Ripe for the Picking: Newcomb speech gets at Jackson Hole conundrum

By on January 24, 2018

Mark Newcomb

For me as a semi-libertarian (I believe in individual freedom so long as it doesn’t harm anyone else or destroy the valuable things we hold in common as a society), it’s fascinating when listening to fellow human denizens of Greater Yellowstone.

Especially freshly-arrived developers now pouring into our region and carrying with them the impression that Greater Yellowstone is ripe for the picking.

When interviewing people, I hear certain private property owners (I too own property by the way) and business people (I also run a business) beating their chests, condemning anything that “hobbles their right” to do whatever they want with their land.
Of late, I’ve been watching the commentary of an individual from Jackson Hole on social media who obviously resents government, rules and zoning.

And so, my question back to such folks is: Why are you here?

Greater Yellowstone is a region where human self-restraint as an ethic has yielded a spectacular array of public and private dividends that only continue to accrue value in the crowded, blighted modern world.

Had free-marketeer ideologues, anti-planning and zoning zealots prevailed long ago neither Yellowstone nor Grand Teton national parks, nor national forests, wildlife refuges, wildlife or the special mystique of public lands that define our region would exist.

There is not a single example in the history of humankind where our species — i.e. the “private sector”, if left to purely its own devices, unencumbered by regulations, has ever succeeded in safeguarding a natural region as wondrous as Greater Yellowstone.

There have been many kings, oligarchs and emperors who presided over huge swaths of land, but none that yielded a huge public good for the peasants, guaranteed public access, a sense of stakeholdership, the right to have a say in how management decisions are made and the right to challenge decisions that result in ecological destruction.

At the recent “22 in 21” conference hosted by the Jackson-based Charture Institute, Teton County Commissioner Mark Newcomb delivered a provocative talk which you can read in its entirety now at

In it, Newcomb dangles a number: $15,222,990,853. Yes, $15 billion with a B. That is the estimated value, according to the state assessor’s office, of all of the remaining undeveloped private land in Teton County, Wyoming, one of the richest counties per capita in America.

If you wanted to protect all of the private land in the county, which, of course, isn’t wise or possible, that’s what it would cost.
Teton County has a mess on its hands, ironically, because it is a place where many wealthy, free-market, anti-government, anti-regulation people want to have their vacation homes. And yet the landscape they covet is an absolute product of government regulation and individual self-restraint.

In his speech, Newcomb alludes to the mad scramble going on among modern resource extractionists—this time it’s the tourism industry including commercial kayakers, snowmobilers, skiers etc. trying to monetize very last inch of private/public land to enrich themselves.

At the same time, Jackson Hole finds itself coiled tightly in a Gordian knot. Limited buildable real estate combined with visionary land protection to preserve community character have created a place that is no longer affordable to working class people.

The free-marketeers would have us believe that if only development restrictions were lifted, problems of social inequity for locals could be resolved, which is both a myth and a greed-driven conceit. If that happens and the development footprint markedly expands, Teton County — already struggling mightily with growth problems — will lose the very wild soul that residents covet and the tourism industry capitalizes upon.

The take-home message that needs to be spoken publicly — and no longer dodged — is that limits on development, much to the chagrin of the free-marketeers, are the only thing that will save what most of us love about Greater Yellowstone.

We should remember that once upon a time, me-first profiteers in the territorial government of Montana claimed that setting aside Yellowstone would cause economic calamity; in Teton County, some of the pioneer families said the same thing about creating Grand Teton park.

The uniqueness of Greater Yellowstone is based on a rare virtue—that of human self-restraint exhibited out of respect for nature and pursued creatively in partnership between the public and private sectors. It puts public good and wildness ahead of policies that pander only to personal egos and individual profits. Ironically, it’s also been bullish for business. PJH

Todd Wilkinson, founder of Mountain Journal (, is author of “Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek” about famous Greater Yellowstone grizzly bear 399 featuring 150 photographs by Tom Mangelsen, available only at

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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