THE NEW WEST: Inconvenient Truths

By on January 3, 2017

Saving Greater Yellowstone means confronting its myriad elephants in the room.

The Lucas Fabian homestead in Grand Teton National Park.  (Photo: National Park Service)

The Lucas Fabian homestead in Grand Teton National Park.  (Photo: National Park Service)

JACKSON HOLE, WY – In 1804, President Thomas Jefferson tasked Meriwether Lewis, William Clark and their expedition known as the “Corps of Discovery” with finding a pathway to the Pacific Ocean from present-day St. Louis.

Based upon sketchy fur trapper intel, Jefferson believed it might be possible to get there and back by water.  Lewis and Clark floated up the Missouri River unaware of the formidable obstacle represented by the northern Rocky Mountains.

Two years later, after covering thousands of miles, the explorers returned to Washington, DC with a fairly accurate map of the linear route they circumnavigated.  But when examining their cartography in hindsight today, it is striking how much they missed—or overlooked—in charting the interior West.

Lewis and Clark’s travels via the Missouri did not often extend more than a few miles, relatively speaking, beyond the river corridor. Lacking an aerial perspective and modern knowledge, the duo’s mapmaking was hobbled by a limited 19th century perspective.

How do we, as denizens of Greater Yellowstone, similarly suffer from our own narrow conceptualization of what the ecosystem is, and where is our own myopia leading us?

As difficult as it is trying to discern things beyond our own ken, it’s equally as daunting trying to make sense of problems right before our eyes but which we choose, for a variety of reasons, to skirt.

Indeed, why not simply play today and worry about the future when it arrives?

Dr. Susan Clark, who has spent 45 years in Jackson, says the British coined an appropriate term.  They called it the elephant in the room—the metaphorical idiom for an obvious truth that goes unaddressed. The expression also applies to obvious challenges or risks no one wants to discuss—and to a condition of groupthink no one wants to challenge.

Next Monday, January 9, Clark and I invite you to a conversation about some of Greater Yellowstone’s lumbering elephants in the room. The free event in Jackson starts at 5:30 p.m. in St. John’s Church’s Hansen Hall and is sponsored by the Northern Rockies Conservation Cooperative, a scientific think-tank co-founded by Clark 35 years ago.

We’ll begin by pondering this conundrum: What makes Greater Yellowstone incomparable?  And given the fact that it is sui generis the world over, can it remain that way in the face of trends that have doomed most other places?

Some of the obvious elephants in the room for Greater Yellowstone include the impacts of climate change and its implications for water, wildfire, agriculture and the recreation economy; growth in human population, corresponding development patterns and outdated thinking about planning and zoning; the balance between resource exploitation and protection; and our willingness—or lack of willingness—to accept some limitations of private self interest in order to protect the public’s common interest.

In a valley like Jackson Hole, where working families and young people, teachers, firefighters, police officers, nurses and service workers already cannot afford to live here, what is the remedy and what are the costs of the spill-over effect for the environment and other communities?

How are the challenges of Jackson Hole’s and cities like Bozeman’s elephants in the room metaphor for other valleys in the region and for our society as a whole?

By the middle of this century, less than one lifespan from now, Clark notes, Earth’s human is expected to climb to 10 billion from the current 7 billion—or by nearly 40 percent.

Some demographers believe the number of people pouring into our ecosystem will accelerate beyond its current unprecedented pace as emigrants flee urban centers and megacities. Fifty years from today, the Gallatin Valley cradling Greater Bozeman could be a city as large of Minneapolis.

Examining photos that depict Greater Yellowstone’s past compel viewers to ponder its future. Here bison corral at Mammoth Hot Springs in the early 1900s. (Photo: National Park Service)

Examining photos that depict Greater Yellowstone’s past compel viewers to ponder its future. Here bison corral at Mammoth Hot Springs in the early 1900s. (Photo: National Park Service)

Clark, who is on break from Yale University where she teaches in the school of Forestry and Environmental Studies, says part of what makes Greater Yellowstone extraordinary is the promises that society makes to itself—past promises, future promises and present promises.

“For over 140 years, dating back to the creation of Yellowstone and continuing to the conservation of wildlands and passage of environmental laws, past generations made a promise to the future and we are now reaping those benefits,” she said.

“So one of the questions is: What promise are we willing to make to future generations?  The promise of the present involves asking how are we willing to live by that ethic daily? One could argue that we are failing to meet the promises given to us from the past and which we’re bound to pass along to the future.”

Elected officials and civil servants in Greater Yellowstone, Clark explained, from city and county commissioners to the senior leadership of land management agencies and non-government organizations, are beset by “bounded rationality”—the idea that when individuals make decisions, their rationality is limited by the tractability of small problems at hand, the cognitive limitations of their minds, and time available—usually not enough— to make foresighted decisions.

“For high-level leaders, learning and education should be about active reflective efforts on their experiences directed at shaping the future in Greater Yellowstone,” Clark wrote in a draft of her forthcoming book, Signals from the Future: Our Greater Yellowstone of Tomorrow?

“Leadership should be about focusing on putting practices, thinking, organizations, institutions, and society on a trajectory that is sustainable and open to continual learning, reflection, and adaptation. This to me seems to be the needed real mission for all of us who care about the future of this place.”

We hope you can join for a lively, no-holds barred discussion about this ecosystem we call home. PJH

Todd Wilkinson has been writing his award-winning column, The New West, for 28 years. Every week and henceforth, it will appear weekly in The Planet, syndicated through

About Todd Wilkinson

Todd Wilkinson, founder of Mountain Journal (which just published a long piece on climate change in Greater Yellowstone), is also author of Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek about famous Greater Yellowstone grizzly bear 399 featuring 150 photographs by Tom Mangelsen, available only at

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