The New West: Best Advice for Jackson Hole

By on April 4, 2018

Remembering the past and acknowledging the future as a community transforms

JACKSON HOLE, WY – When I made my first visit to the valley in the early 1980s and then after I moved here mid-decade, Jackson Hole was a very different “place.”

The kind of non-hustling quietude so rare and fleeting today was still abundant.

A trophy home costing seven figures to build was so anomalous that everyone in town talked about it. There was no affordable housing crisis or gated subdivisions with security guards. The runway at Jackson Hole Airport was shorter and the planes that landed smaller. Strutting sage grouse outnumbered the count of landing Lear jets.

Teton Village was rustic, a far cry from its current pretentious persona. Teton Pines had yet to be created. There were no massive real estate plays happening on the other side of Teton Pass in Idaho. Mardy Murie still entertained folks over cookies and tea in Moose. The Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance had just successfully rallied citizens to fight off potential oil and gas development proposed for Cache Creek east of town.

Back then, there were no mountain bikes, no major wildlife safari companies, and except for dude ranch horse rides, guided climbing, hunts and fishing, river floats and skiing, there was none of today’s ultra-manic, opportunistic fervor to monetize as much of nature as possible.

Because of the heart-palpitating way the Tetons rise, Jackson Hole has always stirred high-adrenaline energy in people, though the vibe wasn’t so amped up as it is now.

All these years, while locals vowed they never wanted their community to become the Aspen of Greater Yellowstone, that’s exactly what happened. 

Occasionally, I still come across notes from interviews I did with Cliff Hansen, Louise Bertschy, John Clymer, the Hardeman Brothers (when they still ran cattle in the meadows outside of Wilson), Mary Mead, Boots Allen, Stippy Wolff, Tom and Cile Lamb, Weezy MacLeod, Virginia Huidekoper, Paul McCollister, Moosie Woodling, Bob Dornan, Ted Major, Inger Koedt, Doris Platts and others. If you don’t know of these people, then much of the above probably holds no traction.

If, in the late 1980s, you owned property before the boom, or worked as an enterprising land broker, you couldn’t believe how fast real estate prices skyrocketed. It used to be that ranchers were the only ones who were land rich-cash poor; suddenly nearly every member of Jackson Hole’s working class lucky enough to own their own home fell into that category.

I write this knowing that the stories of how communities change are complicated and never wholly linear. 

As some human values shifted, something remarkable happened on public lands. In many ways, if you consider the reintroduction of wolves and the recovery of both grizzly bears and mountain lions, they became wilder.

Those who hated predators still curse them and their conservation advocates, the same way indigenous people reviled the first settlers. Yet those who scream that things were “better” when cattle grazing was allowed to predominate other uses in Grand Teton National Park cannot deny the appeal that wild nature has in the 21st century.

As numbers of hunters decline nationally, far more people growing in number are willing to shell out good money to see grizzlies alive and hear a wolf pack howl. Like it or not, savor the “new” Jackson Hole or the era of old timers, but it’s a fact.

And, with changing attitudes and values, comes new challenges. Everybody wants a piece of this place, and many now look out upon the landscape not as a fine place to grow a beef cow or turn a tree into merchantable lumber but how to recreate, which is its own kind of consumptive, industrial-strength natural resource use.

Lacking is any reflection on what accelerating user numbers mean for the very wildness that sets Greater Yellowstone and Jackson Hole apart. 

Fifty years from now the people who come to our region will revere us not for how many new trails we built or peaks we bagged or waterways we forced open, but by our own ethic of self-restraint.

Yes, we can “have it all,” we can “take” what we believe is ours, commodify it, use it up, and conquer to suit our own egos. Or we can choose to leave country untamed and ungentrified for them to enjoy.

The shift we need is one that transitions away from being focused only on sating individual desires and venerating self-interest to contemplating what’s good, too, for those who come after us or live beneath us. That, after all, is the essence of communities where mindful people want to be. 

Todd Wilkinson, founder of Mountain Journal, is author of Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek, about famous Greater Yellowstone grizzly bear 399 featuring 150 photographs by Tom Mangelsen, available only at mangelsen.com/grizzly.

 

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About Todd Wilkinson

Todd Wilkinson, founder of Mountain Journal (which just published a long piece on climate change in Greater Yellowstone), is also author of Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek about famous Greater Yellowstone grizzly bear 399 featuring 150 photographs by Tom Mangelsen, available only at mangelsen.com/grizzly.

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