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A Future We Want

The Path For Mountain Towns



For those in the American West, imagine your mountain community in 25 plus years: what do you want it to look like? Consider the development happening around you everyday and if your community is on an ideal trajectory.


Personally, I am worried when I imagine my community of Livingston, Montana in 2045. A small town feeling the effects of nearby expansion, we’re grappling with how to handle the inevitable influx of people and development alongside it. The dilemma is how to balance carving-up paradise with a need for affordable housing, economic vitality and maintaining our wild lands.


Cities and towns in the West stand to look drastically different a quarter century from now. From Boise to Bozeman, exponential growth is fast approaching. Our rising population, and the development feeding it, has made this a reality. And we need a plan.


We need to plan for the future we want. This means ensuring protected spaces for wildlife - land’s original inhabitants, fostering jobs that stem from a wind and solar transition, aspiring toward clean electric transport in our National Parks and designating green space around our the towns to prevent sprawl.


This Mountain Journal article identifies the tension in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE), pointing out that growth can become a vicious circle in which “frenzied profiteering driving real estate development in the short term can actually be to the long-term detriment of the natural environment that originally catalyzed the boom.” The town of Big Sky illustrates how a human presence is transforming a formerly wild place. Expansion, not preservation, has dictated planning. If the West is to be preserved for what makes it unique, this has to change.


“How things used to be” is a refrain often heard in towns that have been swallowed by unplanned growth. Fingers point to developments that were once open fields. Memories recall when the footprint of humans did not infringe on the natural ecosystems. And frustration spurs recollection to a time when traffic, well, wasn’t.


It’s human nature to idealize the past and fear change. But change is coming and communities must proactively plan for it. More people mean more cars, more homes, and more energy use. To a point this is good. But returns are diminishing if left unmanaged. So why the constraints? Basically, supply and demand. There are simply more and more people in the world but resources are finite.


To put things in perspective, two hundred years ago there were fewer than 1 billion people living on earth. Today the population is over 7 billion. Between 1900-2000 the increase in world population was three times greater than during the entire previous history of humanity, from 1.5 to 6.1 billion in just 100 years. And the United States is the third most populous country in the world.


Though the U.S. mountain West will only see a fraction of the population growth compared to the rest of the country, it’s relative and stands to compromise much of what defines the region. Since 2000 Bozeman, Montana has seen an average annual growth rate of 3%, or six times the national average between 2000 and 2010.


Fortunately, a planning solution exists.


Last year Vail confronted the realities of its growing alpine town by becoming the first sustainable mountain resort destination in the world. Balancing issues like the impact of over-tourism, creating year-round employment, affordable housing, low impact transport, waste reduction, energy management and public lands, they adopted the principles of a sustainable destination certification to manage these dynamics concurrently.


While Vail is a well-resourced community with the financial resources to invest in long term planning, so are many other ski resort towns. In Montana, this is true of the affluent community of Big Sky, Montana. And it’s where leadership must begin, by implementing best practices in community planning to scale in other towns across the state and region.


Better yet, the principles of a sustainable destination can apply to any municipality, leveraging tourism alongside interests of local residents. Cities that pursue the certification attract high-end tourists that stay longer, have a lower environmental impact, and spend more money.


It’s easy to push off the difficult planning decisions, but they’re within reach to solve. We must step back and examine our human impact - it’s simply unsustainable. Every infrastructure, development and zoning decision lays the foundation for decades of practices. With that perspective in mind, it’s our responsibility to plan in a way that leaves communities and natural ecosystems intact for generations to come.


Read up on the principles of a sustainable destination and propose to your local city officials. Insist they be included in planning decisions, and elect public representatives that will foster long-term investments in our mountain communities.


This solution is within reach. Let’s not be left with a future built on the accumulation of short-term development opportunities. Let’s take control and plan for the future we want.

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