Menu Close

Dear Ms/Mr Economist: Explain This….

Finger tips crimping millimeter wide ledges, toes balancing on nubbins, a man on a vertical rock wall more than 3,000 feet high swings his left foot up and out smearing it against a vertical edge, reaches palm up with his left hand to grip a downward pointing flake of rock, and in a move requiring precisely apportioned oppositional forces presses with the foot, pulls with the hand, and repositions his other hand on another small edge and the other foot on another sloping nubbin in order to reach up again with his left hand to grab a slightly larger and more secure edge to continue his upward progress. If the karate-kick like move had failed, if his foot had slipped or if his hand had missed the exact spot that maximized oppositional force, he would have fallen over 2,000 feet to his death.  It’s a scene from the Oscar award winning documentary Free Solo of Alex Honnold accomplishing an unprecedented free-solo ascent of El Capitan in Yosemite Valley, and even for experienced rock climbers, watching him move through that section of a 3,000 foot climb, with no ropes or safety equipment, is nauseating.

The scene also captures the essence of death-defying pursuits that humans engage in, often for little or no monetary or material reward, pursuits that are ostensibly contrary to our normal survival instincts or even flat-out irrational. They include but are not limited to free-solo rock climbing, base jumping, paragliding, big-wave surfing, alpine mountaineering, and ski mountaineering (a form of backcountry skiing on high, steep, exposed alpine peaks where one slip or one small snow avalanche can be fatal).

So where does economics come in on explaining this kind of human behavior, a behavior that can’t be measured by things like wages and income? Apparently nowhere. A quick on-line search brings up much on the economic impacts of these sports. But nothing comes up about how or why humans do these things. For climbing, John Cochrane on his blog The Grumpy Economist noted Alex’s accomplishment but only in that it got him “thinking about economic growth,” not about why in the world anyone would want to do that in the first place. And he certainly passed on trying to answer the deeper question yet of why anyone would want to commit their life or their prime working years to an activity that might prove fatal on any given day. These sports demand immense commitment. You must train fiendishly and basically live, eat, sleep and breath the activity, forsaking material goods and often relationships. And, all too often die doing so.

Writers have explored these sports and the people who pursue them, as in this Outside article by Nick Heil about the tragic death of three exceptionally accomplished climbers, noting, “How close one needed to stand—or fly, or ski, or surf—to their own mortality was, to me, a question of infinite fascination with no correct answer.” Filmmakers have included these activities in films with some success, including The Eiger Sanction, and most recently the Oscar Award winning Free Solo.

Despite this constant (though arguably sideline) presence in modern culture economists have avoided examining the motivations behind the pursuit of these activities. Yet if economists purport to model human behavior based on how we respond to incentives and based on rational thinking (ala the rational choice model) and the pursuit of self-interest, how do they explain the pursuit of these activities? Doesn’t it seem like we’re missing a huge opportunity to examine motivations around risk taking that might be pervasive throughout other fields such as finance and health with far-reaching influence on economies? Is it possible that strands of the underlying motivations behind these pursuits are woven throughout all human behavior? Is there a little bit of climber, skier, surfer and base jumper in each of us? And if so, might that lead to more frequent so-called black-swan outcomes than models might predict?

As Earnest Hemingway put it, “There are only three sports: bullfighting, motor racing, and mountaineering; all the rest are merely games.” Mountaineering, climbing and other pursuits where the probability of a bad outcome incorporates forces of nature and the consequences routinely involve death are not games. They are passions. Why haven’t we examined from whence these passions arise? Or examined the capacity for otherwise rational human beings to contain them?

Maybe economists should climb a mountain, a big mountain. Maybe they should surf a point break, kayak a whitewater river, ski the uncontrolled backcountry. Because it appears they’re missing something, something at first blush not rooted in rationality, something ineffable, something spiritual. Yet something intensely human just the same.

p.s.: Hint—possibly because….for some their time in the mountains—on a rock face, a knife edge ridge, a ledge, an airy bivouac, fingers on a dime edge, toes on sloping nubbin, space below, sky and wind above—is where there’s clarity, purity…of thought, of air, of life. Or death. Make the next move, the next step the next turn. It’s simple up there. It might be scary, but not scary like life in the world down below: where do I go next, why, people really care about this [car, house, nice pair of jeans, fancy meal]…..this…..shit….?. It might seem unpredictable up there, but not the human kind of unpredictability: who’s against me; what’s the meaning of that look, that sentence; did I just say the right thing or the wrong thing; who’s that, what do they want and why; why are they laughing. It’s simple up there. Your head is clear. There’s one task: don’t fall. It’s a combination of mental and physical awareness that can never be achieved anywhere else. There are no drugs, no artificial stimulants, no depressants. There’s no hang-over. You sleep well, exhausted, cocooned, below a universe of stars. And sometimes….sometimes you just don’t want to come back down……

Stay Wild? We’ll See…

The peaks—cathedral spires rising from the flat valley bottom. The river—intertwined trout-filled channels; the sage-brush flats spotted with free-roaming antelope and bison; the misty pre-dawn meadows shadowed with silhouettes of bull elk; the willow marshes screening hulking bull moose. The small-town charm; the unparalleled mountain resorts; the visual and performing arts that are as creative as this place is wild. The Travel and Tourism Board (TTB) has woven a spectacular narrative, the Stay Wild campaign, a narrative that borders on myth.

Or maybe is myth?

Marketing? Myth? Both? Myth: landscapes, heroes, creatures, feats and deeds bigger than life—cultural ideals. Myths are memorable, evocative, durable and believable. But only if rooted in fact. And what are the facts behind staying wild?

Teton County and the Town of Jackson, through citizen input, crafted and implemented the Jackson | Teton County Comprehensive Plan as the over-arching policy statement guiding growth, development and land use. At its core the Plan strives to protect the highest priority community values (a healthy ecosystem, a thriving economy, a vibrant community). Most communities prioritize only the latter two. Teton County not only places the three on equal pedestals but emphasizes that a healthy ecosystem underpins the latter two: our economy and our vibrant and diverse community rely on the vast array of ecosystem services delivered by a healthy, functioning ecosystem. And the Travel and Tourism Board’s Stay Wild campaign sums it up brilliantly, concisely and with elegance: stay wild.

But to stay wild we need wild—both wildlife and wildlife habitat. And to stay vibrant and creative we need artists. To that end, our town and county governments have put in place myriad policies and practices, often in partnership with private efforts, that lay the foundation for a vibrant and sustainable community. They are as broad-sweeping as the Integrated Transportation Plan and as minor as ensuring offices are provided with adequate bins to sort recycling. They include efforts to fund roadside signs to slow drivers and make them more aware of wildlife, to facilitate wildlife movement across private property, to preserve and improve water quality, to get people out of cars onto bikes and into busses, to promote the arts and early childhood education, to make our community age friendly, to preserve historic character, and to reduce our waste stream. It is because of these efforts, supported by thousands of hours and many hundreds of thousands of private dollars, that our community can rightfully claim that we are doing our best to stay wild.

But the TTB, the creator of Stay Wild, the number one promoter of our wild character, falls short of funding these very resources, the very people and organizations, the conservation efforts, the sustainability initiatives, the partnerships, that form the core of our most important values, the seeds of the myth that is Jackson Hole. Why?

It’s possible the board feels constrained by an interpretation of state law that is wildly (pun intended) off the mark when it comes to the definition of promotion.

As mandated by law, 60% of the roughly $7 million in funds generated by the 2% tax on all lodging expenditures should go towards efforts that are or that strongly relate to tourism promotion. An opinion (and only an opinion) by the Wyoming State Attorney General (AG) speaks specifically to funding “concerts, grooming ski trails and plowing roads,” stating that those are not allowed by the lodging tax statute. That’s not what we’re talking about. We’re talking about promotion, and here the opinion states that “’promotion’ in the context of the statute appears (AG’s emphasis) to have a narrow meaning more synonymous with advertise or publicize” and explicitly includes “promotional materials.”

And how do professional marketers (who have asked to remain anonymous) with nationwide clout create “promotional materials”? “By definition, any activity or investment that is designed with the intent to increase differentiation, visibility and awareness among an audience is, literally, branding and promotion.” So long as there is a clear strategic intent with “a promotional layer,” then “any program or project you invest in, it can be considered promotion,” no matter whether it is an investment in famous people, or sustainability initiatives or conservation efforts or arts councils. Other experts weighed in to the effect of “The “traditional” definition of marketing and branding – as defined in the AG opinion – is more than 20 years out of date…” while noting, “a critical advantage that Jackson Hole has over other mountain destinations is our abundant wildlife.” And, one might quickly add, includes our wildly creative arts community that generates over $50 million in economic activity.

In short, the AG’s opinion in no way constrains the TTB from deploying promotional dollars to invest in critical efforts to sustain our wild and wildly creative character. With a clear strategy, such as a campaign to Stay Wild, and a clear link to a bonified visitor experience, then investments in our highest community priorities is promotion. Save the bighorn so that when you ride the tram to the top of Rendezvous Peak you might see a bighorn. It’s that simple. Save the wild, film the effort to save the wild, and bingo you have some of the best Stay Wild marketing money can buy. Fund it, film it, let Instagram do the rest. Marketing 101—aka myth making.

Indeed the TTB already does some of this. They just do so in a limited, I would say timid, way. The TTB’s 2019 budget estimated revenues (these are 60% of total collections) at around $4.3 million. Of that it committed $200,000 to “local marketing partnerships.” This money, in the words of their budget, “funds the marketing efforts of local community organizations, for example, the Center for the Arts, JH Wild, Nordic Alliance, JH and Yellowstone Sustainability, so they can create and spend media in their areas of expertise and tell their brand and community story with the guidance of the TTB creative agency. Examples of recent work include the Wildly Creative campaign, JH Wild, Wild on Tour promotional video, Trip Advisor Green Leader and BEST certification and the Nordic Alliance Trail maps, website, Turpin Meadow Free Ski day and marketing initiatives. This initiative has also created community assets that can be used now and into the future.”

But there’s so much more than can be done. That line item could easily breach half a million dollars and still fall short. Why not include some of the genuine, community-led efforts that have measurable impacts in achieving community sustainability goals and that have strong symbolic value to drive the ‘stay wild’ narrative? Why not underwrite a portion of the multi-organization effort to restore river and stream water quality, or the multi-agency effort to save the high Teton bighorn sheep from extinction, or the partnerships that bolster and ensure a thriving arts community?

Jackson | Teton County have something no other rocky mountain community in the lower 48 have: an inimitable combination of scenery, history, thriving arts and small-town character ensconced in the center of the largest intact ecosystem in the lower 48 states. But are we the community with the motto ‘Stay Wild’ when in actuality we allowed Teton bighorn sheep to become extinct? Or didn’t prevent Fish Creek from becoming choked with algae? Or failed to support the artists that celebrate our rich community and amazing place with their work? Let’s support the TTB to do even more with valuable lodging tax dollars so that that doesn’t happen. The TTB has a talent pool that would make be the envy of a New York City ad agency. Let’s give them the policy-level support they deserve and unleash their best. Let’s do it for the sake of the community. Let’s do it for the sake of the ecosystem.

Mark Newcomb - Housing in Teton County

Housing: The Stats, The Supply, The Reality, The Challenge, The Bottom Line

The Stats (estimates that applied as of March 2018 based on a staff report by Housing Director April Norton):

  • 25,723 people work in Teton County.
  • There are 13,146 dwelling units in Teton County.
  • 868 are deed restricted and house 6% (~1,543 people) of the workforce.
  • 600 are employer-specific (built by employer) or LDR restricted (such as an accessory unit) and house 4% of the workforce (~1,029 people).
  • 2,559 are market rental units (~4,116 people).
  • 4,289 are market ownership (~7,974 people).
  • 1,280 units are occupied by non-workers. If occupants are local—for example retired—each of these units might generate the need for 0.221 employees for a 4,000 sq foot home or roughly 283 employees (here’s the highly technical study upon which these numbers are based).
  • 3,868 units are vacant. If occupants are non-local—for example, second homeowners—each of these homes generates the need for 0.266 employees for detached units and 0.398 employees for all other units (such as a 4 Season’s townhomes) amounting to around 1,160 employees.
  • 5,148 units (39%) generate the need for workers without providing any workers.
  • At 1.73 employees per unit, 7,998 units remaining would house 13,837 workers, or roughly 54% of the workforce. Current estimates are that 59% of workers live locally.

The supply: (The public investment, a substantial portion of which is through land, in the following projects amounts to over $14 million dollars)

  • Redmond Street Rentals just added 26 deed-restricted rental units
  • Grove Phase 3 just added 8 deed-restricted rental and will add 16 more over the next two years
  • Housing associated with Parks and Rec Maintenance building will add 26 rental units by late 2019.
  • Construction to start in 2019 should add 30 rental units at 174 N King Street in Jackson
  • Construction on 90 non-deed restricted units should begin soon on West Broadway (Sagebrush Apartments)
  • Hidden Hollow will soon add 169 units, 73 of which will be deed-restricted, mostly rentals, for the local workforce.
  • There are other opportunities in town that April Norton is working on that would bring economies of scale to play and possibly result in over 100 more new units.

The Reality:

  • Current policy is to house 65% of Teton County’s workforce in Teton County, a goal set by examining other Rocky Mountain resort communities and estimating the ratio that seems to separate places that are communities first and resorts second from places that are mostly resorts (background). Following that policy, for every 100 new full-time jobs created, at least 35 people have to live outside of Teton County whether they choose to or not. It will be very expensive to meet that goal.
  • Just how expensive? Modest, two to three br houses from the late 80’s in Cottonwood Park are priced at over $800,000. Prices are higher yet in Rafter J and higher yet in Melody Ranch and portions of East Jackson. When it comes to vacant land, the 21-acre Bar J Chuckwagon property off of 390 was to be sold to a developer for $16 million. Another 80-acre parcel well south of town, no Teton views, rural and not zoned for density, was listed at $12 million (the hope by the owner is that it would be up-zoned for new housing). Building costs are expensive—estimated to be $450/sq foot minimum (a 1,000 foot building would cost $450,000 just to build). The Bar J developer wanted to build 69 units, 20 of which would have been deed-restricted affordable. $16 million divided by 69 makes the land cost $231,884/unit. For a 1,000 square foot unit, that means $450,000+$231,885=$681,884 at a minimum (doesn’t include infrastructure, profit margin, etc.) At seven or eight hundred thousand dollars a unit, the 49 market units would have been priced out of reach of most Teton County workers.
  • Going forward, for a significant number of new homeowners and renters, multi-family units will be the most available and affordable option

The challenge: Given the price of land and the cost of construction, how do we capture as much new housing development for the working class and not for second homeowners or retirees? Should zoning allow development in areas of rural, open space? If so where? If so, how do we ensure it won’t impact wildlife either by taking up important habitat or creating more traffic through wildlife movement corridors? How much potential is there for infill in town? And most importantly, how do we ensure that new housing development doesn’t target the marketable and willing to pay $1 million or more for a place to live in Teton County? In short, how do we preserve the important components of our community—both the people (hard-working, free-spirited locals) and the place (open space, agriculture, wildlife habitat, wildlife).

The bottom line: New development, especially new second homes, new short-term rental units, and new commercial and institutional space, creates jobs, and job growth is outpacing housing growth. Since 2000, jobs have increased at an annual rate of 2.1% while housing growth has remained around 1.6% (helpful video). There are over 5,000 dwelling units out of 13,000 that don’t house any workers but generate the need for new employees (and thus new housing). From a pure free-market perspective, without any obligation on the part of the developer, most new housing built would target people able to pay prices in excess of $1 million—far more than the local workforce can afford. Meeting the challenge above means taking advantage of public dollars to purchase space, optimally in town, and utilize private entrepreneurialism and efficiencies to develop a range of deed-restricted rental and ownership housing and take up space that would otherwise go towards higher-end units, short-term rentals or commercial. In short, that means realigning housing growth to match job growth while using size and style of units combined with deed restrictions to ensure they remain in the hands of local workers.

A Humble Consideration of Wilderness

Dear Forest Steward,

You are receiving this email because you commented, either by email or hand-written card, on the fate of the Palisades and Shoal Creek Wilderness Study Areas (WSA’s) as part of the Wyoming Public Lands Initiative (WPLI). Thank you for interest and comments.

As a reminder, the Palisades WSA (PWSA) encompasses 134,417 acres of mountainous terrain south and southwest of Jackson, Wyoming. 79,517 acres are administered by Bridger-Teton National Forest (BTNF), and 54,900 acres are administered by Caribou-Targhee National Forest (CTNF). 71,780 acres lie in Teton County, Wyoming and 62,637 acres lie within Lincoln County, Wyoming.

The Shoal Creek WSA (SCWSA) contains 32,373 acres of mountainous terrain southeast of Jackson. 11,619 acres lie within Teton County and the remaining acres within Sublette County.

Both the PWSA and the SCWSA are part of the 34,375 square mile Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE), one of the few relatively intact temperate eco-systems on earth.

The Teton County WPLI considers only National Forest land within Teton County: 71,780 acres for the PWSA and 11,619 acres for the SCWSA—small but important pieces of the GYE.

These two areas were considered by congress as potential additions to Wilderness as part of the 1984 Wyoming Wilderness Act (WWA) but were left out pending a final review by the Secretary of the Interior in order to assess their potential for oil and gas production. That review was supposed to occur within 3 years, after which they were either to be released for oil and gas production or designated by Congress as Wilderness to be managed per the 1964 Wilderness Act. Thirty years later, a final designation has not occurred.

In the meantime, the 1984 WWA mandates that these WSA’s are to be administered “so as to maintain their presently existing wilderness character and potential for inclusion in the National Wilderness Preservation System…” while specifically allowing oil and gas exploration. The act also stated that snowmobiling is “to be allowed in the same manner and degree as was occurring prior to the date of enactment of this Act.” The Act did not mention biking or any other specific mechanized uses.

I’ve read all of your comments, and they vary. For no other reason than that I am passionate about our nation’s public lands and passionate about all they offer in terms of wilderness and recreational values, I want to share with you my thoughts. They are mine only and in no way represent the position and policy of the 5-member commission as a whole. You are free to touch base with any individual commissioner whenever you choose in order to ascertain their individual thoughts.

Many of you wrote that you would like to continue accessing Forest Service lands in Teton County by bike, snowmobile, dirt bike and/or ATV as well as by foot, horseback, skis or wheel chair.

Others of you wrote in that you would prefer to see significant portions, if not all, of the WSA’s designated as Wilderness that by law would exclude motorized and mechanized uses unless needed to allow access for disabled people.

None of you wrote in that you would be fine watching the landscape degrade or be permanently altered by the development of roads, clear-cutting, oil and gas wells or mining.

For many of you permanently designating these WSA’s as Wilderness means losing access by snowmobile, motor bike and mountain bike (uses not allowed in Wilderness). Likely you snowmobile, motor bike and/or mountain bike, and to you the terrain in the Palisades and parts of Shoal Creek are world class, offering remote and challenging terrain that tests even the best snowmobilers, dirt bikers or mountain bikers. It’s clear by your comments that access to large expanses of rugged, challenging, beautiful and remote terrain is fundamental to your psyche, and you do not want to give it up.

For others of you, it’s equally clear from your comments that Wilderness designation is the only designation that matters. It’s clear that in your evaluation Wilderness is the only way to insure that the Palisades and Shoal Creek landscapes are protected for their “natural condition,” for their ecological value, and for their opportunities for “primitive” forms of use (non-motorized, non-mechanized). Lands designated as Wilderness are meant to remain unmodified, “undeveloped,” “untrammeled,” raw and feral, where humans are a minor player and might get charged by a moose, mauled by a bear, stalked by a cougar or simply just end up lost. True Wilderness is for wildlife, not humans.

I’m guessing that if you took time to comment, then you appreciate untrammeled and undeveloped places in order to escape, well, trammeled and developed places. I’m guessing, like me, you appreciate places where you can look out across a vast landscape wondering what is hiding there and what it might take to find it, like being at the edge of a frontier.

But aside from the benefits to the individual, these public lands also keep our water clean—in Teton County runoff from the surrounding peaks creates an underground river to constantly flush our groundwater and preserve its quality. And undeveloped public land keeps our air clean—if all of the county were private, imagine how much air pollution would be trapped in the valley during winter inversions. These public lands harbor wildlife, and whether you choose to hunt it or shoot it with a camera, or simply know that it’s there in the woods and mountains, healthy wildlife populations matter to us all. Public lands provide those vital amenities as well as places to hike, backcountry ski, snowmobile and bike.

But…can too much recreation do just what we’re hoping not to do to the landscape? Or to the wildlife? Where is the line between no impact, a little impact, and too much impact?

America is the nation that defined the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness. And exploring frontiers is fundamental to that pursuit. Whether exploring mountains, rivers and canyons, or landing on the moon, crossing new frontiers is part of our psyche, testing us in ways we fundamentally need to be tested: physically, mentally, spiritually.

Have we lost our last wild frontiers?

It appears from your comments that though we are a community of passionate advocates for the wild, we are torn as a community over the simple question of how we experience it.

Internal dissonance is not comfortable, and to avoid the discomfort we retreat to the safety of what we know best, to acceptance, to safe quarters where we won’t get criticized for taking a stand or holding a view because others feel the same way. But I wonder if our retreat might block our ability to permanently resolve the question of how the Palisades and Shoal Creek should be managed?

I too am torn. I’ve been a heli-ski guide. I mountain bike. I’ve “developed” climbs on public land creating trails where there used to be none. Perhaps it’s because I know myself that I’m convinced that there is important wilderness quality terrain in the Palisades that should be officially designated as Wilderness, before people like me criss-cross it with new mountain bike routes, or before that stretch of backcountry where now one might find solitude becomes so crowded that, like Yogi Berra said, “No one goes there anymore.”

I also recognize significant amounts of terrain in the Palisades that are relatively heavily used and offer some of the best cross-country mountain biking, downhill mountain biking and snowmobiling in the intermountain west, if not the nation. Whether the right Wilderness/Non-Wilderness split for the Palisades is 44,000 acres of Wilderness and 27,780 acres of non-wilderness, or more of one and less of the other, I don’t know. But I do know that something roughly around that amount provides ample multi-use recreation opportunities on lands west and north of Mosquito Creek and south of Highway 22 while reserving land south of that to the county border for Wilderness.

I reckon many of you think that’s too much Wilderness. Perhaps you think there shouldn’t be any at all. To others of you, the very thought of giving up even one acre of PWSA is unbearable, and I’m giving away the farm, selling Wilderness down the river.

At some point the adventure must begin, the first step taken, the commitment made. This landscape deserves protection, we all know that. At a minimum, I hope you will join me in committing to preserving it’s rugged, undeveloped, and unmarred wild character, Wilderness or otherwise.

With sincere gratitude for your interest and attention to being the best stewards of our national public lands as we can be…

Mark Newcomb Teton County Commissioner

Growth in Our Community

I keep wondering about growth. Growth is changing the community. Can we ever keep people from visiting here or moving here? What is special about this place that we seem to be losing? Our wildlife? How do we protect that? Our people? How do we preserve the hard-working and diverse population that made the community what it is? How do we ensure there are people here that really care, people to provide health care, education, public safety and volunteer services? Some of these folks are moving away… I don’t know how to think about it… Have we reached a point of no return?

I’m concerned about growth. Are you?

Let’s face it, property is worth the most in dollar terms without space for wildlife, without workforce housing, with a minimum of open space, with no obligation to address traffic impacts, and free of any encumbrance to protect historic character. But if dollar value is the only thing it’s about, then where are we headed as a community?

Unfettered growth won’t preserve essential wildlife habitat. Unfettered growth won’t solve workforce housing challenges. We can’t stop growth—there are plenty of empty lots waiting for a house, and there is plenty of commercial space waiting for a developer. We can zone to place a rough cap on overall development. And we have. Is that enough? What else can we do?

Guiding growth to address its impacts on our community needs thoughtful and experienced leadership. We need leadership that will craft policies that preserve community values. We need leadership to support public-private partnerships that catalyze the passion and talent of the private sector to protect those aspects of our community we hold most dear.

We need vision and leadership to understand that the community simply can’t grow and keep growing. Equally, we need vision and leadership to understand that protecting community character in the face of growth is no small challenge.

The magnitude of the challenge is beyond any one person’s ability to tackle. So most of all, we need leadership and vision that recognizes and celebrates your pride, passion and compassion and that welcomes your voice at the table. Please support my vision of a community that thoughtfully confronts growth and issues around growth, that recognizes the profound forces shaping our community and that, most importantly, keeps your voice at the table.

Newer Posts
Older Posts