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Wildlife's Most Ferocious Predator: Human Sprawl
March 31, 2021
Wildlife's Most Ferocious Predator: Human Sprawl
Robert Liberty is a nationally-respected expert on smart—and dumb—ways communities grow. The patterns of development outside of Yellowstone Park alarm him. But hope is not lost. Yet.
When elk get rattled and feel trapped in the middle of a human subdivision maze, they often lose their bearings and have no direction back to home ground. Photo courtesy Holly Pippel
by Todd Wilkinson
After 40 years of traveling coast to coast and studying how communities grow, Robert Liberty has never encountered one that serves as a model for how to safeguard landscapes holding long-distance wildlife migrations, grizzly bears, and other large imperiled mammals.
The renowned expert in planning and zoning is choosing to spend time these days in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, during the last stretch of his career, because he knows the opportunity for protecting its essence is rapidly evaporating amid booming growth.
For Liberty, it’s not a provincial cause; as an American, he says, Greater Yellowstone is a national natural treasure worth rallying around. And while professional planners might be exceptionally skilled at diagraming cities and suburbs, their track record is dismal when it comes to not degrading places that extraordinary wild things need to survive. Which he finds kind of ironic that for all the energy and expertise humans put into designing livable cities they’ve seldom given the same considerations to wildlife.
Liberty is almost legendary for his thinking about how land use planning tools can be engineered to replace sprawl with more compact environs and more choices in housing and transportation that can, at the same time, preserve ranch, farm and forest lands.
"There are places that acted successfully to curb rural sprawl, but I personally don’t know of any places that include a primary focus on the conservation of the magnificent wildlife that gives the Greater Yellowstone region its special character. How many places in North America can someone see a bison, or a grizzly or pronghorn from their yard or on their way to work? That is your special challenge and your special responsibility." —Robert LibertyAs the former staff attorney and director of 1000 Friends of Oregon, he helped pioneer that state’s “urban growth boundary” regulations that set a hard line in every town between where city ends and agrarian and undeveloped natural lands begin. Guess what: while critics claim it leads to higher real estate costs, today the cost of buying a home in Bozeman and Jackson Hole is much more expensive than in Portland.
Besides Liberty's consulting work, he also has served as an elected member of the Portland regional government council, director of university urban sustainability programs and he currently is chair of the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area Commission.
Within the last year, he’s been enlisted by citizens in Livingston, Montana and surrounding Park County to help them ponder strategies for staving off the worst effects of sprawl in that Yellowstone River town and Paradise Valley. Both are dealing with spillover effects from Bozeman and Gallatin County that are only intensifying.
At stake is more than scenic open space and potentially skyrocketing costs of poorly planned rural development; that valley located north of Yellowstone between two spectacular mountain ranges is home to animals that move in and out of the national park. In fact, community conservationist Dennis Glick says Park County is like many of the 20 counties in Greater Yellowstone dealing with growth issues—many are stuck in the same kind of mindset that resulted in loss of ecological integrity in mountain ranges across the West. And sprawl comes with innumerable negative costs.
Glick, a resident of Livingston, is founder of FutureWest and before that he worked for The Sonoran Institute and while even earlier with the Greater Yellowstone Coalition 25 years ago he was chief architect of a blueprint for protecting the region’s world-class wildlife. Notably, the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, based in Bozeman, today has nearly two dozen employees yet no staffers devoted full time to preventing problems of exurban sprawl which is the biggest overt threat to the integrity of the ecosystem.
Glick added, “A county commissioner friend once said to me; ‘This growth management work isn’t rocket science. Actually, it’s more difficult than rocket science.’ When you consider the technical, political, cultural and strategic elements of successful efforts to manage growth, what could be more challenging? Most counties are not ready or equipped to deal with what’s quickly descending upon Greater Yellowstone and we have once chance to get it right.”
Never has Liberty derived pleasure in vindication for being proved right about his warnings. Once a place sprawls, the destruction is inexorable. Mountain Journal recently had a hard-hitting conversation with Liberty and what follows is the first of three interviews.
TODD WILKINSON: Many elected officials in the tri-state Greater Yellowstone region, which encompasses 20 counties, have the belief that the horrors of sprawl that destroyed natural senses of place elsewhere will not, for some unfounded reason, happen here. Your thoughts.
ROBERT LIBERTY: Given the evidence of their own eyes, especially in recent years, it is baffling why anyone would think their part of the region is exempt from the horrors of sprawl. Rural sprawl is not just a problem in Greater Yellowstone– it is spreading coast to coast. I have seen it on the southern edge of Denali National Park, around the Everglades and 80 miles outside the Twin Cities of Minnesota. Pressure to sprawl is now invading what used to be remote areas of Eastern Oregon coming from greater Boise, now home to 800,000 people. I guess Mars is safe from rural sprawl….for now.
If Montana, Wyoming and Idaho fail to take action or use the same ineffective tools as the Front Range, the Wasatch Front and the western Sierra they will arrive at the same result. Obviously. And the planet is headed in the same direction. —Liberty
TW: In Bozeman and the Gallatin Valley, there are shrinking pockets of interconnected open space where elk, for example, used to be able to easily migrate seasonally between private and public ground, between winter range and seasonal breeding and calf-rearing habitat. Today, they are stressed and biologists say it is inevitable that the migrations will either stop, be displaced or we’ll be left with a tiny remnant herd. Why is wildlife often overlooked when people think about “successful communities” and what’s the shortfall of that kind of thinking?
TW: In Gallatin Valley, scientists say we are a few years away, at most, from having age-old elk migration corridors becoming impassable as development gnaws away at those routes. Do you think something should be done to preserve those pathways before they are lost and typically what kind of options are available when counties are in the midst of explosive growth?
Liberty: Of course, something should be done and can be done. The webinar that Mountain Journal hosted with the Teton County Library on threats to Greater Yellowstone as America’s wildlife version of the Serengeti created quite a buzz and identified areas where action is desperately needed (see below). Another was a webinar sponsored by Future West on the impacts of sprawl on wildlife. A third was “Sprawl and How to Stop It” that I presented for the organization, Friends of Park County. It includes some examples of communities that have corralled their growth and left surrounding open space open to the benefit of both people and wildlife. But all the lessons are applicable to other places—Jackson Hole, Teton Valley, Idaho, the Madison Valley of Montana or communities in other parts of the Rockies.
TW: A major disappointment among wildlife advocates is that Bozeman has one of the highest per capita concentrations of paid professional conservationists in the country, which also means in the world. And yet little has happened in terms of serious advocacy for planning and zoning nor any tenacious scrutiny of county decision-making. Can superlative things in nature on private land be saved if left to the devices of the free market, or in the absence of zoning, or without pressure applied by conservationists who are supposed to defend wildlife?
Liberty: I agree with you that it is surprising that Gallatin County, given the presence of Bozeman, has not been more successful in curbing sprawl. There certainly has been discussions about how to plan inside Bozeman itself. In fact during my visit in 2019, the taxi driver and I discussed the pace and pattern of growth and the driver said, “Bozeman needs to grow up, not out.” I can see Bozeman is making real progress in promoting and allowing denser, more compact development. But creating a compact, livable city, doesn’t have any effect on rural sprawl that’s happening outside the city. The fact that some people will be glad to have the choice of living in a four-story multi-family condo or apartment is irrelevant to the people who want a 20-acre ranchette 20 miles outside of town.
By the way, we need to stop referring to the “free market” as something that exists outside of government, free-floating in the ether. The “free market” can only exist through governments establishing a system of laws governing economic relationships, issuing currencies, enforcing contracts, etc. I view market forces not as delicate and fragile orchids but more like aggressive weeds - they can and will thrive under a wide variety of conditions . It is up to our governments to specify the framework and conditions so that market forces generate the greatest benefits to the most people and the least harm to society and the planet.
TW: As for the conservation NGOs who have been largely missing in action? Land trusts obviously have done good work in the region but their ability to secure conservation easements is not keeping pace with the profound speed of change occurring on the landscape. Only a handful of local groups are involved. Many citizens wonder why the larger, Bozeman-based organizations with large staffs are not substantively dealing with growth issues on private lands in the Gallatin Valley, Big Sky and Park County that also impact public lands and wildlife.
Top, at right: A graphic Liberty presented at a webinar on the effects of sprawl in Paradise Valley where thousands of lots have already been platted down at the courthouse but have yet to be developed. The impacts of seemingly small developments can quickly add up. (click to enlarge). Image just above: Rough graphic assembled by the Wildlife Conservation Society for Greater Yellowstone nor of Yellowstone Park provides a general overview of the large number of wildlife migration routes that pass across public lands then enter private lands, using them as connecting corridors or winter range. Graphic courtesy WCS
EDITOR'S NOTE: Below, in a spectacular short video, a large herd of elk moves through the northern Bridger Mountains and the Custer Gallatin National Forest during the warm weather seasons. But come winter heavy snow will push the wapiti to lower elevations. Development occurring right at the national forest edge, combined with sprawl on vital winter range not only threatens migration routes of elk but increases the likelihood that other species will come into conflict with humans and be displaced from habitat. You can see residential homes in the distance.
TW: I've always wanted to ask you this question. You have been visiting Greater Yellowstone for decades as a growth consultant, to attend conferences and as a visitor. What comes to mind as you fly into Bozeman and what trends have you observed over time? What are we not paying attention to that we should be?
Liberty: A good question. I have fond memories of flying into Bozeman and enjoying the intimate, efficient Rocky-Mountains-themed airport with its small number of gates. I remember looking out at the farm and ranchlands bordering the runways, with Bozeman off in the distance, to the west. Then in June 2019 I flew into Bozeman and was shocked to see low-density ranchette subdivisions scattered across the landscape below. As the plane approached the airport I saw a massive parking structure under construction at the airport.
As my taxi left the airport, I noticed the commercial sprawl at the entrance to the airport and elsewhere in route to the city. It was shocking and depressing. I was impressed by the densification of Bozeman even though I know it is in large part a result of high land prices, but better that than mandated low-density sprawl.
in June 2019 I flew into Bozeman and was shocked to see low-density ranchette subdivisions scattered across the landscape below. As the plane approached the airport I saw a massive parking structure under construction at the airport. As my taxi left the airport, I noticed the commercial sprawl at the entrance to the airport and elsewhere in route to the city. It was shocking and depressing.
TW: You and I have also spoken before about this. Cities can have sound strategies aimed at achieving infill, but if those policies are unmatched with vision and cooperation from the counties around them, the very things citizens want protected—wildlife habitat, open space, keeping farmers and ranchers on the land—can be lost. What's your assessment of growth policies in Montana, Wyoming and Idaho?
Liberty: I can’t speak to planning in Wyoming but I can say that the planning requirements at the state level in Idaho and Montana are similar. Planning in these two states is all about public engagement activities, check-lists of topics to “consider” and expressions of values and “visions” arrived at through “community consensus.” It includes the sharing of a lot of feelings, wishes and hopes but does not deliver much if anything in the way of outcomes.
The product of this kind of planning is a process and a set of documents; it does not create a place. It does not result in measurably different outcomes. The reason for that is pretty simple—the laws do not specify any particular outcome, or goal, or place that planning, and the implementation of those plans – are required to achieve. And under state laws the plans are, by their terms, advisory—meaning largely if not completely symbolic.
I can't speak to planning in Wyoming, but I can say that planning in Idaho and Montana is all about public engagement activities, check-lists of topics to “consider” and expressions of values and “visions” arrived at through “community consensus.” It includes the sharing of a lot of feelings, wishes and hopes but does not deliver much if anything in the way of outcomes.
TW: I know you believe that It’s not all bleak.
Liberty: At the local level there are some successes in communities that have adopted plans or land use regulations that are shaping growth. These places include some citizen-initiated zoning districts in Montana. Downtown and city centers are experiencing revivals across the region and the country, aided in part by downtown redevelopment plans. Boise is a spectacular example. But as I said earlier, thriving downtowns do nothing to stop suburban and exurban sprawl. The Boise metro area and Bozeman are proof enough of that.
TW: As you know, lots of traditional ranches have been subdivided and huge swaths of many valleys have been platted for potential development—ranchettes, subdivisions or commercial development. How do citizens confront development pressures when they seem invisible and how many communities have you seen respond in time to preserve land character and wildlife habitat before it's too late?
Liberty: There are places that acted successfully to curb rural sprawl, but I personally don’t know of any places that include a primary focus on the conservation of the magnificent wildlife that gives the Greater Yellowstone region its special character. How many places in North America can someone see a bison, or a grizzly or pronghorn from their yard or on their way to work? That is your special challenge and your special responsibility.
TW: We’ll get to what Oregon did with implementing urban growth boundaries, based on the support of people who went to the polls, but what did the other successful places who curbed sprawl have in common?
Liberty: In almost every case where successful action was taken, leadership outside government was essential. In many cases it was citizen activists who led the effort and then over time when its popularity was established elected officials followed. Republican Gov. McCall in Oregon famously said, “Heroes are not statues framed against a red sky; they are people who say, “This is my community and it’s my responsibility to make it better.”
The Republican governor famously said, “Heroes are not statues framed against a red sky; they are people who say, “This is my community and it’s my responsibility to make it better.”
TW: You noted that approaches to planning and zoning in the interior West have been largely anemic or as you say, “about feelings and wishes and hopes, not about outcomes.” Today, Gallatin County has enlisted an outside consulting firm to lay down some advisory guidelines about growth in a draft plan called Envision Gallatin. The document is garlanded up with great graphics and seemingly noble words like “sustainability” and community health but wildlife is seldom mentioned. Worse perhaps is that there is no real strategy recommended for protecting crucial habitat. The firm that was hired is based in Colorado where the high caliber of mammalian wildlife diversity we have at the edge of Bozeman has disappeared there amid a crush of people.
Liberty: Based on your description, it sounds like Gallatin County may be embarking on another process-heavy, “visioning” activity. And what exactly is the point of spending money on “advisory guidelines”? I am not aware of any place, anywhere in the world, where a plan that was purely advisory had any effect on anything. There is another problem, that has been gnawing at me. Urban planning concepts are being transplanted to the countryside where they don’t belong. The most pernicious is the idea of regulating the landscape by adopting a ‘lot size’ as though every part of every landscape is destined to be a residential property.
TW: You’ve spoken eloquently about how those involved with “the built human environment” need to stop pretending they can ignore nature, defy nature or hubristically try to engineer it.
Liberty: It is part of the longstanding and deeply-entrenched idea that nature is outside of us, outside of the human really, and that we are either indifferent to it or must dominate it. Well, we are dominating it. I believe the instinct to dominate and exploit nature is not something modern; it is part of our primate inheritance. At a lesser scale other animals also work to dominate and control their environments in order to survive and thrive and this can result in population booms and busts. So we humans are doing the same thing, but we are much bigger, more numerous and much more effective in dominating and exploiting our environment. Unlike the other animals we can also see the consequences of unconstrained exploitation— the question is whether we will do anything about it.
The lack of wildlife advocacy around exurban sprawl from conservation organizations is disturbing. It was lively two and three decades ago. I think it has faded in the face of relentless opposition, discouraged by failures to make progress and re-focused on purely urban issues and today on social justice aspects of planning. —Robert Liberty
TW: Recent studies by Dr. Andrew Hansen and colleagues at Montana State University have documented how sprawl is decimating some wild native bird species and favoring invasion by aggressive generalist species which is negatively affecting avian diversity. It’s kind of like elk and mule deer disappearing and being replaced by ‘weedy’ whitetails, i.e. more human pressure means less biological diversity. If you were talking to a person unfamiliar with the issues of the GYE and the exceeding natural values at huge risk, how would you describe the challenge and the need to adopt a planning/visioning paradigm that has never been done before?
Liberty: I think you have put your finger on it already. The challenge of curbing rural sprawl is exactly the same but there is one major difference on the ground here. There is still enough of an intact ecosystem to support large wild animals in abundance. Many scientists and thoughtful people have described the need to plan for and protect an entire ecosystem but a real action plan for crafting and adopting land regulations at the regional scale has not been tackled. Alaska and, of course, Canada have this same challenge before them too, but Greater Yellowstone is the last region left in the Lower 48.
TW: So how does a group of citizens, elected officials, the business community and tourism promotors achieve an implementable vision that has never been done before—we should ask if it doesn’t happen here, then what will the consequences be?
Liberty: Well, the protection of an entire ecosystem, including private lands, that is home to large mammals, has not been done in this country. But certainly many places have succeeded in sharply curbing sprawl. That has been done before in several places as diverse as Sioux Falls, South Dakota, Frankenmuth, Michigan, Yolo County, California and most of Oregon. I can assure you Oregon’s planning system is far from perfect, but an hour on GoogleEarth will show you that its development pattern in many areas is starkly different from most of the US. It is harder to achieve these results today when the opposition can use threats of violence against its opponents. We had hearings on land use plans in Oregon where people were threatened and in a few cases used violence. All I can say is that if you care about preserving what makes Greater Yellowstone the rare, special place it is, that it is worth the struggle.
TW: To those who claim "we can have it all"—economic growth and "prosperity" and a healthy, biodiversity-rich natural environment—what is your response?
Liberty: Yes, it is possible but not using the standard definitions of economic growth and prosperity. We need to redefine “economic development” so that it does not just mean “economic activity.” We are starting to see this happen coming from the social justice angle and from the regenerative economy thinkers but not with biodiversity as exists in Greater Yellowstone. I think it is very promising that the unnecessary political friction between social justice and environmental protection movements is being addressed.
TW: Indeed, there exists a narrative—a false dichotomy, it seems— that protecting biological diversity for its own intrinsic worth and as a legacy to future human generations must necessarily be at odds with social justice issues and human diversity.
Liberty: If we look outside our borders we can see heroes in South America, Africa and Asia who see the protection of the environment as protection of their rights as human beings. We also see, sadly, that environmental activists are being jailed and murdered in exactly the same way, by the same people and for the same reasons as the activists seeking social justice.
TW: Given current trends you're witnessing in Montana, Wyoming and Idaho combined with what you've seen happen elsewhere how places have approached growth—the Front Range of Colorado, the Wasatch Front and the western Sierra—where is the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem headed?
Liberty: If Montana, Wyoming and Idaho fail to take action or use the same ineffective tools as the Front Range, the Wasatch Front and the western Sierra they will arrive at the same result. Obviously. And the planet is headed in the same direction. Sprawl used to be distinctly American but now you can see it in Sweden, Spain, Belgium, parts of Germany. It has been wonderful in my lifetime to see hundreds of millions and billions climb out of poverty, particularly in Asia.
But with a gigantic new middle class, we see sprawl appearing in China, Mexico, South Africa, everywhere. It can be discouraging. Want to know what keeps your spirits up in the face of these challenges? Trying to do something about it and joining others engaged in the same battle who you can share your experiences with.
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