Jackson Hole: Balancing Nature and Development

by Bill Chameides | July 26th, 2010
posted by Erica Rowell (Editor)

Permalink | 2 comments

A visit to Jackson Hole, Wyoming.

Travels with TheGreenGrok: Over the next few weeks my deanly duties will be taking me to some interesting places: Jackson Hole, Wyoming; the Gulf Coast to see the impacts of the oil-well blowout first hand; and then on a cruise to Greenland. I thought I would take TheGreenGrok along. This post is the first in a series on these travels.

A visit to paradise confronting the march of progress.

How does one balance the need, indeed the necessity to preserve the natural and the wild while accommodating the economic imperative to develop? It’s a problem that in one form or another is being played out all over the globe.

To get some insights into this issue and see how one community is trying to deal with it, the Nicholas School’s Vanguard — forward-thinking supporters of the school dedicated to innovative education and cutting-edge research in the environment and sustainability — spent a couple of days in the valley of Jackson Hole, Wyoming, exploring the natural wonders and visiting and talking with local scientists and environmental leaders.

What’s in a Name?

Jackson Hole’s name reportedly comes from its topography: a huge valley surrounded by mountains, which to the early trappers atop those mountains looked like a hole. The “Jackson” part was in honor of David Edward Jackson, a trapper from the early 19th century who hung out in the area.

But to be historically accurate, I should note that the region’s original name was Jackson’s Hole. The story goes that the local leaders became embarrassed and decided to drop the possessive in the interests of propriety. Incidentally, Jackson Hole should not be confused with the town of Jackson, which is located in the southern part of the Jackson Hole valley but has no ”hole” appendage to its appellation.

The Environmental Story

Jackson Hole is an exemplar of the worldwide environmental challenge we face. It’s a place of incredible beauty with soaring mountains, colorful valleys, breathtaking vistas, and a plethora of wildlife. But modernity and development encroach. While Wyoming is an energy state, most development, whether for mining operations or natural gas wells, occurs outside the Jackson Hole area. Here, ranchers sell their land to developers who build condos, homes and golf courses. Who can blame them — if I could afford it, I’d love a cozy abode in the shadows of the Grand Tetons. For now, the couple of days I got to spend there will have to suffice.

The highlight of the trip was of course the outdoors — the hikes, the scenery, the animals. But we also learned a lot from the people we talked and visited with. Here’s a short summary of three such encounters.

Bird Banding

On the first leg of the trip we met up with a group of scientists at the Teton Science School who are working on the national Monitoring of Avian Productivity and Survivorship (MAPS) project aimed at understanding the importance of factors like forest fragmentation and economic development on land bird populations. (More on this here.) These scientists catch birds in nets, then band them (if they are not already banded), record their particulars — species, sex, weight size, stage of molting — and then release them. All the data are then entered into a national database, allowing scientists to track their movements and health.

The scientists at the Teton Science School site said they thought they were seeing a decline in bird populations but not because of humans, or at least not directly. For some reason beaver populations are on the rise there; and the industrious little ones are cutting down trees, damming up the local creek and generally making things less hospitable for the birds. Not something they expected to find, but that’s why scientists go out into the field in the first place — to learn what’s really happening, not what they think is.


A Sustainable Development Development?

After a hike up the eastern slopes to get a better view of the Tetons, we visited the 3 Creeks Ranch, a residential and golf development that has tried to do things differently. They took a 710-acre ranch and developed 136 homesites and an 18-hole golf course while preserving some 250 acres through conservation easements and restoring (for a hefty price tag) the three spring creeks that flow through the property.

Naturalist Roger Smith, who oversees the ranch’s conservation and restoration projects, confessed that when he was younger, he’d have turned up his nose at a project like 3 Creeks. “But then I realized that these developments were going to happen regardless,” he explained. “Either I could be a part of it and try to make it happen right or I could choose to be out of the game.”

Not only is Roger in the game, but he now gets calls from developers all over the country asking for help in designing eco-friendly communities.


The Comeback Wolves

Perhaps more than any other animal, the wolf is emblematic of the clash of America’s cultural attitudes about the environment. For some the wolf is iconic of nature’s beauty and allure of the wild. For others, the wolf epitomizes the evil, vicious wild beast that should be exterminated.

Michael Jimenez of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service who spoke with us during breakfast one morning is trying to find a middle ground between these two polarized viewpoints. He heads the Wyoming Wolf Recovery Program, which has been working over the past 11 years to reintroduce the gray wolf into the northwestern United States. He believes that wolves can play a constructive role at the top of the food chain in the West but that they cannot be allowed to roam and propagate without limit.

The hugely successful project might be a kind of victim of its own success. The initial introduction of 66 wolves to central Idaho and Yellowstone National Park in the mid-1990s has grown into a wolf population of about 1,700 [pdf]. When the project began, Mike was a frequent target of wrath from angry ranchers who believed there’s no place for wolves on the American landscape. Now, as he works to keep the wolf populations in check and minimize their presence in human communities, it’s environmentalists denouncing his actions. Some have even labeled him a ”wolf murderer.“ Nevertheless, Mike says he intends to continue to do his job, hoping for “rationality” some day and laughing a lot.

Three stories of how folks dedicated to the environment are working to find a way to keep the wild alive alongside of civilization. Let’s see if they will succeed.

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  1. Ken Towe
    Jul 27, 2010

    Â “The Lodge at Sun Ranch is a luxury eco-lodge located in southwestern Montana, near the angler-acclaimed Madison River and just 40 minutes from Yellowstone National Park. The Lodge is a part of the Sun Ranch Group, a multi-faceted company that devotes its time and energy towards developing a consistent model for the practices of conservation and sustainability. The Lodge proves that secluded luxury and rustic adventure can exist while giving back to nature and our local community.” My wife and I stayed at their predecessor, Papoose Creek Lodge. All very eco-friendly. Great place, good food, great adventures…a model for sustainability. But can this work on a large scale to make a difference worldwide with an ever-increasing number of “carbon footprints”? Not very likely, but we can try.

  2. Jim
    Jul 26, 2010

    I went on a ski trip there many years ago and we took a sleigh ride through the herds of Caribou. It was breathtaking. I really hope they are able to preserve much of pristine beauty in the area.

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