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If The Challenges Facing Jackson Hole Can't Be Fixed, Then What's The Fate Of Greater Yellowstone?

Part 1 in "The Mosaic Series": Can "collaboration as usual" save America's most iconic ecosystem or is it time for new leaders and a braver new vision?

While  denizens of Greater Yellowstone say Jackson Hole is an anomaly in the region and to the state of Wyoming, the valley on the east side of the Tetons is grappling with growth in population, development footprint and recreational use on public lands, traffic congestion, a crisis in lack of affordable housing, rising costs to run government and in the decades to come, climate change. Do the challenges there provide any lessons for the rest of the northern Rockies? Photo by Todd Wilkinson
While denizens of Greater Yellowstone say Jackson Hole is an anomaly in the region and to the state of Wyoming, the valley on the east side of the Tetons is grappling with growth in population, development footprint and recreational use on public lands, traffic congestion, a crisis in lack of affordable housing, rising costs to run government and in the decades to come, climate change. Do the challenges there provide any lessons for the rest of the northern Rockies? Photo by Todd Wilkinson
EDITOR'S NOTE:
 This is the first in a series of essays that appeared as part of Jackson Hole-based 
Charture Institute's publication, Mosaic.  Written by different local experts, these "thought pieces" offer an overview of different environmental issues affecting Jackson Hole, Wyoming. In turn, they offer a lens for other communities in the three-state region of Greater Yellowstone to consider their own place in nature.  They are being published here as a collaboration between Charture and Mountain Journal.  Also check out "Co-Thrive," a blog about ecology and economy written by Charture Institute founder Jonathan Schechter.

By Dr. Susan G. Clark

I offer a few recent newspaper headlines for you to consider. They pertain to the future of Jackson Hole and the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem:

200 Turn Out for Chat on Snow King’s Future.”  (Snow King, the local privately-owned downhill ski area rising above the town of Jackson, wants to expand the footprint of its operation on national forest land at a time when climatologists say the average winter temperatures show a rising trend and likely dozens of fewer days of snowpack in decades to come).

No Clear Answer for Elk.”  (The state of Wyoming and the US Fish and Wildlife Service's National Elk Refuge continue to artificially feed thousands of elk in winter, congregating then together in violation of professional wildlife management protocol, at a time when Chronic Wasting Disease is literally on the doorstep of 23 different feed grounds. If it infects those herds, its spread could be accelerated throughout the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem).

 “The Future of Jackson Hole: Will Unchecked Growth, Climate Change Transform the Valley into a Place We Don’t Recognize?”  (Numbers of both people living and visiting Jackson Hole, as well as temperatures continue to rise, creating serious coming challenges for humans and wildlife).

These are the tip of a growing iceberg of interconnected policy challenges facing Jackson Hole, which represents the southern geographic heart of the Greater Yellowstone region. In terms of Greater Yellowstone's wildness, as expressed by the diversity of large free-roaming wild animals, it is unsurpassed in the Lower 48 states.

Many residents are convinced we are rapidly losing the valley’s distinctive natural and social amenities to development, recreation, and business pressures, and feel we must find better ways to produce rational, practical and ethical management and policies. 

As we strive to improve our management and policy-making, it is vital for citizens, officials, activists, planners, and policy makers to enlarge their understanding of the community’s social and environmental dynamics, as well as the common pitfalls of traditional approaches to policy making. And we must do so with civility, not letting an outsized “egosystem” of self-interests that do not grasp what we have overwhelm the region’s world-class natural and human environments.

Happily, the policy sciences show we can not only understand policy processes, but build the knowledge and skills we desperately need to participate responsibly, prescriptively, and effectively in our democracy and its underlying processes.

What should the goals be?  A key reference point for local land use policies is the vision of the 2012 Comprehensive Plan for Teton County, Wyoming which is purported to be one of the most forward-thinking planning documents for any rural county in the West. “Preserve and protect the area’s ecosystem in order to ensure a healthy environment, community, and economy for current and future generations," it reads.

Such a guiding principle, and locally-elected officials dedicated to the cause, do not exist in the 19 other counties that together encompass the public and private landscapes of Greater Yellowstone.

Unfortunately, both data and our experiences in Jackson Hole show the health of the area’s ecosystem is declining, creating a huge gulf between our vision, what we’ve achieved so far, and our future trajectory. Yet instead of acknowledging and addressing this discrepancy, we’ve succumbed to the dominant culture’s deeply held beliefs about the supremacy of material progress, wealth, and opportunity. And despite our conceits about how environmentally conscious we are and how much we love our wildlife, in practice these take a back seat to our material and recreational concerns.
We’ve succumbed to the dominant culture’s deeply held beliefs about the supremacy of material progress, wealth, and opportunity. And despite our conceits about how environmentally conscious we are and how much we love our wildlife, in practice these take a back seat to our material and recreational concerns.
All is not lost, though—if we want, we can turn things around but do we? There’s no denying that Jackson Hole and the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem are among the very best places to live and work in the world. Unparalleled really, primarily because of the ecosystem and its land based largely unfragmented by different kinds of human development. 

Thanks to the efforts of people who came before us and who backed landscape protection measures when they were not popular, the region’s tremendous legacy of public lands, biological communities and wildlife give us a backdrop for our human community and its remarkable social, intellectual, and financial resources. In fact, conservation is the foundation for the regional economy driven by the alluring components of nature tourism and lifestyle considerations prompting people to want to live here. We are the beneficiaries of this great public good, and our forebears, who resisted the same temptations we are now facing but in larger magnitude, deserve our wholehearted gratitude and respect. 

Now, however, it’s our turn. Are we going to protect what we have and restore what we’ve lost? Or will we continue to live in a way that accelerates further decline, accepting it as inevitable?

If we hope to secure our stated goals in the county plan, there’s a great deal of thinking and work to be done. To do that successfully, the place to start is by developing a genuine “pragmatic hope” that we can, indeed, work through real problems in practical ways to meet our shared desire to keep this region ecologically intact.
The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is one of the most ecologically-intact bioregions in the temperature zones of the world.  At more than 22 million acres, most of its size is comprised of federal public lands (owned by all U.S. citizens) yet four or five million acres of private land are crucial to the survival of wildlife, clean rivers, open space, and rural culture.   Everywhere else in the Lower 48, human population pressure, land converted to development,  and fragmented ownership has resulted in the "wild" characteristics found in Greater Yellowstone being lost.  Map courtesy National Park Service.
The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is one of the most ecologically-intact bioregions in the temperature zones of the world. At more than 22 million acres, most of its size is comprised of federal public lands (owned by all U.S. citizens) yet four or five million acres of private land are crucial to the survival of wildlife, clean rivers, open space, and rural culture. Everywhere else in the Lower 48, human population pressure, land converted to development, and fragmented ownership has resulted in the "wild" characteristics found in Greater Yellowstone being lost. Map courtesy National Park Service.
So how to proceed? How should we begin closing the growing gap between what we say we want and what we actually do when confronted with difficult choices? And once the process is underway, how do we see it through without compromising away the desired outcomes? 

We must start by contemplating the challenges and accepting they are very real.  Part of my 50 years working as a wildlife researcher, professor of conservation-related public policy, and examining case studies globally and nationally of what works and what does not, has been trying to see the bigger picture. As we struggle to protect our legacy and ensure a healthy future for both nature and ourselves in Greater Yellowstone, we face three interconnected types of problems, each increasingly complex. 

            Type 1 problems are what I would characterize as ordinary and technical problems. These include wildlife-car collisions, limited housing for working class people, the setting of hunting quotas, and wildlife fencing that creates barriers for wildlife passage. We devote most of our time and attention to these types of problems, in part because we already know how to deal with them. Yet while they are easiest to see, they mask the other types of challenges.

            Type 2 problems apply to the processes of governance and the systems we use to address ordinary problems. These typically concern government agencies and stakeholder groups. Rather than relating to specific hyper-local issues, Type 2 problems are fundamental and somewhat hidden, focusing on questions like: “Do we have the facts we need?” and “Are our processes open, rational, knowledge-based and effective?” Unless these underlying systems and processes are adequate, successfully addressing Type 1 problems will be challenging at best. 

            Type 3 problems, which ultimately will determine our future, are even more deep-seated, fundamental, and hard to get a fix on. These “constitutive” or cultural and political problems result from society’s underlying belief systems, social narratives and institutionalized patterns of behavior; i.e. the aspects of our deep culture most people are barely aware of or cannot explain the reasoning behind certain positions if pressed to articulate them based on reasoning.

Type 3 problems are grounded in our beliefs about who we think we are as humans, and our relationship to and responsibility for wildlife and nature. For example, Aldo Leopold, the father of wildlife management, was referring to a constitutive problem when he called for new “rules” for humans’ relationship with nature: “When we see land as a community to which we belong," he wrote in A Sand County Almanac, "we may begin to use it with love and respect.” 

Because we see ourselves as separate from nature, though, we tend to create systems and rules that, in Leopold’s words, work against “(preserving) the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community.” I liken the perception some have of living "outside of nature" or insulated from it, like a fish that isn't aware that it needs water—let alone clean water—in order to persist. This is Jackson Hole's basic cultural problem, and if we truly want to preserve and protect the area’s ecosystem (of which we are an inseparable part) we must heed Leopold’s words (and those of  the Muries and Craighead's in Jackson Hole) and come to grips with this foundational constitutive problem. Who we think we are may not align with the citizens we want and need to be.

Addressing these multi-faceted, interwoven problems simultaneously is difficult. As a result, we tend to focus on the surface symptoms; i.e., the ordinary problems. For example, humans play a significant role in water and air pollution, wildlife losses, and many other environmental and social problems. Such problems are dutifully identified by interest groups, reported on by the media, and attended to in part by government agencies and elected bodies whose tenures are influenced by giving their perceived constituencies what they want, not necessarily what they and future generations need.. 

Yet underlying all these individual Type 1 problems is the simple fact that, as humans, our behaviors are eroding ecosystem health. As losses pile up, disagreements stemming from Types 2 and 3 problems further deplete both natural and social capital, as people become increasingly uncivil,, disrespectful and irrational. 
Tourists pose in front of a famous archway made of elk antlers that adorns the entrance to the downtown square in the center of Jackson, Wyoming.  How does a town sustain economic growth and still protect the natural environment, provide affordable places to live for local employees and still manage to maintain its character?  Photo by Todd Wilkinson
Tourists pose in front of a famous archway made of elk antlers that adorns the entrance to the downtown square in the center of Jackson, Wyoming. How does a town sustain economic growth and still protect the natural environment, provide affordable places to live for local employees and still manage to maintain its character? Photo by Todd Wilkinson
From a Type 1 perspective, such problems are often miscalled “politics” and seem therefore intractable. However, what’s really occurring are Types 2 and 3 problems, ones that go unrecognized and thus not attended to in any practical fashion. We desperately need to move beyond addressing only the symptoms of problems and getting at their root causes.

Locally, adding to the challenge is Jackson Hole’s growing population and stratification. We have not just challenging Type 1 problems, but profound and growing governance and cultural challenges as well. Yet the approach we bring to the problem at hand – Type 1 thinking and its limited related tools – are completely mismatched with the magnitude of the challenges we face. More simply stated: We only have a hammer in our policy toolbelt, so every problem looks a lot like a nail. And even though we dwell in this natural ecosystem where topography is interwoven, we are unable to think beyond the boundaries we've established in our minds and imposed, artificially, on to maps.

How to address the actual intermixed problems we face? First I would recommend that we start by honoring the “first rule of holes”: When you’re in one, stop digging. 

Two decades ago, Sue Lurie and I found that the design of the 1994 Teton County comprehensive planning process, premised on a blind faith in "collaboration," actually eroded the community’s trust in the government—just the opposite of what was intended. Similar efforts in other communities and those involving important land management decisions have resulted in the same outcomes. But we can start to nurture "systematic learning" by being cognizant of all three levels of problems above.

As for our next best step, it's time we go back to the basics of Policy Making 101.

What does it entail? Policy making sounds wonky, but it is an experiential human process focused on solving problems. This process usually involves some technical content, and always involves people with varying perspectives and interests in both identifying the problem and arriving at its solutions. Policy making wrestles with fundamental problems about how we live, how we find meaning, and how we make important decisions. It always starts with best intentions. In Greater Yellowstone and many other places in the West, it often ends in failure or disharmony because the most important objectives were not clear or subverted by hidden agendas.
As prominent conservation biologists say, ecosystems that are capable of sustaining grizzly bears in the American West are both exceedingly rare and special.  For landscapes that give grizzlies enough room to roam are also conducive to being homelands for hundreds of other species. In fact, one of the modern catalysts for advancing ecosystem thinking in the 1980s was owed to rescuing the grizzly population from possible extirpation. Many thought they would never again inhabit Jackson Hole and Grand Teton National Park but today they are major attractions for wildlife watchers who come from around the world.  Photo courtesy Jim Peaco/NPS
As prominent conservation biologists say, ecosystems that are capable of sustaining grizzly bears in the American West are both exceedingly rare and special. For landscapes that give grizzlies enough room to roam are also conducive to being homelands for hundreds of other species. In fact, one of the modern catalysts for advancing ecosystem thinking in the 1980s was owed to rescuing the grizzly population from possible extirpation. Many thought they would never again inhabit Jackson Hole and Grand Teton National Park but today they are major attractions for wildlife watchers who come from around the world. Photo courtesy Jim Peaco/NPS
Even if we unite around a much-needed common vision, no one can guarantee the process will “optimize” for the system as a whole—in the case of Greater Yellowstone the ecological health that underlays everything else. Yet sound policy is a reliably rational, politically practical, and morally justified social process. It determines how the good and bad in life are meted out—that is, who gets what; when they get it, and how. 

Sound policy should serve the community’s common interests and those same interests in Greater Yellowstone are commonly shared by many communities in Greater Yellowstone. Common interests—such as a healthy natural environment and flourishing human community—meet the demands and desires of the broad community. They contrast with special interests, which benefit the few at the expense of the majority. There are endless examples that can illustrate this point and one reason why Greater Yellowstone remains special in the world is because protection of common interests has prevailed over self-interest. As history has shown, Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks as they are today—two bedrocks of our regional economy— would not exist if special interests had succeeded in halting their creation. 

Determining whether a policy process really seeks the common long-term interest is not always easy. Doing so requires appraising not just the overall policy process, but each of its constituent parts: information gathering, debating, deciding, implementing, monitoring,  predictive foresight and ending. It also involves assessing how well the parts of the process function in relation to each other. 

There are three widely recognized criteria for determining if a policy process serves the common interest:

·       ° Is it inclusive and open to broad participation?

·       ° Does it meet the valid expectations of participants?

·       ° As the policy is implemented and context changes, is the policy responsive and adaptive in achieving its goals?  This question includes issues in which more vital information surfaces or is gleaned that should bring about reassessment or changes in thinking. For example, if a given activity is found to be more impactful on a rare or fragile resource than previously assumed, then the activity, as originally proposed, might need reconsideration.

Any successful policy process must be  structured to address all three questions. Sound policy builds on our shared interests (e.g., demand for individual respect), and anyone wanting to develop sound policy must not only identify shared interests to start with, but make sure they become common interests. Locally, we might broadly define our common interest as developing a balanced strategy to maintain and restore ecosystems, wildlife and plants, and worthwhile, non-destructive human enterprises.

So what are the actionable principles—the means— for achieving sound policy as opposed to dysfunction caused by splintering self-interest?
 
Many policy-related problems occur because the underlying policy-making process was flawed. By devoting time and attention at the beginning to getting the process “right,” we can minimize significant problems. This doesn't mean all participants will agree on everything but it does require finding agreement on things that matter, like protecting the irreplaceable, creating predictable expectations, promoting transparency and meeting others at the level of their individual concerns.

Policy science has developed a practical framework for developing sound policy and the following component pieces are key:  

1. Some general rules:

1.     Don’t over-simplify but don't overcomplicate. 
2.     Use diverse expertise
3.     Ensure all voices are heard
4.     Be clear about your goals
5.     Hold leaders accountable 
6.     Consider not only how a new policy will help, but how it might hurt
7.     No one likes to attend meetings. Don't burn out the good faith of citizens
8.     Know that accomplishing extraordinary things are not easy but worthwhile   

2. Acknowledge the existence of both “slow threats” and our own shortcomings

Dwight Eisenhower noted that urgent problems are seldom important, and important problems are seldom urgent. The same can be said for many problems facing communities and environment at such an accelerating rate in which it would be enormously difficult to undo any damage done.

Consider, for instance, sewage spills. These are rapid, acute events that demand urgent responses. Few, however, result in major, long-term threats to a community.

In contrast, most environmental threats consist of small, incremental, barely-noticeable changes that, over time, cumulatively produce large impacts. This include rising numbers of people, resource users and the creep of human impact zones and footprint. Greater Yellowstone has ample examples of what not to do based on the loss of natural character that has occurred in other regions that did not astutely anticipate the impacts of impacts.  In Europe, for example, a recent analysis of 88 slow-acting environmental problems—including climate change, species extinction, and forest problems —showed that 84 were caused by policy failures which allowed the problems to keep worsening. 

We are experiencing the convergence of "slow threats"  in Jackson Hole and it is happening in  high-growth Bozeman and Gallatin County. Can we distinguish the important from the urgent? To do so, we’ll need to abandon our egosystem, our narrow advocacy, our risk-averse silo mentalities, our focus on ordinary problems and our tendency to not just act, but over-react. The best way to deal with serious consequential impacts is to prevent them from happening.

What we’re up against, of course, is ourselves. It's in our biology. Our human nature is averse to self-limitation and acceptance of rules that impart benefits beyond our own lives. We see fast change, not slow. We understand intentional action that causes harm, but we’re not so good at seeing actions not intended to cause harm but do (e.g., skiing near critical winter wildlife habitat, feeding elk and  hastening an outbreak of Chronic Wasting Disease or mountain biking in grizzly country and discovering it negatively impacting bears). 
What we’re up against, of course, is ourselves. It's in our biology. Our human nature is averse to self-limitation and acceptance of rules that impart benefits beyond our own lives. We see fast change, not slow. We understand intentional action that causes harm, but we’re not so good at seeing actions not intended to cause harm but do.
We can deal with visible and present dangers, but not those drawn out over years or that exist beyond what we can currently comprehend. We are drawn to simplicity and we avoid complexity. But these and other human traits are not conducive to solving slow threats or finding our common interest. Share interests must be the foundation of a shared vision.

3. Be practical and pragmatic while adhering to high principles

This is why we have some of the most foresighted environmental laws and policies on the books that look after not only the best interest and common good of future human generations but they accomplish the same for wildlife that have no other options for where they reside. For policies to succeed, it’s important to provide frequent and continuous feedback with indicators everyone can understand. 

As technology advances, data collection, analysis, and feedback can become more powerful and easier to use.  Look at what has happened with our understanding of wildlife migrations. Technology can also make it easier to visualize challenges and alternative scenarios. Such insights must be incorporated into the thought process. Finally, we must be willing to call out bad actors, but only in ways that do not humiliate people but hold them to account. 
Let’s not delude ourselves: Jackson Hole and this, our home region, are not immune to the bigger problems found elsewhere. It’s all too easy to imagine we’ll always have this beautiful, healthy environment with endless outdoor and lifestyle opportunities, and have them without needing to assume responsibilities or face consequences. While that may once have been possible, today it is magical thinking, no longer tenable given the rapid changes we humans are causing. 
Overall, we need increased and persistent engagement by knowledgeable, skilled citizens, organizations, and private and public leaders. These all can help make policy effective, from local to national scales and facilitate identifying our common vision.

If we choose to do so, we can clarify, secure, and sustain our common interests in Jackson Hole and well beyond, while being practical and following high principles. To do so, though, we need more than good intentions and rhetoric—we need mechanisms for upgrading our policy-making process to the highest standards, especially at governance and constitutive levels.
Elk gather in highly-concentrated numbers over artificial feed given to them at the National Elk Refuge in Jackson Hole. Many experts say the practice is setting up one of the most famous wapiti herds in America for potential catastrophe with Chronic Wasting Disease. The state of Wyoming operates another 22 feedgrounds and has been reluctant to shut them down. Photo courtesy US Fish and Wildlife Service/National Elk Refuge
Elk gather in highly-concentrated numbers over artificial feed given to them at the National Elk Refuge in Jackson Hole. Many experts say the practice is setting up one of the most famous wapiti herds in America for potential catastrophe with Chronic Wasting Disease. The state of Wyoming operates another 22 feedgrounds and has been reluctant to shut them down. Photo courtesy US Fish and Wildlife Service/National Elk Refuge
Let’s not delude ourselves: Jackson Hole and this, our home region, are not immune to the bigger problems found elsewhere. Those other places are instructive for they provide vivid examples of what we might lose.  It’s all too easy to imagine we’ll always have this beautiful, healthy environment with endless outdoor and lifestyle opportunities, and have them without needing to assume responsibilities or face consequences for bad choices. While that may once have been possible, today it is magical thinking, no longer tenable given the rapid changes we humans are causing. 

Developing sound policy is not about optimism versus pessimism, economy versus ecology, or red versus blue, but pragmatic hope. It is a difficult but essential process and, as the last several decades have taught us, it requires far more than muddling through or enduring endless cycles of power plays. 

We possess all the concepts and tools we need to create, implement, and evaluate sound policy. It's right here in the wealth of practical experience, caring residents dedicated to the region’s environmental health,  individuals with special skills and resources, and deep scholarship and experience about effective policy making. Often underestimated is the amount of goodwill that flows from our common undeniable love for this place. Combining them, we can structure and guide a process that permits us to work through real problems effectively, equitably, and in ways that serve our common interests. 

Let’s go to work creating a common vision that places us right in the middle of nature as recognizes our role as a sensitive-minded cog in its longterm environmental health. 

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Susan G. Clark
About Susan G. Clark

Susan G. Clark is the Joseph F. Cullman 3rd Professor adjunct of Wildlife Ecology and Policy Sciences at Yale’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies and co-founder of the Northern Rockies Conservation Cooperative. A decades-long resident of Jackson Hole, her extensive local, regional, and international professional experience is documented in over a dozen books and hundreds of papers. She is now completing a long-awaited book titled Signals From Yellowstone's Future that calls for making protection of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem a national conservation priority.  Many of Clark's students today work for government agencies, conservation non-profit organizations and environmentally-oriented businesses. She notes: “I'm deeply concerned about the shortcomings of our policy-making efforts, and want to identify practical, realistic ways to address our challenges. The thoughts in this essay were excerpted from the book I'm working on that explores our understanding of the challenges we face, their causes, and how to upgrade both the processes and content of our decision making. It ends with a call for more farsighted leadership and effective management policy processes.”
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