Have you seen the most recent issue of National Geographic Magazine? In celebration of the 100th anniversary of the creation of the National Park Service, Nat Geo published an unprecedented single topic issue titled “Yellowstone.” Even more significant, it isn’t just about Yellowstone National Park, it’s about the entire ecosystem that surrounds and sustains it – a 22 million acre mosaic of public and private land. In addition to parks, wilderness areas, wild rivers and a host of other natural features, this vast region also encompasses communities, highways, farms and ranches, rural residential development, recreation facilities, energy extraction, etc. etc. etc.
Written by Bozeman author David Quammen, it’s a must read, and for the most part, a celebration of this remarkable and mostly intact wild ecosystem. But another local journalist, Todd Wilkinson (who penned the captions for many of the issue’s spectacular images), wrote a follow-up essay titled “Yellowstone’s Golden Age May Soon Be History.” While he too underscores the global significance of Greater Yellowstone’s wild character, he was less optimistic about future prospects for maintaining its ecological integrity in the face of multiple and growing environmental challenges. And he points out that unlike the threats of the 20th century such as resource extraction, poaching, and uncoordinated management of public lands – most of these new challenges relate to how our communities grow, where we play, and how we manage our private lands. As Future West staffer Randy Carpenter said in the Geographic article; “The Old West economies, defined by mining, forestry and ranching are stagnating, while Bozeman and Jackson are growing like weeds.”
Of these 21st century issues, the sheer rate of growth in this region is perhaps of major concern. It would appear that we have met the enemy, and they are us. But while there isn’t much that we can do about the rate of growth, there is a lot we can do about the pattern of that growth.
The question is, do we have the political will to take action?
Sadly, there have been many failed attempts in Greater Yellowstone to enact growth management plans and regulations that significantly affect patterns of growth and conserve agricultural land, wildlife habitat, rivers and floodplains, and scenic vistas. While local land trusts have done a Herculean job protecting several large parcels, much private land important for agriculture as well as for wildlife remains extremely vulnerable to development.
The question isn’t how to protect it. Tried and true regulatory and incentive based tools are readily available. What’s lacking is the political will to apply them.
But things are changing. The pace and magnitude of growth is so glaringly apparent, at least in some places like Bozeman, Billings, Jackson, and Driggs, local citizens are alarmed. Just the other day someone called to say they were going to be late for a meeting because they were “caught in traffic.” I believe that is the first time I have ever heard that line outside of Yellowstone National Park.
Even rural landowners in places like the Madison and Big Hole Valleys are equally concerned as, once again, the rural real estate market begins to heat up. Though much of the region remains wide open space, if you go to your local planning office you might be surprised at how much of that space has been subdivided, though not yet built upon.
Future West is deeply involved in these issues on several levels. In partnership with Future West, the Bozeman Chronicle has launched a yearlong series of feature articles on various regional growth related issues – both the problems and the solutions. Future West has also teamed up with the Montana Land Reliance to identify ecologically important parcels of subdivided land that have not yet been developed, and exploring options for their protection through easements or purchase. And at the state level, a Future West staff member chairs the Montana Smart Growth Coalition which is working to improve state growth management policies or if necessary, prevent them from being weakened.
The bottom line is that there’s no denying we live in a world-class landscape with communities that match the scenery. But it’s equally apparent that sweeping changes in land use, population and even climate could quickly and dramatically alter just about everything we hold dear. There is a role for all of us in addressing these issues in a manner that meets our development needs without sacrificing our environment or our quality of life.
If nothing else, we can all exercise thoughtfulness and restraint in how we live our lives in Greater Yellowstone.