In a recent survey of Teton County residents, 71.7% of the 490 respondents indicated their quality of life had declined in the past ten years.
When asked which was their number one priority, 51.3% selected the ecosystem. 30% selected the community. 7.1% chose the economy.
When asked if they would be willing to accept limitations on new development in Teton County if it preserved and protected the ecosystem, 61.8% of respondents said “yes.” 22.9% said “maybe.”
On a recent Teton outing, I tried to translate what I’ve been hearing from our community into actionable steps. Here are two:
It’s time to have a serious conversation about a moratorium on new hotels and motels in Teton County.
It’s also time to talk to our federal partners about limiting the number of daily visitors to Grand Teton National Park.
The demand for this place is insatiable. By developing more hotels and welcoming everyone who wants to visit, we’ve made our willingness to accommodate it abundantly clear.
Industrial tourism and our pro-growth agenda are now coming at the expense of our quality of life, and the quality of experience for our visitors. We’re not just killing our ecosystem; we’re killing our golden goose.
Like most of us, I spend my days in front of a computer, working to stay ahead of a tsunami of emails and deadlines. I like to go into the mountains to get away from it all. When I do, the tsunami recedes, in importance and urgency, and I’m returned to why I live here: this ongoing communion with a land I love, our relationship by now settling into that of mentor and mentee, both comfortable and comforting.
One of my favorite things to do is to go up the Grand. The other day, avoiding Lupine Meadows—too crowded, too noisy, too distracting—I left my truck, the warm engine ticking against the stillness, and walked alongside a burbling creek through the forest and its shadows.
The forest opened into a series of meadows and the tawny grasses of late summer. A lone boulder sits in the final meadow, directly at the base of the Tetons, Teewinot, Owen, the Grand, the Middle, the South, Ice Cream Cone, Gilkey’s, Cloudveil and Nez Perce all soaring against the sky above as if in communion. I ran my hand gently along the boulder’s sides in salutation; by now, I consider it a friend.
Outings like these are brief pilgrimages of sorts, respites from the din of the workweek. I need them the way I need clean water and clean air: for sustenance, and clarity of vision. A few hours without human contact helps me think. It also facilitates a conversation I’ve been having with this land for twenty-some years.
Like meditation, such conversations occur best in silence. In the presence of people they become something else: a conversation at a dinner party, perhaps, louder, more ephemeral, less deep.
The main trail was busy when I joined it. I passed groups of hikers, solo runners, family clusters and pods of friends. A few miles up the trail I stopped to drink water from a spring that splashes from the hillside. As I knelt, a keening wail came from the valley below: an elk, bugling. Fall.
I ran into friends as I ascended. Dave Bowers and Crista Valentino were chatting at the Meadows, animated against the backdrop of the Middle. As I approached the Headwall, the last steep step to the Lower Saddle, Bill Anderson, an Exum guide, called out.
We exchanged pleasantries: how’ve you been, haven’t seen you in a year, how’s your summer. A minute later, as he was fading from earshot, he yelled up, “There have to be at least 70 people on the mountain right now. Wear your helmet!”
He was right. I hugged the mountain’s curvature as I climbed, the walls resounding with the calls and conversations of multiple parties, guided and otherwise, in varying stages of ascent and descent. Periodically, the chatter was punctuated by a call: “Rock!”
The Belly Roll was festooned in ropes. I delicately passed seven climbers, asking permission to climb through, alerting them to my presence, hoping they wouldn’t make any sudden movements. Three others were queued at the base of the Owen Chimney, so I traversed out onto the Cat Walk, avoiding the seepage that, this time of year, could easily be verglas.
One roped party was about to begin up the Sargent’s Chimney. They kindly let me pass. In the Chimney itself a man rappelled, the ends of his rope snapping. Above him, a dozen others waited against the wind for their chance to descend.
I passed another half a dozen climbers as I continued to the summit.
There’s a little bench of rock, just off the top on the mountain’s east side, where I like to dangle my feet and watch the play of clouds on the valley floor. The shadows moved across the plains as I ate my pistachio nuts. Halfway there.
On the descent I reversed the process, weaving among the parties, asking permission, choosing my holds and steps carefully until the Upper Saddle was behind me. It wasn’t until I left the main trail a couple of hours later that I rejoined the conversation with the Tetons I’d begun earlier in the day.
You don’t go up the Grand’s Owen Spaulding Route at the end of August expecting solitude. For me, though, the experience captures a moment in the evolution of our community that we need to discuss.
Most of the people I know who live here have made a conscious choice. We’ve exchanged career opportunities and the conveniences of an urban lifestyle for the deeper satisfactions of shadowed forests, the bugling elk, clean drinking water and the sight of the clouds playing against the valley floor.
I’m proud of our community for recognizing the importance of our environment in the 2012 Comprehensive Plan, which enshrines our 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.”
Our ecosystem is our everything. Protecting it not only helps preserve our quality of life, our social cohesion and our economy; it also serves as an example to the rest of the world of the ways we can maintain the delicate balance between the built and natural environments.
This year, and in particular since COVID, Teton County’s popularity seems to have exploded. Visitation numbers to Grand Teton National Park are through the roof. Illegal and ill-advised camping is devastating our public lands. Home sales are soaring. Cranes dot the valley, pulling new hotels and apartment complexes into the sky.
Many of our candidates for elected office believe we should widen our highways to accommodate the demand. All of them, except me, believe we should build the Tribal Trail Connector.
I get the argument: we need all these new developments to keep pace with demand. But the demand for this place will never diminish. At what point does our willingness to meet it undercut the reason it exists in the first place?
In 2019, Grand Teton National Park saw 3.4 million visitors. That same year, Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee had 12.5 million visitors—the most in the US, and more than double the visitors to Grand Canyon National Park (5.97 million), the second-most highly visited park.
Gatlinburg, Tennessee, population 4,144, is the gateway to Great Smoky. Park Rangers regularly warn visitors to expect traffic delays. The crowding is so bad, consumers weigh its costs against the value of visiting.
Is that what we want to become?
There are plenty of reasons I believe we should “take our foot off the gas pedal” of our current growth trajectory. The carrying capacity of both our ecosystem and our infrastructure is one of them. The quality of experience, both for those of us who live here and that of our visitors, is another.
Limiting the number of visitors to Grand Teton National Park wouldn’t hurt demand. In 2006, Grand Canyon National Park instituted a weighted lottery system for non-commercial river permits. Boaters wait patiently for years for a chance to float the river, understanding that the limitations on numbers will result in a high-quality experience. Hiking “The Wave” in Arizona: same thing. To explore Zion or Denali, you need to take a bus.
All of these limits are accepted by consumers because they understand the quality of their experience will be better as a result.
If we build more hotels, they’ll fill up. Once they’re full, we’ll be forced to widen our highways and build new roads to accommodate the additional visitors and employees. Only an intentional decision by our community will break a cycle that is degrading the quality of life for those of us who live here and the quality of this place overall.
We’re headed down a path from which we won’t return. We need to discuss whether the damage to our ecosystem and the quality it affords is worth the short-term benefit.
For me, the choice is clear.
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.