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.

Susan Clark lives in East Jackson in a log house built from scratch. She is a professor at Yale University and has won many awards for her teaching, research and leadership work. Guest Shots are solely the opinion of their authors.

(6) comments

Kevin Bertagnolli


Kevin Bertagnolli


stan cairns

"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." The terms "essential and non-essential" have been used to evaluate the metrics of economic values during this "reflexive Covid moment". What percentage of this regions economy could realistically be categorized as Essential? Ethical? Sustainable? To speak of a "healthy future" "solidly grounded in good science,critical thinking and civic engagement"; one cannot avoid evaluating our "american" way of unrestrained consumptive living and all the corollary ecologic degradations that support it as expressions of a collective vice rather than a virtue."The world has enough for everyone's need,but not enough for everyone's greed." M.Gandhi

Ken Chison

But Susan, can you do it while remaining politically neutral and not trying to push an agenda. Young minds are easy to manipulate. As we see from most universities across the country, who are left-leaning, college now is only professors pushing a political agenda. The key to good teaching is to leave your personal thoughts out of the equation. 1 groups science may conflict another groups science. So to teach both sides is always the best. Leave the decision-making to the students. And we all know that that no longer happens.

David Weingart

I would strongly disagree that one group's science conflicts with another group's science. The data are the data, whether you agree with them or not. There are no "sides" in data.

The minute you say "the earth is only 6000 years old" you're not talking about the data, you're talking about religion. The minute you say "the earth isn't warming" you're not talking about the data, you're making a political statement.

There are no "both sides" in science. There is data, there is replicability, there is observation, hypothesis, and theory (and theory means something different in science than it does in the vernacular -- when a scientist tells you something is a theory then that means it's on extremely firm footing).


Not sure what this woman teaches, but many of us old codgers can still be vital and employed because many of the new workforce entrants are weak in the 3 R's. Education needs to focus on the basic tools needed for on-going learning and less on soft subjects like shaping opinions.

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