The seeds for the Jackson Hole Center for Global Affairs were planted at the base of the Tetons in 1967 while David Wendt and his future wife, Olivia Meigs, worked in Jackson’s dude ranching community.
Their lifelong partnership blossomed that summer when the two were employed at the White Grass Ranch in Grand Teton National Park. Some of the other people they met there become vital to their life’s work, too.
“The last of many summers I worked as the head wrangler at the old White Grass Ranch, Olivia came to work as a cabin girl,” Wendt said. “We got married two years later and moved to Washington, D.C., but the unwritten part of the marriage contract was that we’d eventually come back to Jackson.”
In D.C. Wendt studied health and environmental policy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank. That gave shape to the couple’s ideas for running their own policy center one day.
“It was an interesting time. We worked with members of Congress on both sides of the aisle and made them the chairs of the study group,” Wendt said. “That way, at the end, they already had an interest in what you’ve found and had a sense of ownership in the study. You have to come at these difficult issues in the most user-friendly way.”
After 20 years in D.C. and a stint in Pocatello, Idaho, helping to develop Idaho State University’s international affairs program, Wendt and Meigs began looking for a place to start their own policy center.
At the time Meigs read a New York Times article about a meeting between Secretary of State James Baker and Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze at Jackson Lake Lodge to discuss the future of arms control. In it Thomas Friedman said that Jackson could be the “Geneva of North America.”
“We had thought about setting up something like the Center for Strategic and International Studies, maybe in Vermont,” Meigs said, “but when I read this article the light bulb went off in my head, and I realized Jackson could be a better place to do it.
“My father was in the Navy,” she said, “so we moved around a lot, and I saw Wyoming as being a model for other states in terms sustainable energy production.”
In 2002, with the help of Steve Duerr, Jonathan Schechter and Deborah Lopez, Wendt and Meigs co-founded the Jackson Hole Center for Global Affairs and began piecing together a strategy for promoting the development of environmentally sustainable technology.
“To some extent we were using the model of the Aspen Institute, because one of my mentors at CSIS, Amos Jordan, had previously been the executive director there,” Wendt said. “But, honestly, we were really making it up as we went along. Fortunately, we had good instincts and good people around us.”
During that critical time of formation, Wendt and Meigs worked with former politicians and political consultants Bill Schmoe, Allan Tessler, Ed Artzt, Grant Larson and Jim Barlow to flesh out their strategy.
Their first major breakthrough, however, came when Wendt reached out to an old wrangling buddy from his dude ranch days, John Turner. Turner had become the assistant secretary of state for oceans and international environmental and scientific affairs in the George H.W. Bush administration.
“I went back to D.C. and approached John about doing a project here in Jackson Hole that would bring the U.S. private sector into a discussion between the U.S. and Chinese governments to address issues of environment,” Wendt said. “He welcomed bringing in the private sector to get beyond the talking points where government discussions usually end.”
The final piece of the puzzle was James Wolfensohn, a former president of the World Bank who lived in Jackson. Intrigued by the idea of a having policy center here, Wolfensohn offered his support and helped organize the center’s first meeting between a delegation from Shanxi province, the largest coal-producing region in China, and representatives from Wyoming to discuss the regions’ mutual interest in coal.
Over the next 15 years Wendt and Meigs built upon the relationship by furthering the development of sustainable technologies, such as carbon capture and storage as well as coal gasification, in both regions.
In 2016, after coordinating 12 meetings between government officials on both sides in both China and Wyoming, the center arranged several memoranda of understanding, including an agreement to explore opening a Chinese-run wind power equipment manufacturer in Wyoming.
Having made significant strides in promoting environmentally sustainable technology in China and Wyoming, the center continues its work on coal but has shifted much of its focus to wind energy.
With their son, Nathan, now working as the center’s D.C. representative to build a wind caucus in Congress, Wendt and Meigs hope to continue to create an impact as they pass their goal of making Jackson the Geneva of North America on to the next generation of Jacksonites.
“We began our work with the center based on the idea of the power of place of Jackson Hole,” Wendt said. “But the thing that has really impressed me over the last 15 years has been the power of the people here.”