Given all that is going on in Jackson Hole and the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, socially, politically and environmentally, with record crowds and harmful impacts, it seems like a good time to rethink our approach and question where we are going.
We are in high gear commodifying nature, with tourism and recreation serving as the “goose that laid the golden egg.”
We capture the money in tourists’ pockets and play outdoors with minimal responsibility. This has been a successful business strategy, but it comes with a big downside that is currently downplayed or ignored: incremental environmental degradation. If you doubt this, ask public officials on the forests and the park about the consequences of overcrowding (e.g., increased fires, trash, wildlife disturbance, wildlife road kills, overuse of Cache Creek). The development on Snow King is another example, as are the mountain bikers illegally using the Palisades Wilderness Study Area, dirt bikers going off trail in Grand Teton National Park and another moose killed on Highway 390.
Sometimes it seems like we are passengers on a runaway semi careening down Teton Pass heading straight for downtown Wilson.
American historian John Meacham asks about the American enterprise, “What are we working toward?” Is it a shared “covenant of hope” that we seek? He argues that the best line ever written about our working and striving is, “All men are created equal ... with certain unalienable rights.” This is a first principle. It cannot be realized by itself just because our forebears claimed it. American society have been struggling since those words were written to find a judicial way to embody this first principle in the lives of all its citizens, and it remains the democratic and social challenge of our times.
Similarly, maintaining and protecting a healthy natural environment is a first principle, so fundamental that it is taken for granted by many. Like breathing, ecological functioning just seems to happen automatically in the background. Too often we don’t tend to the health of the environment or take responsibility for it like we should. Sometimes, the more fundamental something is in our lives, the more invisible it is. Our goal in the Teton County land use plan, No. 1, is “Stewardship of Wildlife, Natural Resources, and Sustainability.” Other goals speak to climate problems, energy conservation, a healthy community, growth management and more. But we will not have a healthy environment just because the plan calls for it. This is the environmental challenge we face.
We live in a “reflexive moment.” We can do a realistic “rethink” of how we live and act — in personal, civic and environmental terms — for a healthy environment. Jackson Hole and the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem are the best places for us to start rethinking our individual and collective situation and develop better approaches. If we don’t, the only path before us is the metaphoric truck crashing into Wilson.
As an educator who has lived in Jackson for over 50 years, I am preparing to meet my students soon. My challenge is how to help them not be overwhelmed by our many problems, from personal to global, environmental and justice (human dignity). I want to empower them to be realistic, action oriented and solidly grounded in good science, critical thinking and civic engagement so that they can constructively address our problems and bring in the kind of healthy future we all want. I want to help them live rewarding lives and contribute to democratic process and a healthy environment.
The basic question that I want to put to my students — and which theoretically could be put to each citizen, office, and visitor to the valley — is how each of us can contribute to living sustainably in this spectacular place today and tomorrow. We must take a long view and incorporate environmental health (especially our harmful wildlife impacts) into our deliberations and our actions. We need to reaffirm our commitment to environmental protection. We need farsighted, transformative leadership. We need to fully engage in the democratic process through innovative and cooperative means among local governments, states, tribes and federal agencies. We must earn and maintain trust by being ethical, respectful, and using objective environmental information.
A healthy future can be secured only if we take personal responsibility and engage constructively.