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Meet a Conservation Group That Goes Where Most Fear To Tread

The Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance dares to say the two words that often make land protectionists run for the hills: "planning" and "zoning." But they're crucial to saving the Greater Yellowstone

Wildflower bouquets pay homage to a moose that perished trying to cross a busy highway in Jackson Hole—emblematic of how growth issues are taking a heavy toll on wildlife in the piecturesque Wyoming valley. While many groups work in wildlife conservation, few in Greater Yellowstone are involved in private land use planning issues, day in and out, pushing for planning and zoning and vigorously scrutinizing development that is destroying the natural essence of landscapes. One of the groups that does is the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance. Photo courtesy Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance.
Wildflower bouquets pay homage to a moose that perished trying to cross a busy highway in Jackson Hole—emblematic of how growth issues are taking a heavy toll on wildlife in the piecturesque Wyoming valley. While many groups work in wildlife conservation, few in Greater Yellowstone are involved in private land use planning issues, day in and out, pushing for planning and zoning and vigorously scrutinizing development that is destroying the natural essence of landscapes. One of the groups that does is the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance. Photo courtesy Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance.

by Todd Wilkinson

Almost 35 years ago, when I first settled in the West as a journalist after starting as a violent crime reporter at the City News Bureau of Chicago, my inauguration to local environmentalism started in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. 

I was a 24-year-old with the humble Jackson Hole News, assigned immediately to spend a couple of days with members of the oil and gas industry, elected members of the Teton County, Wyoming Commission, and leaders of the Jackson Hole Alliance for Responsible Planning—today known as the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance. 

We set out, within hours after I arrived in town, on a field trip across the Pinedale Anticline and a swath of BLM land that would become the Jonah Gas Field more a than decade before major energy development would erupt there. 

No one knew then what was coming to the open, treeless flanks of the Wind River Mountains or what the consequences would be for pronghorn and mule deer migrations, Greater Sage-Grouse or the next iteration of boom and bust shaking human communities.

We visited Kemmerer and Rock Springs, towns positioned around the Red Desert south of Jackson Hole where full field natural gas and oil development were already underway. 

As context, it’s important to note that a significant portion of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem's east side is underlain by a geological feature called “the Overthrust Belt” where huge natural concentrations of fossil fuels are believed to be. Whether they can be logistically and commercially extracted was the multi-million-dollar question.

At one time, in fact, (and few young or new denizens living in Jackson Hole today recognize this), the energy industry, Bridger-Teton National Forest and Wyoming politicians were very keen on exploring the possibility of natural gas development occurring up Cache Creek and the foothills of the Gros Ventre mountains just a few miles east of Jackson Hole’s famous town square. 

The prospect of full-field energy development occurring in that spectacular wild country stirred up more than a little concern. Citizens rallied together, along with a savvy activist affiliated with the Sierra Club named Phil Hocker, and thus what is now the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance was born ad hoc.  Fortunately, it still lives.

In subsequent years, the Jackson Hole Alliance would distinguish itself for doing something that few other conservation organizations do well—promoting wise stewardship of nature on both public and private lands, understanding that what happens on one landscape has tremendous and potentially permanent consequences for the other. 

Some people still claim that wildlife in Greater Yellowstone will always thrive because of the region’s abundance of public land. Early on, the Jackson Hole Alliance and the scientists it enlists to inform its positions pointed out the absurdity of that argument.

If you want to know what one of the most urgent threats to the ecological well-being of Greater Yellowstone and its incomparable diversity of wildlife is—besides climate change and the expanding human footprint fragmenting landscapes—it’s this: the lack of conservation organizations rigorously engaging on the front lines of private land conservation. 

I’m not referring to local land trusts, which do incredible work expertly brokering conservation easements with willing landowners. The amount of land being protected piecemeal by easements, however, is hardly keeping pace with the amount of acreage being rapidly lost to development—subdivisions, commercial tracts, glamping resorts, roads, fences, yardlights, noise, wildlife-unfriendly dogs, etc. approved without much thought by county and city planning departments or elected officials.

The truth is land trusts do not have the expertise or capability to be in the trenches of local land use planning issues in the 20 counties and dozens of towns and cities that comprise Greater Yellowstone. That’s not a fault; it’s a statement of fact and it gets at a serious problem.

Even though the Greater Yellowstone region has one of the highest per capita ratios of paid professional conservationists in America, few of the dozens upon dozens of national, regional and local green groups in our region are devoted to private land use planning day in and out—which is where the rubber meets the road when it comes to dealing with the tsunami of growth issues that have only accelerated during the Covid pandemic.

Many green groups have been missing in action. The assumption from citizens is that most conservation organizations are too afraid to get behind and promote countywide planning and zoning because they don’t want to alienate donors, members of the business community, politicians or that they don’t grasp the importance of doggedly scrutinizing development unless they can fundraise to oppose it.

The Jackson Hole Alliance is one of a notable handful that does. It is joined in its small circle by the Valley Advocates for Responsible Development in Teton Valley, Idaho; the Park County Environmental Council and Friends of Park County in Montana, and Bozeman-based FutureWest.

Why aren’t more conservation organizations working in the essential space of land use planning? The answer is simple. It’s damned hard. It’s not sexy. It requires tenacity, resolve, intelligence and staking positions that might be unpopular in the short term but are part of an essential paradigm shift that must occur if we are going to keep the ecological integrity of this one-of-a-kind region intact.

It’s much easier to battle a hardrock mine than to scrutinize a proposed subdivision in wildlife winter range. It’s more fun to push for construction of more recreation trails on public lands or get in bed with a downhill ski resort trying to expand skiable terrain and build more condos rather than question whether such projects make good sense.  
It’s much easier to battle a hardrock mine than to scrutinize a proposed subdivision in wildlife winter range. It’s more fun to push for construction of more recreation trails on public lands or get in bed with a downhill ski resort trying to expand skiable terrain and build more condos rather than question whether such projects make good sense.  
Teton County, Wyoming for decades has had one of the most foresighted rural land use plans in the American West, thanks largely to incessant watchdogging from generations of leaders and staffers at the Jackson Hole Alliance.  If you grumble about the impacts of growth on Jackson Hole today, imagine if the Jackson Hole Alliance and community conservationists had never existed.  Jackson Hole would have all of the un-quaint appeal of Vail.

And yet, for as visionary as the Teton County Plan has been, it has, arguably, been a huge failure in protecting the thing that sets Jackson Hole apart in the world—it’s close proximity to, and accommodation of, world-class wildlife. 

Yes, 97 percent of Teton County is public land, but it’s private land on the valley floor and mountain foothills adjacent to public land that represents the key, essential connective tissue of habitat. How humans develop the three percent of private ground, how we move through it and behave wisely or stupidly is now determining the fate of wildlife habitat and migrations. 

Which brings me back to the Jackson Hole Alliance. Naturally, developers have and would happily try to paint the group as radical but the Covid pandemic and the explosion of growth and larger numbers of visitors has exposed that argument to be a shibboleth. Right before our eyes, the special, nuanced things we love about Jackson (and Bozeman, Big Sky, Teton Valley and Paradise Valley, among others) are slipping away forever. 

Is it more radical to speak up for saving the natural character of Jackson Hole or to advocate for its destruction? Is it more radical to advocate for insuring wildlife have safe space in the only homelands they know or to be an outdoor recreationist who claims that their invading the terrain ought to take priority?  

No developer or outdoor recreationist can, with a straight face, assert that their desire for profit or self-indulgent entertainment ought to take precedence over the survival of sensitive Greater Yellowstone wildlife species that have been on the landscape for millennia—and whose enduring presence, ironically, helps keep real estate values inflated and enhances the allure of the wild backcountry.
Not only is there an absence of tenacious watchdogging coming from paid conservationists and the news media—(we’re trying to do our best at Mountain Journal)—but elected officials from both political parties have refused to state the obvious: that the “free market” has faltered abysmally in adequately protecting the private lands of Greater Yellowstone in high-growth areas and that responsible planning and zoning is the only hope we have of securing a future not only for wildlife and waterways, but it brings predictable stability to local economies.

Countywide planning and zoning is the only thing that will save grizzlies, protect wildlife corridors, scenic beauty and water quality. It's also the most fiscally-prudent strategy for dealing with growth, the rising costs of which are not only imposed upon nature but foisted on the backs of citizens. High-growth counties in Greater Yellowstone have the biggest challenges relating to affordable housing.

Real estate development is no different from hardrock mining. Both extract a finite resource until it is exhausted and leave behind impacts that are permanent. Rather than allowing the chaotic, wild-West mentality of boom and bust to overwhelm towns, we need planning and zoning, replete with incentives, to bring sanity to necessary conversations about growth that need to occur. 

My years in Jackson Hole were foundational to my long career as an environmental journalist.  Members and staff of the Jackson Hole Alliance set a high standard for what citizen activism looks like and what is essential to make a positive difference. Their willingness to stake out brave stands also, unfortunately, are reminders of what’s largely lacking in today’s citizenry—a willingness to speak up for things—natural landscapes and wildlife—that otherwise have no voice amid the whining welter of the development juggernaut.  

Go the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance's website and see what it's working on; it's impressive. Every valley in Greater Yellowstone needs a Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance or one of the equivalents mentioned above. 

On Thursday night, December 9, I gave a zoom talk titled "As Goes Jackson Hole, So Goes Greater Yellowstone" to the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance's annual holiday gathering that also honored graduates of the Conservation Leadership Institute. You can watch the address by clicking on the YouTube link below. 

Todd Wilkinson
About Todd Wilkinson

Todd Wilkinson, founder of Mountain Journal,  is an American author and journalist proudly trained in the old school tradition. He's been a journalist for 35 years and writes for publications ranging from National Geographic to The Guardian. He is author of several books on topics ranging from scientific whistleblowers to Ted Turner and the story of Jackson Hole grizzly mother 399, the most famous bear in the world which features photographs by Thomas Mangelsen. For more information on Wilkinson, click here. (Photo by David J Swift).
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