must be allowed on lots in single family zones plus townhomes, etc.
It's important to note that many counties in the interior rural West have been resistant to this kind of planning and zoning, and in many high-growth counties lack of planning has resulted in sprawling messes of poorly planned development as well as soaring cost of services which typically means higher taxes on all.
LIBERTY: I am simplifying a bit, but in general, in Oregon, outside urban growth boundaries in farm and forest zones there is no general entitlement to have a house no matter how much land you have. You can have a house if you can show you are in the business of farming— a business, not a hobby. In forest zones you must own 160 or 320 acres, or you can build a house in one of the areas already somewhat fragmented by large residential lots. This is far too liberal in my opinion since the research shows there is a negative correlation between houses and forest management, but that’s politics.
"In Oregon, outside urban growth boundaries in farm and forest zones there is no general entitlement to have a house no matter how much land you have. You can have a house if you can show you are in the business of farming— a business, not a hobby. In forest zones you must own 160 or 320 acres, or you can build a house in one of the areas already somewhat fragmented by large residential lots." —Robert Liberty
TW: You mentioned something else in our first interview that was poignant with regard to how planning issues are being confronted. You noted the disconnect between planning as taught in universities and learned by those working in urban and suburban settings and a general lack of ecological thinking, including those who understand and are sympathetic to the needs to wildlife.
LIBERTY: I said that if you look at the curriculums of planning schools very few provide grounding in natural systems and sciences. And I said that few land management degrees offer students training in development economics, land planning and regulation. Yes, there are some planners who choose to get some grounding in both fields, but they are not common.
TW: And yet, here, the interaction, engagement and melding of those two disciplines is exactly what is needed, scientists say, in a region like Greater Yellowstone but there’s a huge gap. One could argue it’s being exacerbated by a chasm of thinking between public land managers and counties dealing with private land issues. The criticism is that people are stuck in their own silos and have no motivation to leave them.
LIBERTY: It’s a difficult but essential point of convergence if you want to stop exurban sprawl overtaking rural areas.
In a region like Greater Yellowstone, there’s a huge gap in thinking between traditional planners, who don't understand the needs of wildlife, and landscape ecologists who don't understand how planning works. One could argue it’s being exacerbated by another chasm of thinking between public land managers and counties dealing with private land issues. The criticism is that people are stuck in their own silos and have no motivation to leave them.
TW: What’s the relationship in Oregon between state law and local law? Strangely, conservatives in the Montana legislature have been opposed to giving citizens the right to take on local ballot initiatives—to tax themselves and tourists coming into their community and, in some cases, to seek more restrictive zoning, similar to how subdivisions sanction and adopt covenants.
LIBERTY: in Oregon, state law has been foundational to getting everyone on the same page.
TW: And it is, literally, “the law of the land.” As you noted, Oregon doesn’t compare to Greater Yellowstone from a large mammal ecosystem perspective. But in Oregon state law mandates a consistent approach to growth in ways that local governments here have been unwilling or unable to achieve. It’s part of a cycle where as sprawl invades ranch and farmland, it makes ranching and farming less viable. 1000 Friends of Oregon has a recent report in which that phenomenon is mentioned. The report is titled Death By 1000 Cuts: A 10-Point Plan To Protect Oregon's Farmland.
LIBERTY: The story in Oregon—for decades now—is that “local control” has not succeeded in achieving any significant policy results for land conservation, or for housing opportunity and social justice for that matter. This is why Oregon’s state statutes covering these topics now look like locally-crafted zoning ordinances in their level of detail because that has been the only way to secure good results.
TW: Often, in the interior West, there is talk of an urban-rural divide. While tensions remain between rural eastern Oregon where there are a lot of ranchers and the part of the state west of the Cascades, Oregonians in some areas have distinguished themselves by being forward-thinking and it’s a source of state pride. Protection of the Pacific coastline, for instance, in which public interest and safeguarding marine ecology were embraced over those who would have loved to privatize the beaches and limit access. In Montana, citizens are guaranteed access to rivers below the high water mark. Can you riff a little on Oregon’s approach to coastal protection and the message it sent?
LIBERTY: Actually there are two separate stories here—one is the preservation of public access to 99 percent of the beaches in Oregon—a cause championed by Republican Gov. Tom McCall. This was a complex story of public pressure, private and public litigation and then legislation. Part of the legal history is pretty dark; having killed off and imprisoned the original native Oregonians, the white immigrants claimed to inherit the native peoples’ right of travel along the beaches. The privatization of the beaches ironically was seen as a threat to Oregon’s populist belief that everyone should have access to the outdoors; denial of access was a symbol of East Coast-style economic elitism.
LIBERTY: The beaches are public. No one in Oregon can imagine private beaches now. Hawai’i has done the same and with some of the same legal underpinnings and populist feelings, although in their case there are still many native Hawai’ians around who have championed this cause.
TW: You mentioned there was a second part to your answer.
LIBERTY: Yes, and it involves sprawl that was already in place before urban growth boundaries went into effect and its implications for the coast. Once established, that kind of sprawl is very hard to stabilize – it has a tendency to spread. Most cities don’t want to add that land to urban growth boundaries because it is hard and expensive to retrofit into traditional neighborhood type development so they would rather urbanize farmland.
TW: Here in the Northern Rockies, the equivalent would be subdivisions lining our beloved rivers and trout streams, as is happening with the Yellowstone in Paradise Valley, the Madison in the Madison Valley, the Snake and the Gallatin.
LIBERTY: Across all of Oregon there were about 800,000 acres—1,200 square miles statewide— of pre-existing sprawl, low-density residential development and commercial strips that were left outside urban growth boundaries at the end of the planning effort. There were heavy concentrations of this pre-existing low-density sprawl in the eastern suburbs of Portland, around Eugene which is home to the University of Oregon, in central Oregon and along the coast.
TW: Greater Yellowstoneans in the three-state region, especially those opposed to planning and zoning, often circulate horror stories about the urban growth boundary that exists around Boulder, Colorado. The biggest scare tactic is that it caused skyrocketing real estate prices affecting working class people in the city and driving up the price of land for agriculture. Is Boulder’s urban growth boundary the same that exists in Oregon?
LIBERTY: Let’s start with a little context about real estate. According to the Bozeman Realty Group, the price of a median single-family home in Bozeman today is $658,502 compared with $511,587 for the typical price of a home in Portland according to Zillow. The Portland metro area has an urban growth boundary, Bozeman does not and yet the homes costs more in Greater Bozeman. The reality is that soaring demand for housing means soaring prices, whether or not there is an urban growth boundary.
"Let’s start with a little context about real estate. According to the Bozeman Realty Group, the price of a median single-family home in Bozeman today is $658,502 compared with $511,587 for the typical price of a home in Portland according to Zillow. The Portland metro area has an urban growth boundary, Bozeman does not and yet the homes cost more in Greater Bozeman." —Robert Liberty
TW: You’ve studied the situation in Boulder. Is Oregon a better comparison for communities in the Northern Rockies?
LIBERTY: The story about Boulder is, not surprisingly, more complicated than the cartoon version people are familiar with. In the absence of effective state action Boulder decided to act on its own to curb sprawl by adopting an urban growth boundary to avoid being swallowed by sprawl reaching out from Denver.. Rightly, it coupled its urban growth boundary with a policy of densification. But by succeeding in protecting its amenities, and being merged into the larger Denver metro area of three million people it became a very expensive suburb. It had other things going for it, including the University of Colorado and its natural beauty, which would have meant its housing would have become very expensive no matter what it did. But the story would have been different if there had been an effective, metropolitan-scale growth strategy in place 40 years ago.
TW: Looking back how would you characterize success in Oregon with urban growth boundaries and what would you improve if you could?
LIBERTY: For most of the state we have succeeded in clearly separating cities and countryside and we have stopped hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of acres of rural sprawl—at least compared to comparable cities like Sacramento or Columbus, Ohio or Denver or Salt Lake City. This is evident on Google Earth. Although farming and ranching and forestry are not always compatible with wildlife, they are generally better for wildlife than low-density sprawl.
TW: It may not always be clear to newcomers and longer-term residents of Bozeman, Jackson Hole or other valleys how important ag and open lands are for wildlife. Developers either seem to be unaware or don’t care as they try to make the next real estate play. Over time has the presence of the urban growth boundary brought a cultural shift in the way citizens think about—and value—rural areas in Oregon?
LIBERTY: I would say that most Oregonians do have different expectations about where growth will occur and where it will not occur. People take planning far more seriously in Oregon, whether they are for or against it because they know it works. Let me put it this way: what most people argue over here is whether and how much to expand an urban growth boundary, not whether there should be urban growth boundaries. Almost no one argues against farm and forest zoning, i.e. farm and forest protection; they argue about the details of that zoning. In cities, the debate is not over the idea of more dense housing, it is where and how this will take place.
It's been voiced by Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals, that Oregon's urban growth boundary, which is an obvious form of planning and zoning, brings more predictability to land-related business decisions; that doing away with, basically, a Libertarian free for all approach did not result in economic prosperity being crippled.
TW: I’ve heard it voiced by Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals, that Oregon's urban growth boundary, which is an obvious form of planning and zoning, brings more predictability to land-related business decisions; that doing away with, basically, a Libertarian free for all approach to planning, as exists in many parts of the Northern Rockies, did not result in economic prosperity being crippled.
LIBERTY: The Oregon system puts a premium on certainty, by insisting on clear and objective standards for reviewing proposal for housing development. It also has deadlines for local land use decisions and separate, statewide land use court that has extremely short deadlines compared to any other type of court. That does not stop the endless grumbling by developers – who have no experience what it is like to work in a place like California.
TW: Are there fewer turf battles between cities and counties? Ideological conflicts have raged in Greater Yellowstone going back decades between Gallatin County and the city of Bozeman, and in other places like the town of Jackson and Teton County, Wyoming.
LIBERTY: Yes, there are ideological differences between cities and counties. But they don’t have nearly as much impact on planning because the state’s planning laws are very specific about what’s mandated to be in county plans and city plans. Implementing regulations must contain certain requirements for coordination—for example related to population forecasts and housing needs.
TW: Some portray Portland as a national symbol in thinking about what a city should be. In fact, elected officials in Greater Yellowstone towns have sometimes referenced it, particularly within the context of that ambiguous word “sustainability.” What’s your assessment of Portland as a livable place for humans?
LIBERTY: It was very livable, meaning a green, convenient, and for decades, affordable place that stopped freeways and sprawl and kept its inner neighborhoods from decaying. For decades it managed to be a good place for both blue-collar workers and the counterculture. But inevitably—as we were warned—our livability and lower home prices attracted people from more expensive places and home prices became unaffordable. What the country needs is 50 other cities as livable and sustainable as Portland to meet that demand. To a certain extent, at least with respect to city centers, I see that happening now
TW: How does the Oregon experience translate to wildlife and habitat protection?
LIBERTY: I would say Oregon has not done anything out of the ordinary when it comes to protecting wildlife except indirectly though importantly by stopping sprawl. It was less of an urgent matter than in Greater Yellowstone. There are many other parts of the land use laws that have not been fully implemented including those related to natural hazards, such as forest fires and flooding, and that now has much more meaning as we deal with the impacts of climate change.
Of course, we also need to keep working on housing and related racial justice issues – an effort that will take place at the local as well as state levels. By the way, your readers may be interested to know we have no general state environmental protection act which distinguishes us from many other states. Part of the reason is the state planning program, which I believe is superior to any state environmental protection act which, in most states, only does permitting on a case-by-case basis and does not address long-term, cumulative impacts.
From this view it looks like the advance of urban Bozeman stops on a hard line but it's misleading. Were one to turn 180 degrees in the other direction, the view would reveal islands of rural subdivisions in Gallatin County that already have displaced wildlife. The impacts will really take hold as infill occurs and migration corridors for species like elk are lost. This same scenario exists in valleys throughout Greater Yellowstone. Photo by Todd Wilkinson
TW: Are you suggesting that clear and legally binding planning directives, which aren't merely voluntary, may deliver better environmental outcomes just because development is more organized, predictable and vision driven?
TW: What do we need to keep in mind in Greater Yellowstone if one goal is maintaining the character of our communities, as it relates to agricultural lands and protection of wildlife that is unmatched anywhere else in the Lower 48?
LIBERTY: Oregon’s megafauna was never the same as the megafauna in the Greater Yellowstone ecoregion, although we do have two subspecies of elk, a small number of wolves that have returned thanks to their migration from Idaho and we have a tiny area of moose habitat. Perhaps our iconic species are salmonids [fish] that provided sustenance for people and a lot of species. I would say Oregon does not have a special story or success to boast about with wildlife, as Greater Yellowstone does, except insofar as we have curbed most rural sprawl, which is your major challenge.
TW: Knowing this, what would be the first steps you’d recommend to addressing sprawl in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and other valleys in the Rockies that still hold their natural character before it’s too late to act? As you mentioned, there isn’t a lot of time until options narrow.
LIBERTY: The starting point is to stop rural sprawl, as represented by the explosion of 20-, 60- and 160-acre ranchettes. This is politically difficult, much more now, and in a more conservative state, than when Oregon did it. But it only becomes impossible when the advocates for saving the lands and resources from sprawl tell themselves it is impossible.
Also Read Part 1 of Mountain Journal's Interview With Robert Liberty titled Wildlife's Most Ferocious Predator: Human Sprawl