top of page
  • Writer's pictureLara Birkes

A 100-Year Plan

Theme Park or Community?

This month, Bridger Bowl Ski Area was doing more than preparing for local alpine enthusiasts to ‘ski the cold smoke.’

Indeed, the locally owned non-profit in the Bridger Range of southwestern Montana was hosting a training for community stakeholders to consider sustainable long-term plans for growth, development and tourism. For two days participants from three counties and six municipalities in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE) of Montana deliberated what a long-term plan for the area would ideally resemble.

Led by Walking Mountains Science Center out of Vail, the first sustainable mountain resort destination in the world, we learned about a framework for best practices and ways to constructively manage for A Future We Want.

So, why now? Well, it’s getting harder and harder to overlook that scenic destinations the world over are being loved to death. Residents are speaking-up and implementing actions to proactively preserve the characteristics that have made their regions so sought after.

15 Beloved Places Struggling with Overtourism (Yellowstone National Park included!) describes this tension, alongside some local solutions. Amsterdam is taking deliberate efforts to discourage mass tourism by offering less housing and implementing higher tourist taxes to “ensure the city stays livable for residents.” Meanwhile, Venice is beginning to separate tourists and locals as they experiment with a new tourism management system. Incredibly enough, the city only has 50,000 year-around inhabitants, a third of what it had in the 18th century, yet receives 30 million tourists a year.

If these statistics seem un-relatable, consider the $416M Ultra Resort Under Construction in Big Sky, MT and that nearly 70% of the resort town’s homes are second residences. This becomes significant when communities no longer have local citizens to serve on planning councils, weigh-in on the impacts of development nor support basic functions like schools, hospitals and emergency services. And so the development tail wags the proverbial dog.

When absentee owners outnumber local residents, it becomes very difficult to foster communal interests, and importantly, to plan with a long-term vision in mind. These realities are manifested most acutely in the housing sector as cities far and wide grapple with affordable accommodation for residents and workers.

Vail’s InDeed program was implemented to address the crisis in Eagle County, placing housing deed restrictions on properties which limit use of units only to people who work an average of 30 hours per week in the area, further prohibiting those units from short-term rentals.

As Montana is one of only five states without a sales tax, determining a fee-based system which funds sustained planning initiatives is crucial. In short, proactive planning must extend to the GYE before it’s too late.

Working toward the principles of a sustainable destination offers a path toward the latter. The framework’s approach to holistic planning is placed in four main categories: sustainable management, communal social and economic benefits, the preservation of cultural heritage and protection of the environment. An emphasis is placed on everything from energy and water conservation, wildlife corridors and efficient infrastructure to local purchasing, employment and preserving cultural traditions. For a region to officially certify, a third party verifies compliance to ensure robust policies are enacted.

Ultimately the key is attracting just enough of the RIGHT kind of visitors. Alaska and Norway understand this at a State and Countrywide scale, as does Jackson Hole, with each embarking on a Global Sustainable Tourism Council certification to preserve their natural landscapes. The island nation of Palau now has tourists take an eco pledge before entering the country, becoming the first nation in the world to change immigration laws to protect the environment. What if Montana had something similar?

As the repercussions of unfettered growth, short-term planning and over-tourism stare the rural Mountain West squarely in the eye; we need a 100-year plan for the GYE to preempt the tipping point others have reached.

One participant summed it up well, we must decide if we want to be a theme park or a community. The GYE is known to be the last intact ecosystem outside of the Serengeti. This bears extraordinary consideration. As the area surrounding the Nation's first National Park, residents have a unique responsibility to act collectively to preserve the waterways, wildlife and open space that makes Montana The Last Best Place.

Regional collaboration is the solution, from Big Timber to Gardiner, Livingston, West Yellowstone, Bozeman, Big Sky and beyond. Working together to designate the GYE a sustainable destination stands to preserve the area for generations to come. After all, if we don’t, who will?

Reach out to if you’d like to be part of this solution!


bottom of page