Pandemic crowds bring ‘Rivergeddon’ to Montana’s rivers: New York Times

A new house in The Lakes at Valley West, a new residential construction area in Bozeman. Credit…Janie Osborne for The New York Times
Note building material used

We’ve seen some of this around the west through time (think Moab), but there’s a unique GYE (Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem) twist. Here’s a link to the NY Times article; you can search on the title and find it elsewhere if you have a paywall. The story’s mostly focused on Bozeman but touches on West Yellowstone.

The phenomenon of gridlock in a natural paradise has been seen across the West for years. But in Montana it has accelerated markedly this year, fueled by urbanites fleeing the pandemic. Now, many residents are concerned that the state that calls itself the Last Best Place has bragged a little too loudly and too often.
Housing prices have soared, especially this year, driven by COVID refugees who sometimes buy a home without seeing it. In one month this summer, the median home price jumped by $88,000 to $584,000 — in a city where the average annual wage is about $48,000. Home prices jumped another $35,000 just last month. Even as the Tyvek and two-by-fours of new construction have become ubiquitous, many local residents say they are getting priced out of the market.

But the cramping of recreational pursuits is just one dimension. The Greater Yellowstone ecosystem, which takes in more than 34,000 square miles of wildland around Yellowstone National Park and includes the cities of Bozeman and Jackson, Wyoming, is considered the largest nearly intact temperate ecosystem in the world.

It is one of the few places in the continental United States where landscape-level ecological processes can play out, including wolf packs hunting elk and deer, long-distance wildlife migrations and wildfires that can be left to burn in order to rejuvenate the natural landscape.

But the mounting human population, exacerbated by the pandemic but increasing over a period of years, has threatened all of those natural processes. “We are going to lose the greatest wildlife-rich ecosystem remaining unless we chart an alternative path,” said Todd Wilkinson, editor of Mountain Journal, an online magazine that has warned of poorly managed growth and the arrival of “Rivergeddon.”

“Other places like this no longer have wildlife because the landscape has been so fragmented,” Mr. Wilkinson said.

Snowmobiles and backcountry skiing are encroaching into the denning areas of wolverines. A recent study in British Columbia found that the presence of people in wildlife habitat, especially those on mountain bikes and off-road vehicles, can force animals to flee important feeding areas.

It almost sounds as if wildlife are happier on…large privately-held cattle ranches who can restrict recreation access. As has been talked about in other articles, if you want open space in the grassy parts of the west, you tend to have.. ranching.
This also raises another question. If, as we see, some deer, elk, mountain lions and coyotes seem to be acclimated to people in terms of living successfully around communities, can such wildlife also become acclimated to recreationists?

Mr. Glick, the advocate for sustainable planning, said that tourism and the growth of real estate, tech and service industries have been promoted as better alternatives to the damaging effects of mining and logging, Montana’s former mainstays. But they need to be studied and carefully managed, which is not now the case, he said.

“Conservationists touted recreation as the benign alternative to resource extractions,” he said. “It’s a tough pill to swallow that the alternative they have been promoting has become a significant environmental issue.”

Ms. Andrus, the Bozeman mayor, said it “may be time to dial down the tourism promotion” and reallocate some of the money to compensate for the impacts of a large number of visitors. But shutting the door is not the solution, she said.

“Closing the state down to visitors is not practical; even if it was, I don’t believe it is a good idea,” she said. “You cannot put that genie back in the bottle.”

Does anyone have examples of communities who have dealt successfully with these issues?

4 thoughts on “Pandemic crowds bring ‘Rivergeddon’ to Montana’s rivers: New York Times”

  1. I’m not surprised you’re hearing crickets about planning to limit growth. I think Boulder Colorado is one of the early western examples of trying (when I was a young planning student), and I don’t think they were very successful. I thought Portland Oregon’s growth boundary had some potential when we lived there. But especially when you’re dealing with the anti-regulation interior west, even good ideas are not going to be accepted until they are looked back on some day as what we “shoulda” done.

    Towards the end of my Forest Service career, I was trying to get us more involved in local planning to advocate for protecting national forest resources. State and Private Forestry was receptive, but forest supervisors didn’t want to go near anything to do with private property.

    • I think both Boulder and Portland have problems with affordable housing, though, as a result. Check out the massive surge of building around Boulder. When I ask lower paid folks in Boulder where they live, it’s almost always not in town.

    • Given my own experience on the El Paso County Planning Commission.. the local Forest was involved in the Master Plan Process. The FS doesn’t tell the county what to do, but expresses their concerns and ideas.
      I would guess it’s a function of each County and each Forest. Timing, capacity, personalities and so on. Do other folks have experiences to share?

      • I got a USDA national award with the group that worked on the Open Space Conservation Strategy. I think I came close to getting a reprimand from Region 1 for attempts to promote “expressing concern” within the Region with regard to habitat connectivity.


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