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Know the West

Billionaires are changing communities and the wild in Wyoming

Sociologist Justin Farrell explores the ways wealth shapes Teton County and the Western U.S.

 

Jutting more than 7,000 feet from the valley floor, the Teton Range offers some of the United States’ most dramatic vistas. But the jagged peaks are mirrored by equally sharp economic divides in the communities below. Lured by both natural beauty and favorable tax codes, the ultra-wealthy have flocked to Teton County, Wyoming, making it home to the highest level of wealth inequality in the country.

For Justin Farrell, a sociologist at Yale University who was born in Wyoming, Teton County provided the perfect location to interrogate income disparity’s impacts on both natural and human communities. His new book, Billionaire Wilderness: The Ultra-Wealthy and the Remaking of the American West the result of hundreds of interviews with both the area’s haves and its have-nots — reads like a blend between an extended case study and investigative journalism.

As Farrell introduces readers to the thinking of millionaires and billionaires on issues like environmental conservation and rural authenticity, he toggles between documenting the unvarnished opinions of the über-rich and his own critical deconstruction of the myths that mold this elite class. High Country News recently caught up with the Denver-based scholar to discuss how inequality is shaping the modern West.

High Country News: Why are the ultra-wealthy so attracted to the West?

Justin Farrell: In some ways, theres always just been this magnetic pull from this region. Culturally, it has to do with this rat race that a lot of these folks have been running for several years. They need to downshift, they need to find a place where they can relax, they need to find a place where they can “connect with nature.” The other reason is economic: Wyoming is a tax haven, and its lucrative to move to Wyoming.

HCN: Part of what shapes Teton County and the attitudes of its ultra-wealthy residents is something you call the “environmental veneer.” What is the environmental veneer?

JF: The environmental veneer is the sense that conservation or environmentalism is always this vague, altruistic good — that saving and protecting nature is a public good, its for the common good, it can’t benefit you economically, it doesnt benefit you socially, and that it doesnt benefit your lifestyle. So it creates this candy-coated veneer that masks other environmental problems like climate change, ocean acidification, the burning of fossil fuels. It just allows folks to escape or downplay or even not enter into those ideas in their mind.

Im all for conservation, but we need to be real about the history of conservation, which is still not well understood by most people. The removal of Indigenous people to create national parks is part of this veneer, and people don't want to hear that. And they dont want to hear that you can use environmental work to achieve social status, to sustain your own societal advantages, to reinforce social and environmental problems. 

Justin Farrell, author of “Billionaire Wilderness” and professor at Yale University, sits for a portrait in Denver, Colorado.

HCN: Why are the ultra-wealthy in Teton County so much more willing to invest in environmental causes or donate to a land trust than, say, support organizations dealing with issues like homelessness and hunger? 

JF: When youre moving to this paradise, the last thing you want to hear about is eviction and that youre causing home values to go through the roof, and there is homelessness in the grade school. So part of it was not wanting to acknowledge that this is a real community and that the West is populated by actual people. To acknowledge all that is to admit there are holes in this myth, and paradise isnt what its cracked up to be.

It’s pretty astounding how much money has flowed into this area and how little social services groups have received. That says it all. 

HCN: You set out to observe and study the ultra-wealthy, but in the book, youre not shy about calling out their hypocrisy and questionable environmental ethics. How did you balance your roles as both an observer and a critic? 

JF: Its very difficult. I did it through going back and talking with people to clarify their positions, and then having the courage to report what I think is happening, and report the struggles that the working poor are enduring and tell it like it is.

As a sociologist, I pin blame on us as a society. I pin the blame on lawmakers who wont enact policies that can help certain groups. Im not sure if I would do anything different if I were ultra-wealthy. I hope I would, but theyre playing within the rules of the game for the most part. So I could tell the truth, because I knew that I wasnt attacking one or two individuals unfairly. 

HCN: You focus a lot on the wealthy, but you also found differences within the working class on how they view wealthy people. What did you observe in interviewing those on the other side of the inequality that defines Teton County?

JF: One group recently immigrated from a small town in Mexico, and their quality of life is, they would tell me, definitely improved. Largely, this group (of newly arrived immigrants working multiple jobs) is so strapped for time and so tired they just say, “Were thankful for our jobs,” and “The ultra-wealthy people I work for treat me fine,” and “Im just trying to get by, trying to survive.”  

Then theres a group of folks who are starting to organize a little bit. Theyre understanding whats going on, and they’re understanding the levers that they can pull within the political system to try to effect some change — for example, to protect them from being evicted without notice and perhaps encourage affordable housing. One person said, “Enough is enough, we need to do something.” They are on their feet a little bit more, and theyre able to confront this veneer of community that exists — that were a small-town community, small-town character, and we all get along.

HCN: How do the lessons and insights from your research in Teton County extend around the West?

JF: This isnt just about Teton County. Teton County was a perfect case study because everythings in sharp relief there that is happening elsewhere. Places like Spokane, places like Boise, Reno, you could name 10 or 15. You have growing wealth disparity, affordable housing problems, evictions and an influx of new immigrant communities.  

We need to look, especially in Wyoming, at economic policies. Im not an economist, so I tread lightly there, but its obvious that these income tax havens, corporate tax havens and loose oversight of what counts as being a resident need to be looked at more closely by lawmakers. 

I advocate for requiring more from those who have more money than anybody can spend in 100 lifetimes. Thats more of a moral claim for me, but there are economic consequences. Employees in Teton County cant live there anymore. For example, the restaurant at the top of Jackson Hole (Mountain Resort) had to close for a while because they couldnt hire any employees. That gets the wealthys attention, of course, and it’s sad thats what it takes.  

HCN: So if the problems are economic policies, and they only gain the attention of the ultra-wealthy when they affect their leisure activities, what will it take to change that dynamic? 

JF: We need to end this perception that were reliant on affluent folks and their philanthropy to solve the problems. We cant rely on the goodwill of a handful of wealthy people to prop up organizations in the community; we have to raise funds elsewhere to have a consistent flow of income to provide educational systems and all of that. 

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Moving forward, the real question is: If philanthropy does decline, whats going to take its place? Its not even really working right now. So whats going to happen in the future?

One of the reasons I work in these areas is because I want to provide some sort of baseline knowledge about whats going on and then work with folks to help find solutions. I want this book to make an impact not just locally, but with lawmakers in the state, lawmakers nationally but also people who are interested in and care about the West and want a reliable picture of whats going on, on the ground on an issue of great importance.

Carl Segerstrom is an assistant editor at High Country News, covering Alaska, the Pacific Northwest and the Northern Rockies from Spokane, WA.

Email him at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor