When the Bubble Burst

How Teton Valley came together to protect wildlife, water, and a way of life after the Great Recession

LOR FOUNDATION

Lindsey Moss stands in the middle of an overgrown field in Driggs, Idaho, a few yards from State Line Road, dividing Idaho and Wyoming. It’s snowing sideways.

“Poor planning,” he repeats, shaking his head, “poor planning.”

The wind bends the tall grasses, revealing a lone manhole cover in the bare expanse. In the foggy distance, a bleached sign reading “Targhee Hill Estates” creaks in the blowing snow.

Moss, who owns the farm property next door, explains Targhee Hill Estates is one of many so-called “zombie subdivisions” in Driggs.

When the Great Recession hit in 2008, the county was left with more than 9,000 unbuilt lots. “Useless now,” Moss says. “It just sits here waiting…”

Resident landowner, Lindsey Moss, stands on the manhole cover of the abandoned sewer lines in Driggs, Idaho, bordering his family farm.

“I don’t tell a lot of people this, but I’m grateful for the Recession,” Moss says. The City’s laissez-faire planning and zoning meant building permits were handed out in the floodplain, in the wetlands, and along Teton Creek. Had business continued as usual, Moss would be surrounded on three sides by 100-home subdivisions.

It’s a complicated silver lining. But Moss isn’t the only one who acknowledges the economic downturn disrupted a trajectory that would have torn Driggs apart.

A Wake Up Call

The Recession was a wake up call — not just for the real estate market. Driggs is home to the Teton Creek watershed, one of the most fragile migration corridors and nesting grounds in Teton Valley, and a direct artery to the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

Teton River running through the Grand Teton National Park

According to the National Park Service, the two million acres of Yellowstone National Park is habitat for the largest concentration of wildlife in the lower 48 states, and considered the last intact ecosystem in the contiguous U.S.

A study published in Conservation Biology in 2002 measured the irreplicability and vulnerability of biological hotspots around the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, and concluded Teton Valley was both the second most ecologically important area, and the number one most threatened.

In the boomtime of the early 2000s, real estate prices hit record highs as Driggs gained popularity as a bedroom community of Jackson Hole, the luxury ski town 30 miles away. Teton County’s population grew by 39 percent between 2000 and 2007, making it the fourth fastest growing county in the nation. The Great Recession of 2008 brought that growth to a grinding halt. Developers went bankrupt. Subdivisions were abandoned. Land that was platted and divided, like Targhee Hill Estates, dissolved back into grassland.

Despite appearances, the relics of the pre-Recession economy have not been completely forsaken. In the case of Targhee Hill Estates, a developer in Utah still owns it. Which is why Lindsey Moss is on edge. After more than a decade of slow recovery, this subdivision could soon come back to life.

Abandoned lots and decaying monument signs stand as vestiges from the Great Recession.

What’s at Stake

“If we don’t act now, the things that we love about Teton Valley — the wildlife, the scenery — will be lost,” says Joselin Matkins, Executive Director of the Teton Regional Land Trust. “It’s a very critical time.”

The repercussions of development became undeniable in the 1990s. Teton Creek was bulldozed by a developer in an effort to contain the wide, braided streambed into a narrower channel, and reclaim the floodplain for further development.

“Because of that damage, Teton Creek now presents catastrophic flood risk to most of the City of Driggs,” says Amy Verbeten, Executive Director of the Friends of the Teton River. “As it stands right now, the creek is more of a liability than an amenity.”

The bulldozing created a firehose effect, resulting in runaway erosion, toppling more than 400 old-growth cottonwood trees, dragging truck loads of sediment downstream, and steering the creek’s path toward the county dump. Land owners for miles saw the erosion eat away at their property, sometimes by hundreds of feet at a time. It took $3.85 million to repair the dredged section — not including effects up or downstream. The developer responsible is now in federal prison for the damage.

Amy Verbeten of the Friends of the Teton River, along with Joselin Matkins of the Teton Regional Land Trust, are two cornerstone partners in the LOR-funded Teton Creek Corridor Project. Verbeten and Matkins have been working alongside the Valley Advocates for Responsible Development and Teton Valley Trails and Pathways to undo the damage, as well as strengthen the ecosystem and add recreation infrastructure.

By conserving lands along the corridor, “we’re trying to take what’s currently a liability and turn that back into an amenity,” says Verbeten.

“[Teton River] was the very first place I walked with my daughter after she was born.” — Amy Verbeten

But to the farmers of Driggs, there is a fine line between conservation and confiscation. Farming is a key economic driver in the region, and a tradition that goes back generations.

Friends or Foes

“Listen, if I have to choose between fish and my hay crop, I’m going to choose my hay crop,” Lynn Bagley says. Bagley is a third-generation farmer in Teton Valley. He currently serves as president of the USDA Soil Conservation District.

Bagley leans back in his chair at the Soil Conservation office, flanked by portraits of President Donald Trump and Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue. “Friends of the Teton River are the only conservationists I’ve ever met with common sense,” says Bagley. His face breaks into a wide smile, deepening the lines around his eyes and mouth. A gold cap gleams on his bottom row of teeth.

“It’s hard to farm in Teton Valley, but you got to look at the benefits also. Look at the mountains, look at the river, the streams.” — Lynn Bagley.

“Amy and I had to sit down and have some heart to heart talks. But we found that we have a lot more in common than we expected.” Bagley met Friends’ Executive Director Amy Verbeten in 2012. Verbeten was newly at the helm of an organization that was considered, apart from the flea beetle, the farming community’s number one adversary. Finger pointing over soil health and river contaminants often pitted the Friends against agriculturalists. As the state of Teton Creek worsened, so did the two groups’ relationship.

Between 1999 and 2003, Idaho Fish and Game reported a 95 percent decline in Yellowstone cutthroat trout populations, while nonnative brook trout and rainbow trout populations increased by 300 percent. As tributaries were shunted away for agricultural use, the altered hydrology disconnected fish habitats from the main stem of the Teton River. Currently, the Yellowstone cutthroat trout exist in just 27 percent of their historic range. The Teton River watershed is one of the last remaining strongholds for this endangered fish, while parts of the streambed now stay dry for many months of the year.

Teton Creek running dry near the town of Driggs, Idaho.

“For a long time we made a terrible mistake in the conservation community by only looking at the ways farming was negatively impacting the environment. We unfairly vilified agricultural producers,” says Verbeten, “and that has literally torn communities here in the rural West apart.”

When she took the job as Education Coordinator with the Friends of the Teton River in 2007, Verbeten unknowingly became a diplomat and ambassador.

Amy Verbeten, fly fisher and Executive Director of the Friends of Teton River.

“My biggest criticism of the environmental movement is that we’ve devalued the generational knowledge of farmers,” says Verbeten. “These folks have been here for generations and deeply understand this land, the rhythms of this place, the soil and the water. We’ve got to respect each other’s expertise.”

Growing up in Washington state, she learned to fly fish in the tributaries of the Walla Walla River with her father. At twelve years old, she began working on a neighboring strawberry farm. “They knew so much about the land, the water, the plants. I learned more on that farm than all my college education combined.” Verbeten talks with a slow, patient cadence, tucking her auburn hair under a thick beanie. She has bright, expressive eyes that crinkle closed when she smiles, thinking of her friend Lynn Bagley.

“Lynn and I get along because we have a similar worldview. We share the same values of a love of place, a deep respect for the plants and animals and how they work.”

Lynn Bagley, third-generation farmer in Driggs, Idaho, and community leader in soil health and regenerative farm practices.

Bagley says, “If you make the big issue the thing you agree on, you can work out the little things easier. That’s what Amy and I have been able to do.”

Farmers in the area are resistant to cover crops and grazing rotations, but Bagley works to convince them: “If we have good farming practices to control soil health and run off, we have better water quality for our hay. If we have better water quality, that’s better for the fish,” he says. And if Driggs wants to preserve its agricultural heritage, Bagley’s voice lowers and hardens, “We’ve got to get this right.”

Galvanizing the community around shared water and land use is especially urgent under the current economic pressures. As the economy recovers in Driggs, real estate prices are on the rise again.

Precarious Business

Bagley looks out the window as the grey sky. The first winter freeze is forecasted to hit that evening. “If it gets as cold as they’re predicting, the potatoes freeze in the ground. You’ve farmed all summer, and it’s all gone. Expenses don’t go away, even when you lose your crop.”

With one of the shortest growing seasons in the region, farming in Driggs is a precarious business. When developers come knocking, many farmers give into the pressure to sell, rather than continue the back breaking work that offers only thin profit margins.

“We crashed so hard in the Great Recession because many people thought agriculture was no longer viable,” says Shawn Hill, Executive Director of the Valley Advocates for Responsible Development (VARD). VARD is one of the four nonprofits spearheading the Teton Creek Corridor Project. “People said, ‘Better to hand the land over to the developers.’ Because at the time, farmland was worthless in comparison.”

Hill explains it this way: “Agriculture requires cheap land. If the Valley lets development happen in a way that drives land prices up, we’re driving the Lynn Bagleys of the world out of business.”

And when farmers sell, Bagley asserts, the whole community suffers. “As we lose agricultural ground, we lose habitat for wildlife,” he says. “Pasture ground is still better for wildlife than a housing development. If agriculture goes away, what comes next?”

In the early 2000s, as lot prices doubled and tripled, the Teton County map filled with plats of sprawling subdivisions of 300 homes on quarter-acre lots or smaller. “What made the Valley special was vanishing. Things were out of control,” Hill says. He argues Driggs’ attraction was never golf courses and swimming pools. Teton Valley is singular in its remote vastness and austere wilderness. It’s the kind of place where elk bugle at night, neighbors stop to winch your truck out of a snowdrift, and herds of mule deer thunder across the highway. “Back then we were turning into any-resort-town-USA,” Hill says, “but that was never going to work here.”

When the speculation bubble burst, Teton County was left with more than 9,000 unbuilt lots.

So far, Shawn Hill and the Valley Advocates for Responsible Development (VARD) have helped eliminate one-tenth of the abandoned lots. Eliminating them wipes the subdivision record clean, returning the land to raw acreage. VARD is actively working to vacate more of these lots in the watershed and wildlife refuges identified in the Teton Creek Corridor Project.

Habitat or Housing

Back on State Line Road, Lindsey Moss opens the garage door. He lives on his family’s historic 130-acre farm, land that has been split up between his seven siblings. “Mom asked us if we wanted land or money,” he says, kicking snow off his boots. A few brothers and sisters took the money, he kept the land.

“Everyone was going to get rich. Neighbors were all selling property. A lot of friends my age bought and sold, bought and sold, making a little money on those exchanges, then they couldn’t sell. They had to start over financially,” says Moss. “Thankfully we were cautious.”

“We grew up half wild, I suppose, by today’s standards.” — Lindsey Moss

Moss pulls down his mountain bike, stored in the garage alongside two off-road motorcycles (one for racing, one for mudding), a golf cart, and a four wheeler. At 62 he can’t retire yet, he laughs, his salt and pepper mustache turning up at the edges, “I have too many hobbies.” Moss races motocross and competes in ultramarathons. “I can’t imagine not working — have you seen the price of a mountain bike?” Inside the farmhouse, the mantle is lined with medallions and trophies. “My wife says my toys are too expensive. But I tried hiking…it’s just too slow.”

Moss left the family farm more than two decades ago looking for steady income. He joined the Wyoming police force, and worked his way up to Teton County Sheriff. Since moving back to Driggs in 2002, he leases his land to a local barley and hay farmer and drives a truck for an excavation company. He doesn’t deny that Driggs could benefit from higher wages and better jobs.

Lindsey Moss at the decaying entrance sign of Targhee Hill Estates.

“Economics are important, but preserving our habitat is most important. I grew up next to this creek all my life,” he says. His eyes scan the empty tract of Targhee Hill Estates across from his farm field. Just beyond, the dry streambed of Teton Creek snakes past.

What Responsible Growth Looks Like

“We all want a growing, thriving economy,” says Joselin Matkins of the Teton Valley Land Trust. “But that means maintaining agricultural heritage and open migration corridors. Wildlife is intrinsic value to this community. It drives people to move here.” Determining what responsible growth looks like in the face of species extinction and habitat loss is the question of our time, she says. “Reconciling that is hard. It’s why I’m here.”

The very resource responsible for the Valley’s economic growth becomes more at-risk as the region’s popularity grows. And this paradox is not lost on the Teton Creek Corridor project team. “We can’t love this place to death,” says Verbeten.

Amy Verbeten fly fishes in Teton Creek oustide of Driggs, Idaho.

Driggs requires a calculated economic development model that incorporates the needs of hay crops and cutthroat throat, housing expansion and conservation annexes. “Our competitive edge is our ecosystem, no one else has it. Why would we not protect that asset?” says Hill.

In this way, Teton Creek is an allegory for the situation unfolding around the world. With a global climate shifting towards hotter, drier summers, and warmer, wetter winters, the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem will continue to experience reduced snowpack, earlier run-off, and increased wildfires. Driggs and Teton Creek are bracing for a change in harvests, migration patterns, and river flows, and the community will have to work together to adjust.

The Teton Creek Corridor Project is a model partnership; an example that could offer solutions in a world experiencing shifting climates and resource competition. “If you fight, someone always has to lose. If you work together, it might sound hokey, but everybody wins,” says Verbeten.

So far the project has protected over 1,100 acres along the corridor through voluntary conservation easements, an agreement that protects the land from development in perpetuity. Together the four nonprofits have conserved more than 250 acres of riparian habitat, permanently conserving those zones as dedicated wildlife corridors.

This spring, project partner Teton Valley Trails and Pathways is completing a multi-use trail along the creek shore. More than 150 dump truck loads of sediment, dragged downstream by erosion, have been excavated and repurposed to pave the path.

“With all the tribalism in our country, and the difficulty of finding common ground, the Teton Creek Corridor Project is so important,” says Joselin Matkins. “A project that works to protect water resources for fish and farming, protect wildlife migrations, as well as protecting agricultural heritage — that’s innovative. And it’s working.”

Story + Strategy mediadesknm.com

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