Teton County’s conservationists have their sights set on a bureaucratic changeup: a new town and county position focused solely on conservation.
“There’s no reason, with the position Teton County holds in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, that we shouldn’t have someone dedicated to conservation issues,” said Kristin Combs, executive director of Wyoming Wildlife Advocates. Such a role does not currently exist.
Combs is one of 18 conservation officials who signed onto the request. Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance Executive Director Skye Schell delivered the letter to town and county officials as both groups begin to gear up for the 2020-2021 budgeting process.
The town and county both consider environmental factors in some of their decision making, but neither employs an all-encompassing environmental ombudsman. Snake River Fund Executive Director Jared Baecker said the lack of a government staffer focused on prioritizing ecosystems in decisions has caused some things to slip through the cracks.
“Here in Teton County where we have an abundance of wild rivers,” Baecker said, “we’ve lacked the oversight to manage how bank stabilization projects have been appropriately filed and executed by land owners and developers.”
A new conservation-focused official, in Baecker’s mind, would nip problems early on. Like a planner who works to make sure new developments comply with land development regulations before they’re built, the conservation planner would allow the county to “pre-vet” projects before they get too far down the road.
According to the official request, conservationists see the position as a convener of sorts, someone who would coordinate ecosystem protections and environmental initiatives among different government departments and agencies. Information gathering would be part of the role, as well as championing the ecosystem in development and infrastructure projects.
“We have a comprehensive plan that’s been in place for a while now, and it needs a steward to make sure those plans get followed through with,” Combs said. She was interested in someone to “keep an eye” on the existing Teton County/Jackson Comprehensive Plan, but also to look at it “with a shrewd eye and asking if that’s going to get us where we want to be.”
The staffing request came out of Systems of Conservation, a network of environmental organizations that meets quarterly. Facilitated by the Community Foundation of Jackson Hole, the group’s goal is to share information among organizations with similar goals.
“This was a perfect opportunity for us to get together and say this should be a priority at the government level,” Combs said. “The conservation organizations are talking to each other. We’re talking about broader issues that affect wildlife and water and air and all of these things.”