A letter from Executive Director Skye Schell
It feels like Jackson Hole reached a breaking point this summer. While every generation has lamented change as the Jackson they knew and loved vanished, it’s different this year. Now I’m hearing it across the political and ideological spectrum. Our roads were gridlocked all summer and local businesses cut hours or days because they couldn’t hire staff. The Bird called off its legendary Sunday brunch. Our local butcher put a sign on the door saying “if you want us open more days, ask for a job application.” The path we’re on is literally unsustainable: we simply can’t continue because Jackson Hole is breaking down.
How we got into this dilemma, and how we get out of it, boils down to power.
After millennia of Native habitation and life in what we now call the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, white settlers arrived in this spectacular and harsh high mountain valley over 100 years ago. Ever since, a small group of landowners, developers, and extractive business interests have largely controlled the land-use, growth, and politics of Jackson Hole.
These interests have exerted power in both overt and subtle ways. In 1943, fearing that expanding Grand Teton National Park would destroy the valley’s economy and take away their ability to graze cattle, an armed anti-park posse mounted up and rode through the disputed lands. In the ‘70s, fearing that the limits on growth in the county’s first Comprehensive Plan would destroy the valley’s economy, an anti-planning posse mounted up on heavy equipment and surrounded the county courthouse to prevent community members from speaking up for the plan.
Although these more-radical defenders of the status quo failed (and to their credit, many later went on record saying they were glad they lost), the rest of the power structure quietly continued its extractive mission: expanding ski areas and airports, building hotels and short-term rentals, severing wildlife habitat with more roads and subdivisions, and increasing commercial growth at unsustainable rates.
Critically, the growth industry has always been over-represented in the public realm: landowners and leaders from industrial tourism to real estate have called the shots in key decision-making seats from the planning commissions to the mayor’s office to the County Commission. The consequences of this power structure are clear and painful: endless construction, clogged roadways, beloved small businesses closed due to a lack of housing for workers, e. coli-impaired streams, intrusive helicopter tours over Grand Teton National Park, our middle class forced out of the valley, and endless new threats to wildlife.
This summer it’s falling apart and our community is asking for something different. But we know solutions won’t come from the establishment that benefited by bringing us to this crisis. As Frederick Douglass said in a very different context, “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”
What’s the alternative, and how do we achieve it?
Here’s our vision of a better future: Jackson Hole is a national model of a strong community living in balance with nature.
We are a community first, resort second. Abundant populations of wildlife have the freedom to roam across the landscape and through our neighborhoods, and safely cross our roads. We live in walkable neighborhoods with accessible transportation choices and affordable homes surrounded by protected open space, working agricultural lands, and connected wildlife habitat. We respect wildlife when we recreate on protected, wild, well-managed public lands. And we are doing our part to mitigate and adapt to the threat of climate change.
This is an ambitious vision, especially when we are up against a multi-billion-dollar development industry. Achieving it will take an equally ambitious approach – what community organizers call a “theory of change.” Looking back over 42 years of Alliance history, we’ve been most effective when we’ve used this simple theory of change:
We build people power to build political power to achieve our policy goals.
In direct contrast to the small group that benefits from extractive economics, the Alliance has always been about people power. We started when 200 people from all around the valley got together in the basement of the Antler Motel to support the 1978 Comprehensive Plan. In the early ‘80s, facing oil & gas drilling up Cache and Little Granite Creeks, we asked Town Council to oppose the drilling. Then-Mayor Ralph Gill said he would take a stand if we could gather signatures from a majority of the community. Led by Story Clark, Patty Ewing, and a very engaged board and membership, we rallied and did it. Mayor Gill joined in and we led the whole community in successfully stopping the drilling. When the people lead, the leaders follow.
More recently, the Alliance has helped hundreds of community members get involved and create political will for good but hard decisions. After the growth lobby lined up a massive commercial upzone in downtown Jackson in 2014, residents filled Town Council meetings asking for “housing not hotels,” and both the Council and the County Commission agreed to set the first-ever growth cap on commercial development. And in 2019, after years of inaction on tragic collisions between vehicles and wildlife, community members kept showing up and asking for solutions until the Council and the Commission let the community vote on a $10 million tax measure to build wildlife crossings. 79% of voters said yes!
We’re up against more than 100 years of extractive inertia, but we have an ambitious vision, a clear theory of change, and an engaged and powering-up membership. I’m excited to share more about how we build power, and to highlight impressive emerging leaders, throughout this year’s annual report.
Thank you to all the Alliance family members who have brought us this far. We need you to stay involved, support our new leaders in taking on more power and responsibility, and bring our organization and community to the next level. Please invite your friends to join us too.