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Boom-time Frenzy: What Kind Of Prosperity Destroys The Foundation It Is Built Upon?

Never mind Greater Yellowstone's super volcano, there's already an epic destructive explosion occurring in some corners of the ecosystem. And it's called growth

Mountain Journal graphic specialist Gus O'Keefe created this image as a dramatic spoof  on how development is spilling over the Tetons from Jackson Hole into Idaho.  But looking out two generations, some demographers say it's no joke as the transofrmation of several Greater Yellowstone valleys is already well underway.
Mountain Journal graphic specialist Gus O'Keefe created this image as a dramatic spoof on how development is spilling over the Tetons from Jackson Hole into Idaho. But looking out two generations, some demographers say it's no joke as the transofrmation of several Greater Yellowstone valleys is already well underway.
The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is a dynamic natural region unique in the world. If there are twin piston communities driving the engines of change in our corner of “the New West,” they undoubtedly are Jackson Hole, Wyoming and Bozeman, Montana.

Greater Yellowstone faces many significant issues. The most immediate, happening in real time before our eyes, is the rapidly expanding footprint of human development as well as visitation to national parks in the ecosystem’s core.

It has always been extraordinary, at least to this journalistic observer, how little elected officials in the town of Jackson and Teton County, Wyoming ever communicate with their counterparts in Bozeman and Gallatin County, Montana.  

Why is that? There is a lot they could learn from each other and, given what’s at stake and how their local decisions have consequences that ripple across the region, maybe it’s time they started scheduling annual rendezvous? 

One thing is certain: the era when traditional, fragmented provincial thinking ruled and local jurisdictions could pretend they exist as isolated bubbles set unto themselves, is over. 

The conundrums created by Jackson Hole’s limited private land base, and the spillover impacts resulting from it, are well-documented and undeniable. Teton County, by one measure, is considered one of the richest, per capita, counties in America. Also obvious is that Teton County, struggling with epic transportation, crowding and lack of affordability issues for middle and lower income people will not grow its way out of these problems. 

Stuffing more humans into the valley, be it through high rises, more motel rooms or privatizing public land and making it available to free market developers is certain to exacerbate the troubles above, experts say, rather than ameliorate them. Not to mention, there is the undeniable toll that more people, development, and recreation pressure is having on wildlife and habitat.

What's troubling is that federal land managers acknowledge they have no good handle on the cumulative effects of outdoor recreation. A few of Greater Yellowstone's high-profile national forests are presently in the process of writing their management plans and these documents will lay the groundwork for more access yet little science exists to tell them if it's a wise idea or not. 

We already know that more winter recreation in the backcountry is displacing bighorn sheep and wolverines. We know that rising recreation use levels is displacing wildlife in other seasons and causing human conflicts on trails near Bozeman and Jackson. We know that some users have cavalierly blazed unplanned, unapproved illegal trails and the Forest Service has been reticent in recent years to forcefully confront it, almost engendering an outlaw mentality that encourages people to do it now and then seek to have their routes grandfathered after the fact.

At the southern end of the ecosystem, there's a different kind of problem. The federal Bureau of Land Management is approving a rapid expansion of energy development and agency managers refusing to heed the warnings from scientists that it will severely harm wildlife migration corridors and the prospects of survival for sage grouse (which serve as an indicator of habitat health for other species). 

Up north, in Bozeman and Gallatin County, the problem is not lack of developable private land in comparison to Teton County, but rather an abundance of it, with planners at both the city and county level today being unwilling, or incapable, of confronting jaw-dropping growth-related impacts. In some ways, the boom happening there makes the growth issues in Teton County, Wyoming and adjacent Teton County, Idaho seem, well, almost quaint.

In a long-form journalism piece published in Mountain Journal, the trajectory of where growth is headed was laid out using conservative statistics.

The trend goes something like this. At current rates of newcomers pouring in, Bozeman and the surrounding Gallatin Valley—present population around 105,000—will double in 18 to 24 years. If the inward migration continues—and there is evidence that once the infrastructure of development expands it easily could—another doubling beyond that would mean 440,000 people inhabiting Bozeman and the valley just past the middle of this century.

Contemplate for a moment the kind of transformative effect such a population—and the accompanying spillover—would have on the wild character and sense of place we cherish about Greater Yellowstone today. 

Now, combine this scenario playing out on the northern end of the ecosystem with the growth-related problems already plaguing both sides of the Tetons and them certain to get markedly worse in the decades ahead. On top of it, add in the ballooning footprint of Big Sky northwest of Yellowstone Park. Development in Big Sky has made the U.S. Highway 191 corridor one of the most dangerous highways in the West. The westward bulge of Big Sky could soon push into the pastoral Madison Valley and already there is a fiery debate over whether, as a convenient option, treated sewage water from Big Sky should be released into the Gallatin River, promoted by some as a way to benefit the river's flows.

Citizens in Bozeman themselves got another sobering wake-up call February 2019 when the city released the findings of a draft consultant’s report

A few take homes from that and from a related story appearing in the Bozeman Daily Chronicle (which you can’t read unless you are a subscriber to that paper; reading MoJo's requires no subscription.

Here’s the first stunner of the report. Home construction has not kept pace with job growth. Over 11,000 jobs were created in Bozeman alone since 2012. But the city added 800 fewer units than are needed to meet the needs of employees filling new jobs. Demand for more housing is high, and so are rents and real estate prices. 

What it means is that, in response, elected officials will be eager to greenlight more development to try to catch up with housing demand being driven by job growth which is being driven by more development. All the while, property taxes continue to rise to pay for more roads, schools, police and fire facilities. 

Do you see the feedback loop that’s been created? Apart from the challenges being created for humans, the frantic boom is happening without practically any government reflection on the impact that development is having on Bozeman’s/Gallatin’s natural landscape. There has not been a single analysis prepared on how nature is being transformed. Were the development happening on a  federal public land, there would've been an Environmental Impact Statement required a decade ago.

The consultant report to the city estimates that Bozeman, at current growth rates, needs as many as 6,340 new housing options built by 2025—yes, 6300 in just six years—to keep pace with people who need places to live, according to a newspaper story. “Even working folks are dropping off of the ability to find affordable rentals, and so they’re finding themselves in that emergency shelter situation,” City Commissioner Terry Cunningham was quoted by the Chronicle as saying.
"The report estimates that Bozeman, at current growth rates, needs as many as 6,340 new housing options built by 2025—yes, 6300 in just six years—to keep pace with people who need places to live."
The newspaper piece adds, "Developers have plans for another 1,000 residential units in Bozeman over the next year. However, consultant Christine Walker said many of those developments are geared toward luxury, not affordability."  Some developers have said that if the city enacts regulations mandating affordable housing or supports higher impact fees, they'll simply put up structures in the county where rules are more lax and yet where the wildlife values are highest.
In future columns, I’ll be exploring the implications of the above but for now, here are a couple of undeniable truths. Desperate communities often are forced to do desperate, poorly-thought out things when they have no plan. Communities that fail to create fair and equitable living conditions for all citizens are also not likely to be sympathetic to the needs of wildlife nor are they places sensitive to the fragility of nature.

Right now, there is not a single ecologist on staff with the city of Bozeman or Gallatin County, which together represent the fastest-growing urban hub in the northern Rockies. City and county officials claim they can't afford to put an ecologist on staff. What kind of economic prosperity destroys the very foundation upon which it was built?

If no one is raising the issue of what’s being rapidly lost in the natural environment, and elected officials express little interest in knowing why, then how can it ever be saved?

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Todd Wilkinson
About Todd Wilkinson

Todd Wilkinson, founder of Mountain Journal,  is author of the  book Ripple Effects: How to Save Yellowstone and American's Most Iconic Wildlife Ecosystem.  Wilkinson has been writing about Greater Yellowstone for 35 years and is a correspondent to publications ranging from National Geographic to The Guardian. He is author of several books on topics as diverse as scientific whistleblowers and Ted Turner, and a book about the harrowing 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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