Mickey Moose and the West’s newest frontier


The Walt Disney Company is coming to Yellowstone National Park, and already the "Mickey Moose" jokes have started. What’s not funny is the way this venture by a multinational corporation marks a new frontier for the West.

In a quiet announcement last month, Disney said it intended to test-launch a "Quest for the West" weeklong vacation tour of Yellowstone, Grand Teton and the Jackson Hole area. Wyoming and Hawaii are the first two destinations for "Adventures by Disney," a vacation concept marketed to people who already take Disney vacations such as cruises.

Disney thus enters the eco-tourism market — one of the West’s latest ways of selling itself. Eco-tourism, defined as nature-oriented tourism that seeks to minimize environmental impacts, is a frontier because it’s a new, unorganized market, much like the Internet a decade ago. Some pioneers have proved its viability, and now a large corporation is moving in.

That’s the way frontiers always work: Adventurers explore a new area, then someone with more money and organization comes in to control it. The discovery of California gold led to a rush of ‘49ers, but by the 1880s, most Western mining activity was run by large corporations. Early Western farmers built small irrigation schemes, but after 1900, most dams were huge, complicated projects built by the federal government.

Frontiers thus always attract two types of people — romantics and capitalists. Romantics love the adventure: panning for gold, cowboying on a cattle drive, landing on the moon. Capitalists love the opportunity to make money by being the first to figure out how to succeed in this new venture.

So far, eco-tourism has attracted lots of romantics, people who love nature, want to preserve it and are excited about the possibility of eradicating the alleged "jobs vs. the environment" gap. Local, well-informed outfitters across the West, from river guides to ranchers who rent horses and llamas, have shared their passion and knowledge with a select clientele.

Disney, on the other hand, excels at capitalizing frontiers. Most amusement parks were small and local until Disneyland and Disneyworld made them global juggernauts. More recently, Disney capitalized on an architectural trend called the New Urbanism to create a phenomenally successful real estate development, Celebration, in Florida. I wouldn’t be surprised if Disney also succeeds at transforming eco-tourism.

That’s good for Disney. But is it good for the West?

The promise of eco-tourism is that it marshals market forces behind environmental causes. A Disney-in-Yellowstone requires a vibrant Yellowstone, and so we could potentially foresee a day when Disney’s powerful lobbyists call for strengthened endangered species laws to protect the grizzlies and wolves that contribute to its bottom line. (What if Disney ran tours in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, thus adding its voice in opposition to drilling there?)

On the other hand, the danger of unfettered capitalism is that private profits often come at the expense of public resources. Indeed, capitalist activity on previous frontiers has led to many of our current environmental problems. Many grasslands still haven’t recovered from overgrazing by huge corporate cattle ranches in the late 19th century. Likewise, individual gold-panners and placer miners with huge hoses could make a mess, but it takes an organized corporate body to make a Superfund site.

Some previous eco-pioneers have even soiled their own beds. Once they were organized into efficient companies, fur trappers nearly exterminated the beaver they depended on. Timber companies in the late 19th century so overcut their private lands in the upper Midwest that Gifford Pinchot organized federal forest preserves to save them from their own greed.

Could the same sort of fate befall eco-tourism? I can picture new hotels, roads, and other infrastructure crowding out the very wildlife habitat that created the need for them. I can picture each corporation saying the problem is not its hotel, but everybody else’s. I can picture this not because corporations are inherently evil, but because that’s the only way for them to compete.

The lesson we claim to have learned from the abuses of capitalism 100 years ago is that when big corporations deal with public goods such as wildlife habitat, we need a countervailing force. And for all of its problems, the only available countervailing force is government action.

Disney coming to Yellowstone doesn’t necessarily mean that Mickey, Goofy, Donald, and the gang will crowd out the real animals. But it might mean that eco-tourism’s adventure-frontier phase has ended. Now, it’s time to figure out how to make such ventures succeed for society as a whole.

John Clayton is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org). He writes in Red Lodge, Montana.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

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