Mountain Town News: Wealth chasm continues to widen in Jackson Hole (column) |

Mountain Town News: Wealth chasm continues to widen in Jackson Hole (column)

Allen Best
Mountain Town News

JACKSON, Wyo. – Jackson Hole is noted for the sky-piercing Teton Range. But it also has a Grand Canyon-like gap between the ultra-wealthy and everybody else.

The Economic Policy Institute, a think tank based in Washington, D.C., recently ranked Teton County as having the most unequal incomes in the United States. The report found that the average income of the top 1 percent was 213 times the average income of the bottom 99 percent of households.

Local economist Jonathan Schechter earlier this year painted more detail in this picture. He cited Internal Revenue Service data that shows Teton County is the wealthiest in the United States based on per capita income. In 2014, the most recent year available, per capita income was $194,585.

Schechter finds this chasm: 9 percent of people accounted for 89 percent of all income in Jackson Hole. Flipped on its head, this means 91 percent of people account for just 11 percent of wealth. That disparity is the most pronounced in the United States.

The Jackson Hole News&Guide observes that the wealth disparity is manifested particularly in housing. The last time a family earning the median income of Teton County could afford a median-priced home was in the mid-1980s. County planners estimate that a family now must make nearly three times the median income to be able to afford a median-priced home.

Earlier this summer, the median price of homes listed for sale was $2.5 million. Only seven single-family houses were listed for under $750,000, according to the Jackson Hole Report issued by David Viehman, a real estate agent.

Aspen and Pitkin County have the fourth greatest inequality in the nation. There, 9 percent of the population have 73 percent of the wealth.

Schechter makes the argument that Wyoming’s tax laws also encourage Jackson Hole’s imbalance. Yes, the Tetons are dramatic, he seems to say, but there are some bottom-line reasons why big money is lofting into Jackson Hole.

Wyoming has no income tax. Wyoming residents can also create dynasty trusts to shield property from federal estate taxes for up to 1,000 years. The state also has no real-estate transfer tax, no estate tax, no tax on out-of-state retirement income.

Real estate agents have taken to trumpeting the tax advantages of real estate investment in Jackson Hole. In July, Sotheby’s International Realty ran an advertisement headlined “Wild, wonderful Wyoming—the tax friendly state.”

News&Guide reporter Benjamin Graham’s story also delved into what he called artificial incentives that further encourage wealthy people to buy homes in Teton County. One is the local airport, which has a strong link for easy travel to the nation’s metropolitan areas. But then there’s this: spraying of mosquitoes, which makes summers far more pleasant.

Can Jackson Hole tweak regulations to create a better balance? One possibility is to require more affordable housing be built along with new residential development. The current rate is 25 percent. The regulation comes into play with the construction of homes larger than 2,500 square feet or a new subdivision.

What explains the homeless campers?

NEDERLAND, Colo. – Earlier this summer, a fire erupted in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains northwest of Denver, near the small town of Nederland. Nearby is a ski area, Eldora, and up a road toward the Continental Divide is a one-time recording studio called Caribou where Elton John, Michael Jackson and dozens of other musicians cut records. Rocky Mountain National Park is about 45 miles away along the Peak to Peak Highway.

The fire had spread from a campfire created by two men from Alabama. It went on to burn 600 acres, destroying eight homes. But the story the New York Times investigated was not one of forest fires. Rather, it’s about homeless people camping in forests. There seems to be a lot of them around Nederland and other places, too.

The local fire chief, Rick Dirr, said his volunteer firefighters no longer answer nighttime calls in the forest without a policeman or sheriff’s deputy as backup. He told the Times he has faced down one camper who carried a butcher knife and searched the woods for another man who had attacked his girlfriend. There was also a boy who swallowed a baggie of heroine.

There have been scattered reports — from around Crested Butte, near Breckenridge, and elsewhere — of an upsurge in the number of people camping illegally. The Times found no hard evidence to document the surge. The best was a 2015 survey of U.S. Forest Service law enforcement officers. About half seemed to think the number of long-term campers was on the rise.

Lee Cerveny, one of the researchers who conducted the survey, said it was unclear how many people might be living on public lands at any give time.

“What is happening, and why are we seeing more people living in the forests?” she said. “We don’t know yet.”

Illegal campers deluge Jasper this year

JASPER, Alberta – The number of people illegally camping in the town of Jasper, located within the park of the same name, has spiked this year. Through mid-August, the municipality issued 262 ticket and 49 warnings. Altogether last year there were 137 tickets and 48 warnings.

Parks Canada told the Jasper Fitzhugh that it has not seen a similar trend outside the townsite.

Trump in ski towns, and Obama’s climate speech

STATELINE, Nev. – Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump skipped through several mountain towns last week, passing the hat as he did. Picking a mountain town as a venue, President Barack Obama this week is scheduled to deliver a major speech about climate change.

Trump flew into Lake Tahoe Airport last Friday evening and was rushed to a private fundraiser at nearby Harrah’s Lake Tahoe. The Lake Tahoe News reports he was met with both flag-waving supporters and protestors carrying signs such as this one: “Trump Make America Hate Again.”

The evening before, Trump had been in Aspen, where the cost to see the golden one was $2,700 per plate or $25,000 per couple. The Aspen Daily News reported that the event was held at a 13,544-square-foot-home owned by somebody from Houston that had a collection of arms and armor from the battlefields of medieval Europe among its furnishings.

In Aspen, there were protests, but also this request to Trump from Mayor Steve Skadron: Take along “some of our mountain values, like respect of the natural environment, a constructive public-private sector balance and a willingness to reach out and help your neighbor rather than vilify those who are different.” Skadron’s statement also expressed hope that Trump’s visit to Aspen will “sensitize him to the reality of climate change and its impact on our community.”

Climate change was to be front and center on Wednesday, Aug. 31, when President Barack Obama was scheduled to visit Lake Tahoe for the 20th annual Lake Tahoe Summit. With President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore in attendance, the summit was launched as a way to focus attention on the sullying of the lake’s famous clarity.

Nevada Sen. Harry Reid, who helped organize the first event, said it was better than he expected. “We’ve gotten over $2 billion for the lake. The lake has more clarity. We’re doing much more to protect it than we did before,” he told the Reno Gazette-Journal.

Despite the huge financial investment in the Tahoe Basin, some scientists suggest that the lake could become victim to the larger environmental threat of climate change, the Gazette-Journal noted.

The newspaper talked with Rush Holt, chief executive of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He said a warming climate will not only affect the health of the lake, but also the area’s economy. He cited a 2014 study by San Francisco State University that found ski resorts contribute more than half a billion dollars to the Lake Tahoe economy annually. Yet the amount of precipitation that fell as snow in 2015 was the lowest ever recorded, he said.

Reid agreed that global climate change is a concern, but not just for the future of the lake.

“Those who argue that climate change is a hoax are not facing reality,” Reid said, citing raging wildfires in the West and bark beetle infestations of the Tahoe forest.

Climate action plans don’t go nearly far enough?

WHISTLER, B.C. – Leaders in British Columbia and Colorado, both considered trend-setters in action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, got battered last week by climate change activists.

Merran Smith, executive director at Clean Energy Canada, said the new plan released by the province of British Columbia, can be summed up in two words: it fails. B.C., he said, is procrastinating. The best-case scenario in carbon pollution will be no more in 2030 than today, Smith told Pique, instead of the needed reductions.

In Colorado, Gov. John Hickenlooper said he was poised to order a 35 percent cut in emissions from electrical utilities by 2030. His announcement was initially met with support from at least one environmental group, but other climate change activists said it wasn’t nearly enough. They point out that the federal Clean Power Plan, if upheld by the Supreme Court, would result in a 32 percent reduction.

Hickenlooper told the Denver Post that the goal is to keep cost increases associated with reduced carbon pollution less than inflation. He also said it was important to help coal miners who lose jobs as a result of the shifting energy mix.

Gentrification and the perils of easy solutions

CRESTED BUTTE, Colo. – Call it navel gazing if you like. Every resort mountain town engages in it to some extent. And often the question evolves around whether the place has gotten soft, flaccid or, to use a phrase that was popular for a while, “has sold its soul.”

Nobody ever would have accused Crested Butte of that in past years. Some of the sidewalks on Elk Avenue, the restaurant- and shop-lined main street, were so steep that you almost needed crampons.

Mark Reaman, the long-time editor of the Crested Butte News, examines the trend of gentrification in depth in a recent editorial. What sets off the discussion is a proposal to water down the community autumnal celebration called Vinotok, whose central feature is a large bonfire.

“Gentrification toward the boutique experience comes in many forms,” he writes. “The fire will be less wild this year — but there are more colorful flowers on Elk Avenue to enjoy. There are now more coffee shops in town to choose from and more restaurant opportunities than 20 years ago for your family. Gentrification comes in the form of better grooming and faster lifts on the mountain. Gentrification comes as we lose the cheap old mining shacks that could be rented for $200 a month in the 1980s but that posed frostbite risks for the tenants.”

Reaman admits he likes some of Crested Butte’s more comfortable living standards. “But there must be balance in good change,” he contends. “Instead of a group of residents getting together for a weekend to literally build a park in town or a Woods Walk, we have reached a point where we now just buy that stuff. The community has agreed to tax itself for more parks, more open space, more airline flights, more bus trips, more tourism promotion and more schools. That all leads to gentrification. Is that bad? Not always, but sometimes.”

The central question, he concluded, is “what is the carrying capacity of the valley in general before we ruin the experience for visitors, but more important, for us who live here?”

Examining something of the same issue but from the perspective of a “ruined” former mining town was Mick Ireland, former mayor of Aspen. “Vague notions of ‘carrying capacity’ won’t solve our latest identity crisis. Nor will building a four-lane highway straight to a parking garage under Wagner Park. Nor will upzoning the downtown to ‘encourage’ hotels. Nor will saying ‘no’ to everything get us through anymore than saying ‘yes’ will,” he writes in the Aspen Daily News, a few days after Aspen Skiing Co. chief executive Mike Kaplan made the case for more density to encourage more hotels — and hence less vehicular traffic.

“To put it simply, we want it all. And we’re used to getting it without much effort, as though perfect weather, awesome natural beauty, skiing as good as it gets, low taxes, arts, culture, entertainments, relatively honest public servants and great schools were a natural right and a starting point on which to layer more perfection,” Ireland writes.

“Yet we still find something to whine about: traffic, construction, too many tourists, not enough business, poor people, rich people, too much change and not enough.

“In a way, we are collectively greedy in the sense that Milton’s Satan was: We want it all and we want it now. We risk losing paradise in hopes of perfecting it. Our cup is 10 percent empty. We still believe there is an easy, simple, common-sense solution to the problem of being a town of, by and for imperfect humans.”


Last week’s Mountain Town News feed incorrectly reported the number of ski resorts participating in the MAX Pass. The correct number is 32. Last week’s story said 31.

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