The New West: The Greater Goal

By on April 26, 2018

Let’s have a common place to celebrate our ecosystem

JACKSON HOLE, WY – We are Greater Yellowstoneans. We share an ecosystem and yet often it seems as if we dwell in different worlds.

Consider the differing politics of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho, the three states that converge to form our 22.5-million-acre region. Consider how the social vibe of Jackson Hole is different from that of Cody or Lander, which, in turn, is different from Riverton and Dubois, which have dramatically different feels from Rexburg and Ennis, certainly distinct from that swelling burg to the north, Bozeman.

Think of how different a trip to Yellowstone feels versus a traipse around Grand Teton or how distantly remote the Red Desert, located on the south end of Greater Yellowstone, feels from Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge in Montana’s Centennial Valley. 

Or how the Crazies are just as much of an obscurity for denizens of Star Valley as the Salt River Range is to those in Red Lodge. Or how the Absaroka-Beartooths, national park-caliber wildlands in Montana, command as much devotion as the Wind Rivers, once a candidate for being a national park.

In my ramblings around Greater Yellowstone these past 30 years, I’ve noticed how it used to seem that we existed further apart. Today, thanks to more enlightened understanding of ecology, commerce and awareness of how things tie together, there is an emerging common identity.

Even though federal land managers long resisted the term “Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem” in favor of “Greater Yellowstone Area” because those in charge thought using the word “ecosystem” sounded too green and therefore unacceptable to politicians, our common region possesses a centrifugal allure.

Like it or not, the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, this vast geographical island of clustered mountains, high plateaus, headwaters for major rivers, wildlife migrations, native trout, unmatched still-functioning geothermal phenomena and a rare caliber of solitude, is unique.

Every Western state has pretty scenery and fine places to play, but none with our wildness.

“Unique” is an abused, overused word in our society, though its actual definition means one of a kind, unequaled and unusual.

One thing about we Greater Yellowstoneans and, by extension residents of the three states, is the fact that many of us suffer from myopia. Unless we get out and see the outside world, it’s difficult to mentally wrap one’s mind around the truth of how unique Greater Yellowstone really is.

We’ve just spent two human generations resuscitating Greater Yellowstone’s grizzly bear population and now the state of Wyoming wants to sell opportunities to kill individual bears as if hawking trinkets. 

We fight over water to grow common, non-native alfalfa to feed common non-native beef and we spend a lot of money killing wolves to protect said beef on public land when the greatest commodity ranchers own is private land habitat that keeps our world-class region functioning.

The question is how does society compensate and honor ranchers for the valuable services they safeguard and deliver, that gives them economic peace of mind, self-satisfaction and keeps them on the land?

We (our county commissions) allow people to build second, third or fourth vacation homes on the edges of national forests yet we expect American taxpayers to spend vast sums of money protecting the structures from burning.

Some developers push growth and chastise land use planning and zoning, yet try to wash their hands of the negative impacts their projects bring.

Meanwhile, our state tourism bureaus spend millions, using misleading pictures, touting summer vacations in Yellowstone without reflecting on the reality that no more promotion is needed. Roads already are filled with jarring congestion that is the opposite of the idyll they are selling.

All of the above are just a few of the inspiring, remarkable and disturbing realities converging in our backyard. They are complicated but not intractable.

What’s missing? A cohesive, thoughtful, cross-boundary adult dialogue. Not long ago, the online magazine MountainJournal.org created a page on Facebook called Greater Yellowstone Forum.

It’s not earth-shattering. It’s merely an accessible “place” to celebrate the things we love about Greater Yellowstone and to share good ideas of how to solve problems to existing challenges. 

Your passion is invited, differences of opinion welcomed and civility required.

If your modus operandi is launching personal attacks, pushing only personal interest ahead of public interest, or you don’t behold Greater Yellowstone with the reverence it deserves, no worries. There are certainly other better places for you to wield an opinion. PJH

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.


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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