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My Fellow American, I think Well of You

On Sunday February 19, 2012, a feather-like snow crystal standing on end, less than a centimeter tall and buried under three feet of newly fallen snow, collapsed. Instantaneously millions of other snow crystals in that same thin layer, no longer able to support the load of the snow above, also collapsed, causing a slab containing 6,000 cubic meters of snow to break loose, shatter and accelerate down the slope. The shattered slab quickly became a churning mass of snow barreling downhill at 65 mph.

The five skiers in its path had no chance to escape. It pinned one against a tree, pounding him relentlessly as it passed, and swept the other four down the slope, tossing them like rag dolls, slamming them against trees and packing their mouths with snow. When the avalanche finally came to rest 2,500 feet below, all were buried. Two were rescued by other members of the original group of sixteen who had taken a safer descent route. The other three were dead from some combination of trauma and asphyxiation.

The fragile, deadly layer of snow was invisible to the skiers. Possibly some in the group suspected it was there because they had tracked the weather and knew the calm, dry period preceding the storm was conducive to forming such lethal crystals. Possibly they refused to believe the layer was sensitive enough to react to the weight of a skier. Possibly others had a gut feeling they were in dangerous terrain but, enticed by the allure of deep, untracked powder, followed the lead of others and didn’t speak up. Possibly some didn’t suspect there was any risk at all. Possibly some simply knew that they couldn’t perfectly predict the outcome of skiing the slope but given the dire consequence took a safer line. Each skier had a different view of the risk level that morning, or perhaps didn’t have a view at all. Whatever the reason, the group failed to establish a final, widely shared, decisive assessment of the risk.

As a backcountry skier it’s impossible to predict with 100% accuracy that you or a companion will not trigger an avalanche. There are myriad variables that go into the stability of snow. Snow can weaken or the weather can change in the span of a few hours and radically change the probability that a skier could trigger an avalanche. Across a hundred backcountry skiers, there is rarely complete consensus on what it would take to trigger an avalanche on any given slope, or when it is safe to ski any given slope, or when it is not. Everyone brings their own assessment of the risk, based on their own analysis, their own observations, their own data. And when it comes down to that final go/no-go decision, the only definitive answer is the binary event of an avalanche. By then, if you’re wrong, it’s too late.

Sound familiar? SARS-CoV-2 is invisible. It can live in a human who may look and feel perfectly healthy. By the time you can visually observe that you are at risk of getting infected, it may be too late. Once infected, maybe you’ll survive, like 37.6 million people globally who caught Covid and survived. Or maybe, like almost 1.1 million others, you won’t. Clearly there is a risk associated with exposure to SARS-CoV-2.

Risk is rarely easy to measure. Scientists are struggling across the globe to monitor, map and forecast where Covid outbreaks will occur and how many people will die as a result of those outbreaks. Models are being developed and deployed to understand the effectiveness and impacts of non-pharmaceutical interventions and policies (closures, shutdowns, etc.) to protect populations and stem the spread of the pandemic. As of late October, 2020, with cases on the rise in many countries, governments struggle to find the right balance of testing, tracing, closures, shutdowns and lockdowns. The economic consequences can be devastating if closures are unwarranted and unreasonably strict. The health consequences are devastating if policies are not strict enough.

Outcomes vary dramatically across nations. Peru imposed strict policies but struggled with high case and death rates. Sweden is the leading example of a country with few strict non-pharmaceutical interventions yet fewer deaths per 100,000 people than in the U.S. Taiwan tops the charts with one of the lowest levels of closures and remarkably low rates of Covid. In the U.S. state-level incidence and mortality rates vary widely amidst a hodgepodge of closures, lockdowns, and other non-pharmaceutical interventions. Correlations abound that are being construed to support or oppose various interventions. Some find evidence of correlations between mask orders and higher incidence of Covid  and have taken the view that mask wearing worsens the spread of the disease (see this lengthy email exchange). Others point to correlations that support mask wearing as an important intervention.

What’s going on here? The wild card is human behavior. It’s well-known that as a species we are wholly unable to consistently and accurately judge risk. As described by Marilynne Robinson in a conversation with Ezra Klein, “we are trapped by our primitive notion of causality.” In other words, when it comes to an accurate assessment of reality, we are too often one sandwich short of a picnic.

No backcountry traveler will ever have the kind of x-ray vision and intuitive grasp of physics to scan a mountain slope and know with certainty that a slope will avalanche under a skier’s weight. No mortal can scan the town as they leave the house and know where they will become infected with the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Yet people still ski backcountry slopes, introducing some probability into their life of getting caught in an avalanche; and people still socialize in groups, go to bars, or otherwise increase their probability of being exposed to SARS-CoV-2.

Why? Humans have needs, whether it might on the surface seem trivial, like the need to ski powder or bar hop, or something more basic like the need to procure food and support loved ones. In the fulfillment of those needs, when we are faced with assessing risk amidst daunting levels of complexity, fraught with unknown variables and indeterminable consequences, we resort to simple rule-making procedures, or heuristics, to make the go/no-go decision easier.

For accidents involving avalanches, Ian McCammon identified four. We are most comfortable with the familiar. We seek social proof by mimicking the behavior of others in our close social circles. We are biased by commitment, finding it difficult to change course despite new information. And we more aggressively pursue our needs as restrictions and constraints are placed on our freedoms and reduce the options available to us. Such heuristics often have very little to do with the actual risk level.

As a result, risk assessment can be highly individual. That is challenging enough when it comes to guiding pandemic behavior to achieve the optimal balance of economic activity and non-pharmaceutical interventions. But compounding the challenge is politization. Whether it’s closures or masks or even a belief in the pandemic itself, what you believe and what you see in the data seems to be defined by whether you’re a Democrat or Republican. Conservatives claim the pandemic is not that serious of a threat and that government-led interventions are overblown. Democrats find weaknesses with almost every facet of the current administration’s response. 

This, to me, is bizarre. The last I checked, Republicans and Democrats were not at war over whether a buried layer of feathery snow crystals can be deadly or not. People who teach avalanche courses teach you the same material regardless of their, or your, political affiliation.

Again, what’s going on here? An intriguing interview with Thomas Friedman gave me a clue. It’s about trust. And dignity. It’s about fear. And humiliation. These are the most powerful emotions. It is natural to fear, especially during a pandemic. We fear sickness, death, loss of jobs and the roof over our heads and loss of freedoms. In a state of fear, our senses are heightened; the world is no longer safe. Is “the other side” out to get us? Do they want my job, my business, my freedom, my dignity? Behaviors and beliefs that don’t align with ours are more threatening than ever. How easy it becomes to humiliate. And how searing the wound thereby inflicted. Too much humiliation, too little dignity, a loss of trust, and we burn down our democracy.

Why would we do this? Why tear apart the very house built by our forefathers to protect cherished freedoms, the most brilliant system of government in the history of the world? Friedman points out that the only thing worse than a one-party autocracy is a one-party democracy and that our entire system is built around the notion there will be two parties that fight hard but ultimately compromise.

Yet we now believe the “other side” is evil.

Marilynne told Ezra Klein, “If you think another person is evil, you are effectively blinded.” Are we going blind—a self-inflicted, fundamentally destructive, malady?

We’ve come a long way, Teton County, and gone through a lot: late March closures, April-May stay-at-home orders, June re-openings, a July spike in cases, mask orders, an August drop in cases, September school openings, and a recent resurgence and a close call at the Living Center. We’ve debated policies every step of the way.

I too have pondered our response every step of the way. Shutdowns, lockdowns, closures, orders, recommendations, partial closures, essential versus non-essential businesses, curbside pickup, alcohol to go, gathering sizes, mask mandates, quarantines and school openings or closings. I’ve tossed and turned many a night struggling with the essence of the pandemic: what is the baseline risk? And how much does each intervention or set of interventions reduce that risk? One study says this; another that. One country does this and their local hospitals can’t keep up while another country does that and gets along fine.

I too have feared—for the community, for my family, for my parents, for me. What if I could set aside my fear of the disease, my fear that I and my loved ones could become seriously ill or die from COVID? What if I could set aside my fear that health orders are inching us towards a less democratic, less liberal and more autocratic state? Would I then be able to view the pandemic with balance and sobriety?

As a local leader it is imperative to recognize that I too am trapped “by a primitive notion of causality.” I too am susceptible to heuristic traps. I too can fear and close my ears to those who oppose what instinctively feels right to me or to those who support what instinctively feels wrong. But like an avalanche involving a group of skiers where each has their own interpretation of the risk, there is no correct moral stance, just a recognition that amidst the complexity of predicting an avalanche we each bring our own assessment of the risk or the probability that one will occur.

As a local political leader, I must also recognize that Democracy demands that we are all equal and see each other as equal. Ms. Robinson says that democracy can only thrive when we are willing to think well of one another.

2020 has left many of us disoriented, disrupted, discouraged. Let it not leave us defeated.

My fellow American, I think well of you.

COVID 19: Nationwide Cohesion Needed

In the book, The Boys in the Boat, by Daniel James, the book’s Zen Master, George Pocock, gave Joe Rantz these words of advice: Once you row past the pain, the exhaustion, the voice that said it can’t be done, then strive to work in harmony with the others in the boat, trust the others in the boat, and when you do, “you will feel as if you rowed right off the planet and are rowing among the stars.” With Joe and seven other depression-era working class boys rowing in perfect sync, Joe’s team stole the 1936 Olympic Gold from Nazi Germany.

Now imagine fifty very different rowers that have to row in perfect unison. Only the race isn’t for gold. It is for lives. Millions of lives.

Today, states and counties in the US have a myriad of different COVID 19-related county declarations and policies. They vary dramatically, even across neighboring states. This is a big problem, with life and death consequences. Counties need stronger state leadership, and states must cooperate at unprecedented levels.

All fifty states have declared states of emergency. But even under these declarations, counties pursue their own policies. And their public health offices or local governments often have to seek approval from the state health officer or the governor’s office before implementing stricter closures than those imposed by the state.

Counties throughout our nation have often been out in front of their states in implementing COVID 19-related closures and limits on public gatherings. Teton County, Wyoming, gateway to Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks and home to three ski areas including the popular Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, recognized the threat that remaining open for businesses would pose to a small, rural health care system. Local leaders and health officials knew the resorts, restaurants, bars and shops—all incredibly reliant on tourist—had to close. Supported by the local town and county governments, the Teton District Health Officer had to craft his own resolution and request approval from the State Health Officer in order to implement it. Shortly thereafter, the Governor announced state-wide closures.

However, at the time of writing, just over the border, Idaho merely recommends that “organizers (whether groups or individuals) postpone or cancel mass gatherings and public events” with over fifty people or more. That despite the fact that as many as 10,000 residents of eastern Idaho commute daily back and forth across the state line. Teton County, Idaho later implemented closures similar to those in Teton County, Wyoming. But elsewhere in Idaho, closures and restrictions vary widely, from the minimum required by the state to shelter-in-place restrictions in Blaine County—home to Sun Valley Ski Resort and the hardest hit county in Idaho—to bans on visitors entering from regions “that have sustained widespread community transmission” in Custer County.

Similar patterns of disparate county-level restrictions exist across the nation. In much of Kansas restaurants and bars remain open. In New York, Illinois and California the hardest hit counties have implemented shelter-in-place policies. While hard-hit Washington state has not gone that far.

A lack of a coordinated response will likely result in nationwide infection rates almost uniformly above 75%, with catastrophic implications for local health care systems. If one state closes all non-essential businesses, people can simply go to the next state to do their business or recreate. Crowded public gatherings in bars, restaurants and other public venues combined with unchecked travel by virus carriers with mild or no symptoms will drive exponential growth in transmission. In this same light, non-essential domestic air-travel has not been prohibited. How can local leaders seek to protect their communities and states when airplanes continue to traverse the nation, providing perfect vectors of disease transmission?

Unless every state and county puts in place strict measures to close public gatherings and limit travel, we are not going to flatten the curve, and health care systems across our country will be overwhelmed.

The ethos of the United States is firmly rooted in individual rights and freedoms, so the only way we can really change the trajectory of our current patch-work set of controls is for all states to work together. This can be done through groups like the Western Governors Association, where currently there is a list of initiatives to tackle regional issues such as stemming the spread of invasive species, but where there’s no indication of any form of coordination around preventing the spread of COVID 19. Region-wide efforts could quickly be amended and adapted to match those of neighboring regions, especially with leadership and guidance at the federal level, thereby creating a cohesive national strategy. This is essential.

To forge a gold-medal team, Pocock told Joe to “think of a well-rowed race as a symphony, and himself as just one player in the orchestra. If one fellow in an orchestra was playing out of tune, or playing at a different tempo, the whole piece would naturally be ruined.” Our nation’s states and counties need to pull together now if we are to avoid the worst-case scenario.

We cannot delay.

Why Trump Is Winning Rural America

Addressing a room full of Wyoming county commissioners in mid-February, Wyoming Governor Gordon said something to the effect of, “If you want Wyoming to continue having a seat at the table, a true voice at the highest level, vote for Trump.” He went on to describe how the Trump Administration has given unprecedented voice to Wyoming, from the Governor’s administration down to town and county officials, insisting that he’s never seen anything like it before. He added, “I’m not trying to be political.” To which a Democrat sitting next to me responded, “That’s not being political!?”

But that’s exactly the point: to many citizens of Wyoming, that’s just straight talk reflecting a refreshing change in attitude and attention to rural people and places adopted by the Trump Administration. Governor Gordon is practical, as are people across Wyoming and other states throughout the West and Midwest. And the fact is, Wyoming citizens, for better (in the eyes of the vast majority of voters in Wyoming) or worse (in the eyes of environmental-minded people around the nation), now have more of a say over federal policies that impact their private property, their job prospects (largely in the energy industry), and over environmental rules (that in their eyes often look like handcuffs) than they’ve had in recent memory.

I’m a Democratic county commissioner in Wyoming, and here is what I see.

The Trump Administration gives rural counties unprecedented personal attention. At the first Western Interstate Region (WIR) county commissioner conference that I attended after President Trump’s election, an official with the USDA came up to me, asked which county I was from and said, “I’ve been hoping to meet with you.” Shortly thereafter he gave me information on available funding for rural sewer and water projects, broadband expansion, wildfire mitigation programs, and economic development efforts, along with information on how to apply. Handing me his card he said, “Call me if you have questions.” Nothing like that happened at any of the prior conferences I’d attended, and there has been follow up, including the FCC Chairman visiting to check on the results of a grant to expand broadband within the Wind River Indian Reservation and to remote Wyoming ranches.

Trump’s staff conducts regular outreach and communication to Wyoming counties. At least once a month we receive emails from the Department of Interior (DOI) with news about initiatives responsive to rural concerns, such as repealing the 2015 Rule Defining “Waters of the United States.” Updates include a list of DOI efforts, accomplishments and “DOI-in-the-news” headlines such as “Cattlemen applaud Trump’s regulatory relief,” “Bernhardt Meets in Montana about Grizzly Delisting Decision” and “Melania to visit Wyoming National Parks.” This never happened during the Obama years.

At the annual legislative conference for the National Association County officers (NACo) in Washington DC, the theme was the same. Commissioners from around the nation are regularly invited to the White House and to occasions such as State Leadership Days, where Secretary Bernhardt and other senior administration officials meet with local officials. We also receive numerous invitations from this Administration to participate in discussions about federal programs and initiatives to deal with invasive species, expand broadband, and learn about available grant funding and rural economic development programs. This never happened under President Obama.

County commissioners have had a seat at the table as the Trump Administration has rolled back, amended or sought to amend major environmental federal legislation like the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), rules such as the BLM Planning 2.0 Rule, and definitions such as the 2015 Waters of the US Act (WOTUS) – all issues with broad implications for how public and private land is managed throughout the West. When President Trump signed the bill repealing the BLM 2.0 Planning Rule, he invited a Wyoming commissioner to the ceremony, who gave the President his favorite cowboy hat in gratitude.

Wyoming is receiving this attention even though we’re hardly a swing state: President Trump’s net approval in Wyoming is the highest out of any state in the country. From the perspective of Governor Gordon, this expanded outreach happened when Trump came into office, and if he goes, Wyoming’s seat at the table goes. If Trump were a Democrat and taking action on issues from Grizzly delisting to streamlining NEPA to amending the Endangered Species Act, Governor Gordon would likely say the same thing. But Trump’s not a Democrat. And Democrat’s don’t seem to be paying much attention to rural counties, citizens and voters – this is going to be a problem for them.

Democratic presidential hopefuls simply aren’t reaching people in counties throughout the West, hearing our concerns or even speaking our language. Healthcare is a big issue everywhere, but the visceral appeal to voters of a presidential administration that places private property rights over common resource protections and focuses on the siren-call of well-paying mining jobs will always win the day, especially in areas of the country hit hardest by the decline in manufacturing and coal. Here in Wyoming, as in many other similar places, private property rights, decent-paying jobs (and yes, second amendment rights and “religious freedom”) outweigh hand-waving promises by Democratic candidates offering “socialized” healthcare, green new deals and $15 per hour minimum wages. After all, it’s the lost $80 per hour mining wage that actually matters to many in my state, while wonky distinctions between liberal, neoliberal, socialist and democratic socialist simply aren’t part of the vocabulary.

I won’t pretend to understand the nuances of electoral math, but 2016 should have made it obvious that if a presidential candidate can’t win a significant chunk of rural American, it is going to be very hard to win the White House. The Trump Administration’s outreach efforts are calculated and strategic. They play a big role in local lawmakers’ devotion to the President and will likely swing key states to Trump. The eventual Democratic nominee for President should take heed.

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.

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