When the Hayden Geological Survey arrived in northwestern Wyoming in 1871 to explore the region that would, a year later, become Yellowstone National Park, few Caucasians had ever laid eyes on the Teton Range. Upon first seeing the Grand, its team members did exactly what people have been doing for nearly a hundred fifty years since: they determined to climb it.
Two of its members, Nathaniel Langford and James Stevenson, reported making it to the top. During their “ascent” (their claim has long been disputed), they reached the summit of the Enclosure, the Grand’s lone satellite peak. We know they made it at least that far because they reported finding a man-made, oval ring on top—a vision quest circle. This stunning valley had been inspiring visitors long before they got here.
That inspiration lies at the heart of our environment, economy and character. It’s also why our community was and is the epicenter of America’s ongoing love affair with our public lands.
Since the 1872 establishment of Yellowstone, the world’s first national park, we’ve been witness to some of the most significant conservation moments in history. In 1912, a Congressional Act protected 2,760 acres of wintering ground at the southern end of the valley with the National Elk Refuge. Starting with the 1929 original protection of the Teton Range, the modern-day Grand Teton National Park took 45 years, three acts of Congress and a visionary philanthropist, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., to create.
In 1954, Howard Zahniser drafted the basis for what would become the Wilderness Act at Mardy Murie’s cabin in the Park. Since 1980, The Jackson Hole Land Trust has protected more than 23,000 acres in the Greater Yellowstone Area.
In 2015, our county commissioners became some of the first in the nation to oppose the transfer of public lands from federal to state control. This, too, is part of our heritage and allure: the future of our wild places lies here, in the birthplace of our country’s public lands.
Or does it?
This year, and in particular since COVID, Teton County’s popularity has exploded. Visitation numbers to our community 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.
And now, Snow King Mountain is poised to be developed into a full-blown resort, smack-dab in the middle of our town.
Our community is at a tipping point. Unbridled growth to accommodate the insatiable desire to live here has contaminated our water, fragmented our habitat, snarled our traffic and accelerated demands for housing, which in turn is pricing out many of our neighbors.
What will this magnificent valley be like in 100 years if we continue at the current pace?
Today, we have a choice. We can choose to elect candidates who tell us that we must continue to widen our highways and develop new roads to meet the never-ending desire to be here—or we can elect candidates who believe that the reason for that desire is this place, and that any decision that compromises its integrity is a decision we cannot afford.
We can choose to elect candidates who tell us it is time to challenge the status quo of the Comp Plan—or we can elect candidates who understand that the Comp Plan is not only a declaration of our community’s priorities; it is our stand against a lower quality of life, a lower quality of experience and a failed opportunity to be that model of inspiration that the rest of the world so desperately needs.
We can choose to elect candidates who tell us that we need to take the first offer we get to upzone Northern South Park in exchange for a nominal amount of affordable housing—or we can elect candidates who believe that we need to leverage the value of the upzone to guarantee a diversity of housing options to meet our community’s diversity of housing needs, and that furthermore demand a neighborhood plan that takes into account the potential impact of as many as 1,200 new housing units—more than Rafter J, Melody Ranch and Cottonwood combined—on our infrastructure, our wildlife, and our drinking water.
Growth to meet incessant demand is not our legacy. It’s not who we are. I believe it’s not our destiny, either.
Our ancestors are watching. Our flora and charismatic megafauna depend on our decision. The choice is ours: to honor a power so incredible it inspired a climb into the unknown to build that visionquest circle on top of the Enclosure in a time that predated Caucasian arrival in our valley — or to continue to degrade it with every little concession we make to its preservation, and with that act defile the work of those who fought to give us the Jackson Hole we know and love today.