The Giving Tree

The Giving Tree

The following piece was first published in Planet Jackson Hole as a guest opinion by Craig Benjamin.

As the good Earth gives, are we losing sight of what we need to protect?

JACKSON HOLE, WY – It’s an ancient truth so fundamental that even a young child understands its importance. An ancient truth we forget at our own peril.

I was fortunate growing up in Seattle to have a family that loved to spend time outdoors, and I still vividly remember one particular camping trip we took to the Olympic Peninsula when I was about the same age that my nearly 7-year-old daughter Piper is now.

I remember the majestic trees in Olympic National Park, hundreds of years old, reaching high into a grey cloudy sky with moss dripping down to the ground and trunks so large that when my mom, dad, little brother and I linked arms we couldn’t wrap around them. I remember the clear cuts outside the park. Devastated moonscapes with ancient trees mowed down to gigantic stumps.

And I remember the towns we passed through as we made our way around the peninsula on Highway 101. Port Angeles, Forks, Humptulips, Hoquiam, Aberdeen, Cosmopolis. Nearly every home and business in these towns had the same sign in the window: “This family supported by timber dollars.”

I asked my parents, why? Why did these people have to cut down all the trees in order to feed their families and put a roof over their heads? They responded, “That’s just the way things are.” Since that moment I’ve spent my entire life trying to figure out why things are the way they are, and what was really going on with those families. So, what was going on?

Those families were supported by timber dollars; their wealth came from the trees. Their signs said something so basic that many of us have forgotten: all true wealth originates from resources of the earth. But what is wealth exactly? There are three basic kinds of wealth. Dense forests, fertile soils, abundant fisheries, thick seams of coal, and oil bubbling up from the ground are all examples of primary wealth. Secondary wealth is what we make from primary wealth. The trees become timber, the soils grow food, the fish end up as fish sticks, the coal gets turned into electricity, and the oil becomes the gas that powers our cars. Without the trees, there can be no timber.

We create all kinds of paper abstractions that we layer on the first two sources of wealth. Shares of Weyerhaeuser, bonds, derivatives, mortgage-backed securities, money, and everything else we invent are what we’ll call tertiary wealth. This tertiary wealth is simply a claim on primary and secondary wealth; it’s not wealth itself. Just like there’s no timber without trees, there’s no value to those shares of Weyerhaeuser if the company doesn’t own any trees they can turn into timber.

Here’s the ancient truth: the earth is the source of primary wealth, and without primary wealth there’s nothing. Even as a little kid I could do math and tell that these families would be in a lot of trouble pretty soon because there weren’t many trees left. What then?

Nearly everyone who has lived in Jackson Hole has intuitively understood this ancient truth. From the Native Americans who used the valley as seasonal hunting grounds, to the early settlers who eked out a living through innovative farming techniques, to the generations of ranchers, to everyone who earns a living from tourism dollars—dollars generated from people who come here to recreate on our American public lands, and experience the natural beauty and abundant wildlife of this special place. People in Jackson Hole have always understood that the value of this place comes from the Earth. More importantly, they’ve understood the importance of stewarding our lands so our valley can continue to prosper.

This concept is so fundamental it provides the core vision of the Comprehensive Plan our community adopted in 2012: “Preserve and protect the area’s ecosystem in order to ensure a healthy environment, community and economy for current and future generations.” To accomplish this vision, our Comprehensive Plan explains that it is the community’s primary goal to permanently protect and actively steward wildlife habitat, habitat connectivity, scenic viewsheds, and agricultural open space. To achieve this goal, the plan states we should explore the establishment of a dedicated funding source for conservation easements and other measures that protect wildlife habitat, habitat connectivity, and scenery valued by the community.

Given all of this, you’d think that if our local elected representatives engaged in a conversation about how to align our investments with our values, we would prioritize the protection of wildlife habitat and connectivity; yet as of right now, that’s not the case.

In response to the housing crisis that’s destroying our middle class and threatening the fabric of our community, and the transportation challenges that are tearing into our quality of life, our local elected representatives have directed town and county staff to come up with a plan—known as the Community Priorities Fund—to put before Teton County voters in November to support investments in housing affordable to people who work here and transportation choices through revenue from a one cent general sales tax. This is a positive step for our community and will help address two important challenges.

Here’s the thing, as Vice-President Joe Biden once famously quipped, “Don’t tell me what you value; show me your budget, and I’ll tell you what you value.” Unfortunately, outside of encouraging mentions from county commissioners Barbara Allen and Mark Newcomb, along with town councilor Jim Stanford, discussions regarding the Community Priorities Fund don’t yet reflect our community’s highest value: protecting wildlife habitat and connectivity.

To get this right, our local elected representatives should allocate an appropriate percentage of the Community Priorities Fund toward the creation of a strategic program that leverages and complements existing private land conservation efforts and works innovatively to achieve our ecosystem stewardship goals.

Yes, let’s prioritize addressing our housing and transportation challenges. Let’s also address our core community priority to protect the wildlife habitat and connectivity that make this valley special. Because as Chief Sealth (the namesake of Seattle) once explained, “When the green hills are covered with talking wires and the wolves no longer sing, what good will the money you paid for our land be then.” PJH

Phone: (307) 733-9417
685 S. Cache St. PO Box 2728
Jackson, Wyoming 83001