The New West: A Western Alliance

By on May 16, 2018

There is connection on the Jackson-Bozeman axis

JACKSON HOLE, WY – Jackson Hole is a valley that can be almost impossible to imagine leaving permanently. When people do pull up stakes, other than fleeing over Teton Pass to Idaho out of desperate economic necessity, they often end up in Montana.

If Teton County, Wyoming, ever broke away from the Equality State, joining Montana as its 57th county, the move would be a good fit. Unlike the constant deluge of aspersions that Jackson lawmakers receive from colleagues in Cheyenne, the shrill hostility expressed by down-staters toward people dwelling in the Tetons would be more tempered in Montana.

Especially when it comes to citizens having a similar tree-hugging affinity and appreciation for protecting wildlife. Today, there are a lot of Jackson expats who have resettled in the Treasure State and very often, when they meet each other on the street of Bozeman or Livingston, a topic of conversation is how much Jackson Hole has changed.

My friend, the great Jackson Hole nature writer Susan Marsh, who pens a column for Mountain Journal, can tell you about both communities. She worked as a backcountry specialist for both Gallatin-Custer National Forest and Bridger-Teton. 

And, as she can testify, it may be easy for Montanans to peer southward and smugly shake their heads at the profound shifts occurring in Jackson Hole (involving a crisis of affordable housing, questions about how to grow, and the way proponents of industrial-strength recreation now seem to be dominating discussions about conservation), but Greater Bozeman has its own major challenges.

Unlike Teton County, Wyoming, where, famously, 97 percent of the county is comprised of public land, Gallatin County, which has Bozeman as its county seat, has a lot of private land. It holds some of the best soil for growing crops in the state and it is being rapidly entombed by a building boom that is unprecedented.

Recently, the Bozeman-based think-tank Headwaters Economics released a study that examined growth trends and construction activity statewide.

From 1990 to 2016, the number of single-family homes in Montana grew by 50 percent, from roughly 224,000 dwellings in1990 to 337,000 in 2016. Four counties—Gallatin, Flathead, Missoula and Yellowstone—have claimed half of all new home construction in the state since the new millennium began.

For nearly two decades, Gallatin has been the fastest-growing, driven by the busiest commercial airport in the state, a wave of arriving Baby Boomer retirees, a soaring real estate market, increase in students at Montana State University, and an emerging niche of high-tech entrepreneurs. 

Gallatin shares a profound 21st-century distinction with Teton County that maybe only a couple of other counties in the Lower 48 (including Wyoming’s Fremont) can claim. There, you can still find the full complement of original large wildlife species that roamed the landscape 500 years ago. It is an economic engine.

The inward migration of people to Gallatin isn’t just unsurpassed but began to accelerate in the years after the Great Recession of 2008-2009. 

During a 15-year span between 2001 and 2016, Gallatin’s population grew three times faster than the state and accounted for at least one of every four new jobs. Since 1990, the number of single family-homes in Gallatin grew by 150 percent from roughly 11,640 in 1990 to almost 29,000 in 2016.  

As noted in an earlier Mountain Journal story, before a child born this year graduates from high school, Greater Bozeman/Gallatin is on pace to add the equivalent of a Boulder, Colorado-sized population to the landscape.

Can a place grow and not lose the things that make it attractive?

Every other month, it seems, there’s a new subdivision rising or expanding around Bozeman. 

More than a third of the new builds in Gallatin countywide occurred on lots greater than 10 acres, Headwaters found. To put that in perspective, the amount of open space consumed to accommodate development that’s already cemented in place is equivalent to 146 square miles or around six times the current size of the city of Bozeman.  Hence, the prospect of adding another Boulder-sized population to the valley by the 2030s without a corresponding strategy is, to most, unthinkable. 

Topographically and ecologically, the state and county boundaries of Montana, Wyoming and Idaho which converge to form Greater Yellowstone mean nothing. We share a common region and we need, if not a common plan, then at least a better dialogue for thinking about issues that transcend artificial boundaries.

From the top of the Greater Yellowstone to the bottom, there is an inter-relatedness. In June, the Greater Yellowstone Coordinating Committee, the group that represents the top public land managers in the region, will be hosting a symposium in Jackson about wildlife migration and its relationship to human development. 

Of all the issues, this should be one that unites us around a common cause. 


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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