Is It Time to Create a Conservation Department to Protect Our Ecosystem?

The 2012 Comprehensive Plan enshrines our community’s priorities in its opening words: to “preserve and protect the area’s ecosystem in order to ensure a healthy environment, community and economy for current and future generations.”

I’m running for county commission because I’m concerned that our willingness to protect our ecosystem is being outstripped by our willingness to build more hotels, widen our highways and develop new roads to accommodate the insatiable demand for all things Teton County.

I believe our willingness to meet these demands is undermining the reason most of us are here in the first place—our home’s ecological integrity, and the quality of life and experience it affords for residents and visitors alike.

But what if I’m simply out of touch?

Our elected officials, and our candidates for elected office, should represent the interests and priorities of their constituents. To see if my perspective aligned with that of the rest of the community, I recently put together this survey.

More than 500 people responded. The results have been illuminating.

Across party lines, regardless of how long people have lived here, protecting the ecosystem remains our number one priority.

40% of respondents indicated they were registered Democrats. 36% were Republican. 24% were Independent.

When asked, “Which is more important to you?” 51% chose “the ecosystem.” 30% chose “the community.” 8% chose “the economy.”

Indeed, the majority of respondents indicated they live in Teton County for “the natural environment” (77%), “quality of life” (71%) or “outdoor recreation” (71%).

49% said their top priority in Teton County was “protecting the environment.” The next highest priority was workforce housing at 19%, followed by health and human services at 8%.

When asked to rank the importance of the ecosystem to them on a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 being “Not Important” and 5 being “Very Important,” 73% ranked the ecosystem as “Very Important.”

The only topic that ranked higher than the ecosystem in importance was clean drinking water, which clocked in at “Very Important” for 87% of respondents. (Given the nitrate contamination threatening our sole source aquifer, clean drinking water may be considered an environmental issue in its own right.)

By comparison, 33% indicated “workforce housing” was Very Important. 31% and 18%, respectively, indicated “a strong local economy” and “public transportation” were Very Important.

Perhaps most interestingly of all, when asked if they would be willing to accept limitations on new development in Teton County if it preserved and protected the ecosystem, 62% of respondents said “yes.” 23% said “maybe.”

Let me restate that. Across party lines, 84% of respondents are either willing or might be willing to accept limitations on new development in Teton County if they preserved and protected the ecosystem.

Let’s pivot to a real-world implication of this information: the proposed Northern South Park upzoning requested by the Gill Family, and currently under consideration by our board of Teton County Commissioners.

Northern South Park is the right place for a housing solution to our housing needs. The timing is certainly right, too. And both the Gills and the Lockharts have every right to make money on their property.

That said, there are enormous problems with the request for upzoning. Among them, we have heard little about the conservation easements that will be employed to offset impacts to wildlife, or the precise diversity of housing options that will be provided to meet our diversity of community housing needs.

Perhaps more concerning, the Town of Jackson has not agreed to allow the proposed new South Park housing developments to connect to the town’s wastewater treatment facility. This poses major problems for our already critical wastewater management issues—clean drinking water, anyone?—that need to be resolved before any zoning changes are made.

Most important, with Northern South Park, as with many development opportunities in the county, there will be significant impacts on our ecosystem—and almost none of our elected officials are talking about those impacts as a central consideration in their deliberations.

This runs counter to our community’s priority as enshrined in the Comp Plan, and as affirmed by the survey results. Increasingly, we’re treating the ecosystem not as a primary concern, but as an afterthought.

With Northern South Park, we need to ask our elected officials to complete the Growth Management Program review and Comprehensive Plan update to determine if and under what terms the proposed Northern South Park should be developed.

Then, our community, elected officials and staff must begin a neighborhood planning effort that takes into consideration the long-term implications of the development on our infrastructure, wildlife and habitat resources.

But Northern South Park is not an isolated example of the disconnect. Again and again, our elected officials are making concessions to the protection and preservation of our ecosystem in favor of developments that help meet the demand to live and visit here.

It’s easy to understand why: people profit directly and immediately from development, which creates a strong lobby for its interests.

The ecosystem, meanwhile, depends on our community at large to protect it. We don’t have a lobby. We simply have our concerns and the vague hope that somehow, perhaps by osmosis, our elected officials will do what’s right and take impacts on the ecosystem into consideration when making their decisions.

As a result, development is booming while our ecosystem is suffering a death by a thousand cuts. While any single concession to ecosystem preservation can seem, on its own, innocuous, in aggregate our environmental integrity and the quality of life it affords are being devastated.

I’m not alone in this assessment. 72% of the survey respondents indicated their quality of life had declined in the past ten years. 75% believe Teton County is headed in the wrong direction.

There’s a way we can address this.

Housing and planning are key issues for our community. Accordingly, we have housing and planning departments, with staff directed to provide guidance to our elected officials in their decision making.

And yet, for our community’s number one priority, we rely on the oversight and direction of elected officials who might or might not see the ecosystem as their number one priority too.

This is absurd.

Is it time to create a Conservation Department to help protect and preserve the ecosystem?

Only a fool would propose a new bureaucracy without proposing a revenue source with which to fund it. An acceptable bridge might be to graft the new agency onto an existing one—for example, the Teton County Planning Department could become the Teton County Conservation and Planning Department, charged with ensuring that new development does not come at the expense of our “golden goose.”

The point is, the ecosystem is the engine of our economy. It’s the underpinning of our quality of life and the quality of experience we provide to our visitors. It remains our number one priority because we understand that we can only be as healthy as the environment in which we exist.

We need to start acting like it. Let’s consider creating a Conservation Department to protect our ecosystem before we no longer have one worth protecting.

If the long term sustainability of our ecosystem and community matters to you, please vote for me for Teton County Commission on November 3. You may learn more about my candidacy and my positions at www.christianbeckwith.com.

1 Comment

  • Posted September 23, 2020 2:39 pm
    by katherine mead

    Hi Christian,
    I am not clear what it is that you would expect a conservation department to do. Currently, there are professional agencies such as the Wy. G&F, the Teton Conservation District, county engineers and planners who follow the Comprehensive Plan’s requirements for examination of wildlife corridors, viewsheds, impacts on water quality–the whole gambit of ecosystem issues.

    Not sure that another department would make this process more or less effective.

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@ 2020 Christian Beckwith for Teton County Commissioner.