How growing Western rec towns might hold onto their futures

Researchers look to give small tourism communities the tools for a GNARly approach.

 

A busy intersection in downtown Estes Park, Colorado, reflected in the window of a business that sells kitsch in the town known as the Gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park.

Danya Rumore, a professor of planning at the University of Utah, could feel her hometown changing. Sandpoint, Idaho, on the edge of Lake Pend Oreille in North Idaho, had always attracted visitors with its easy access to the Schweitzer ski area, but in the last decade, it had become much busier. As tourism grew, the town struggled to keep pace. It needed the visitors to keep the economy going, but the town’s infrastructure was being overwhelmed. When Rumore worked in communities like Springdale, Utah, right outside of Zion National Park, she noticed similar tensions, exacerbated by the uneven growth of the tourism economy. “They have big-city issues, but big-city solutions don’t work, or aren’t viable,” she said. 

In 2017, Rumore began to study those places, which she calls GNAR — Gateway and Natural Resource Amenities — communities, to see if she could help them plan for growth and share insights. Rumore, who is also the director of the university’s Environmental Dispute Resolution Program, has a background in conflict resolution, and she thought those towns might benefit from tools like mediation.

She was right: Communities started to come on board, and in January of 2020, the GNAR Initiative became a part of the Institute of Outdoor Recreation and Tourism at Utah State University. Rumore worked with academics there to create a cross-discipline, geographically broad forum to seed research, share best practices, and brainstorm ways to change practices in Western states, where state-level policy has often meant regressive planning and growth policies, including exclusionary zoning.

Then COVID-19 hit, exacerbating all the issues. “It was like bringing a knife to a bazooka fight,” she said.

Recreation towns aren’t the only places that have been hammered by changing demographics and shifting economic tides during the past two years, but Rumore says many of them were already struggling with how to plan for growth, house their workers and manage the uneven economic progress. And then they all got inundated by Zoom-boom transplants and visitors desperate to spend time outdoors. The GNAR initiative kicked into overdrive.

Rumore says that GNAR communities are often small rural places — usually under 25,000 people — that find themselves confronted by city-scale problems, like infrastructure degradation and lack of housing. The towns might have relatively few residents, but their many visitors make use of the town’s resources, overwhelming the infrastructure without necessarily adding to the tax base. They tend to be liberal enclaves in conservative states where planning isn’t funded, even though growth is accelerating. And COVID intensified the already existing income disparity, as more wealthy outsiders moved in.

Rumore says that towns like Moab and Jackson Hole — the standout recreation destinations in their states— often feel like the marketing for their communities is out of their hands. They can’t control the crowds flooding in. “People were already moving to those places, but we estimate COVID expedited amenity migration by 15 years,” Rumore said. “Overnight it was like, ‘What the hell is happening?’”

Businesses in Sandpoint closed because their workers couldn’t find housing. Moab’s water system approached its limit. Along Springdale’s former commercial strip, which has largely been converted to vacation rentals, Zion traffic was backed up for hours, making it hard for locals to get to work. “There’s only so much these communities can do without social change or policy,” Rumore said. “They’re laboratories for how wealth inequality is impacting our communities.” 

The GNAR initiative is taking a two-pronged approach to help these towns adapt on their own terms.

The first involves research — identifying and naming common problems so they can be addressed effectively. “A lot of times, these communities feel isolated. Wyoming state policy is not made for Jackson Hole,” she said. “And then the billion-dollar question is: How do you use Jackson lessons for communities like Pinedale that are growing? What’s the point on these trajectories where it goes sideways?” The researchers tracked planning problems and population growth rates across GNAR communities, noting whenever the tension arose, and they studied the social impacts of high-dollar recreational activities, such as skiing.

“Much of the work is going to be changing the narrative around planning, and right now it’s such a political element,” Rumore said. “People say they don’t want change, but we don’t have a no-growth tool, so we have to get people on board to figure out what kind of community they want to be.”

“People say they don’t want change, but we don’t have a no-growth tool, so we have to get people on board to figure out what kind of community they want to be.”

The other main focus is capacity building and education, to give the communities tools to plan for the future they want. Rumore says one of the most effective ways to do that is to go back to the principles of conflict resolution: getting everyone together to talk about community values, and then ensuring that future plans align with those values.

That takes time and work, and it generally involves a lot of socially entrenched battles. There is no silver bullet. No town is going to perfectly balance growth with identity, and no policy will make everyone happy, especially as new crowds and new incomes streams move in. But Rumore sees the GNAR communities as canaries in the coal mine of wealth inequality, and she believes that it’s crucial to give them tools to proactively plan for the kind of growth they want, so they aren’t  overwhelmed by rapid change.  For the most part, the towns’ residents love and care about the same things, like outdoor access; the hard part is deciding what to protect when you can’t have it all.

“It’s a tricky kind of NIMBYism, because there’s a lot of things we don’t want in our backyards, but have to focus on what we do want,” she said.

Heather Hansman lives in Seattle, where she writes about science, adventure and culture in the West. She is the author of Powder Days: Ski Bums, Ski Towns, and the Future of Chasing Snow, released in 2021, and Downriver: into the Future of Water in the West.

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