Teton County residents are caught in a dilemma. Tourism sustains our economy. It directly and indirectly employs many of us. It’s estimated that tourism brought $1.25 billion into the local economy in 2019. It also gives us the choice of restaurants of a much larger city — and also sustains some 30 art galleries.
But tourism also makes it difficult to get a reservation at those same restaurants. And it clogs the roadways and overpopulates the trails, making it hard for locals to enjoy the spots that they love.
Jackson once viewed itself as primarily a ranching community, even though dude ranches did significant business. Local residents fought the expansion of Grand Teton National Park in the 1930s and 1940s. But by the end of World War II it was clear that tourism was going to be the future of our economy.
Now, however, we’re bumping up against the limits of what the valley can support. We’re frustrated by the crowds and ache for the quiet of the (increasingly busy) shoulder seasons. Summers now fill many of us with dread, as we’re buried in traffic and smoked out by fires.
Like many other communities across the West we’ve realized that something needs to change. The Jackson Hole Travel and Tourism Board is currently leading our response. The board has launched a process it’s calling the Sustainable Destination Management Plan. George Washington University’s International Institute of Tourism Studies has been hired with a budget of $150,000 to help our community develop a strategy that will let us exercise some control over the influx of tourists.
The Travel and Tourism Board consists of seven volunteer members appointed by the Teton County commissioners and the Jackson Town Council. The board controls 60% of the funds collected from Teton County’s 2% lodging tax, which it has used to promote travel to Teton County. Its seven members have a variety of backgrounds, but the majority come from the worlds of business and tourism.
Consistent with that background, the traditional role of the board, often called the TTB, has been to encourage more tourism, particularly across the shoulder seasons. Environmental perspectives, i.e., ones that would call for finding ways to limit the flood of tourists, have not been part of its mission. This is changing, but it’s not clear that the board has kept up with changes in our situation and with evolving public sentiment.
I attended the March 15 meeting at Snow King that launched the planning process. Presentations by the TTB and professors from George Washington raised a number of issues surrounding the need to manage growth. There was, however, no discussion of whether we should also be identifying limits to growth. I posed a question to the organizers: Since the growth in tourism can’t continue forever, shouldn’t we also be talking about when and how we can set limits to its growth?
My question didn’t receive an answer. Admittedly, this is a difficult issue. For comparison, consider the Jackson/Teton County Comprehensive Plan. Completed in 2012 and revised in November 2020, the plan is Teton County’s roadmap for a sustainable future. It wrestles with the question of limits through the concept of “buildout.”
Buildout is “the state of maximum development as permitted by a plan or regulations.” There will always be redevelopment in Teton County, the scraping off of one structure and its replacement by another. But the development of virgin space and the increase in local population will obviously have to come to an end at some point.
The comp plan addresses the question of buildout not by coming up with an absolute number but by creating zoning regulations that limit what can occur on different types of property. Of course these zoning regulations can be changed, and the comp plan can be ignored. But elected officials are constrained by the political force of the 2012 plan, the result of more than 175 meetings over a four-year period — as well as by the physical limits of the land.
Creating the comp plan required arduous effort. It now draws its moral force from having engaged the entire community through that difficult process. My concern is that the destination management plan won’t accurately reflect the values of our community today. Given its history the travel and tourism board seems a less-than-ideal place for a community discussion of the future of tourism. The board’s historical mission, tied to growing tourism, makes it difficult for it to give the question of limiting tourism — or for that matter, lowering the current visitor numbers to something more sustainable — a full hearing.
The future of tourism concerns us all. The development of Teton County and the future of tourism are fundamentally linked; the two issues need to be thought together. Hopefully the next comprehensive plan will include the question of the future of tourism. But, in the meantime, I hope that the sustainable destination management plan addresses all the questions we face concerning tourism.