(For)Got Conservation?

(For)Got Conservation?

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


The blueprint is there, now citizens must ensure electeds follow it. 

JACKSON HOLE, WY – I never imagined I would look forward to any season more than I look forward to ski season. For nearly my entire life, I’ve spent all summer and fall looking forward to the moments that make ski season so addicting. Like the moment this Monday morning where I stood above 15 hundred feet of blower pow, turned to two good friends, smiled, then dropped in and completely lost myself in a feeling of pure joy. During that moment when I floated down a mountain, time stood still, and I was completely connected with nature.

Then, I rediscovered camping.

I grew up car camping and backpacking with my family and always loved it, but over the past decade camping was not a part of my life. Living in Seattle, camping was a challenge. It’s often soggy and wet and hard to escape the crowds and find yourself alone in nature without taking more than a long weekend off work. But when we moved back to Jackson three years ago it was a hassle to camp—our kids were one and four respectively. Dealing with toddlers in a cold tent just didn’t have that much appeal to us (yeah, I know, lots of you tent-camp with little ones, and you have my utmost respect).

Then, my wife Stacy convinced me to make one of the best decisions we’ve ever made.

Last May, we bought a pop-up camper trailer. All of the hassles that used to make camping a pain disappeared. We had comfortable beds, a heater to keep us and the kids warm at night, hot water to clean up, and a place to hang out and stay dry when the weather went foul. We spent nearly every weekend last summer camping with our kids and other families. I can honestly say it’s as addicting as skiing pow. Waking up to the rattling bugle calls of sandhill cranes. Sitting around the campfire with good friends, a countless number of stars lighting up the night sky. Soaking in a high-mountain stream while our kids splash and play. No distractions from cell phones. Exploring and discovering new zones. All summer I found myself completely lost in these moments, feeling pure joy, connected with nature. I can’t wait for camping season.

Being close to nature with opportunities for outdoor recreation, that’s what living in Jackson Hole is all about.

With hopes of late-winter pow and the impending camping season on my mind, I headed up to Spring Creek Ranch last Thursday for the inaugural 22 in 21 State of Our Environment conference. Hosted by the Charture Institute, the conference garnered nearly 150 people to discuss challenging questions like, what is the state of our environment? How do we know? And how can we interact with nature in a way that allows both our economy and environment to thrive (especially given 250 years of history indicate this is nearly an impossible accomplishment given our existing economic paradigm)?

The day’s discussion focused on how we can achieve the vision of our community’s Comprehensive Plan, which was prominently displayed on a placard at every table: “Preserve and protect the area’s ecosystem in order to ensure a healthy environment, community and economy for current and future generations.”

When I wasn’t distracted by the spring sunlight illuminating the Tetons, which kept drawing my attention away from the conversation at hand, I was inspired by the passion in the room and the collective wisdom being shared as to how our community could achieve our shared vision of a better future.

I became frustrated though, when our discussion turned to the final question of the day: “What one action could we take that would make it more likely to achieve the Comprehensive Plan’s vision?” At our table and at tables across the room, smart, well-informed people engaged in earnest discussions about what we could do.

Here’s the thing, we already know what to do. The Comprehensive Plan lists hundreds of actions our community should take to help achieve our community’s shared vision of a better future. It outlines 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. It directs us to leverage this funding for wildlife protection efforts such as wildlife highway crossings. It advises us to evaluate the mitigation standards for impacts to critical habitat and habitat connections and update them as needed and to improve fencing standards to make them safer for wildlife. These are among the hundreds of other great ideas that the Comprehensive Plan (comprehensively) lists.

The problem isn’t that we don’t know what to do to achieve our shared vision. The problem is we need to hold our local elected representatives accountable for doing what needs to be done.

That’s why the one action our table suggested was for everyone in the room to write our local elected representatives and ask them to allocate a small percentage of the Community Priorities Fund toward the establishment and operation of a wildlife and open space program. This program would leverage and complement existing private land conservation efforts and work innovatively to achieve our ecosystem stewardship goals.

Yes, we should prioritize addressing our housing and transportation challenges, but if we’re going to develop a fund to address our community’s priorities, we should ensure it addresses our community’s highest priority and long-term vision of a better future. It’s easy to focus on addressing the hot issues of the day. It’s hard to have the discipline necessary to make decisions in the best long-term interest of the community.

We could have also asked people to write our elected representatives and ask that they prioritize updating our natural resources regulations, or fund a network of wildlife crossings, or develop a functional conservation incentive program for the update to our Downtown land use rules. Because all of these things should get done, but the point is we know what we need to do and it’s up to us to hold our elected representatives accountable for doing it.

The time for talk is over. It’s time for action. It’s our responsibility to hold our elected representatives accountable for prioritizing conservation and actions that directly align with our Comprehensive Plan and our community’s vision of a better future. So please, write the Jackson Town Council and Teton County Board of Commissioners today and ask them to remember what Jackson Hole is all about and make conservation a priority. PJH

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