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Not just another roadside attraction.

Growing towns near national parks are learning ways to avoid the tourist-trap syndrome.

As long as there have been national parks, people have lived near them and set up shop around them. Towns have grown along the approaches and entrances of nearly every park, and they frequently provide the last chance to fuel the car or fill the cooler. Many have become the sites of tourist traps or world-class museums, of mobile home parks or million-dollar subdivisions.

Towns like Jackson, Wyoming, and Gatlinburg, Tennessee, with populations measured in the thousands, are playing usher to millions of tourists each year. Collectively these towns have come to be called "gateway communities," and how a town reacts to its neighbor depends on to what degree the park is viewed as a commodity to exploit or as a treasure to preserve.

What many gateway communities have in common, besides the parks and the tourists, is a distinct picture of what they don't want to become. Few towns aspire to become the next Gatlinburg--gateway to Great Smoky Mountains National Park--which became infamous during the 1960s for using caged bears to attract tourists to businesses. But saying no to Gatlinburg and its sprawling, unrestrained growth works only if you find an alternative to which you can say yes. And finding an alternative may require the kind of communal agreement foreign to towns accustomed to unrestricted private property rights and freedom from zoning laws.

In Jackson, which stages a mock gunfight for tourists every night of the summer, planners, officials, and leaders attended a workshop to seek a consensus on how the city--south of Grand Teton National Park--should grow. Residents asked how to create affordable housing for the cooks and clerks employed by the town's tourist-based businesses and how to maintain the open space and wildlife habitat that attract tourists. But a few people resent any sort of planning and perceive it as an attempt by government to control private property. One irate resident took advantage of the open mike at the workshop to accuse planners and environmentalists of "trying to turn Jackson Square into Red Square."

Although land-use planning traditionally has made property rights advocates see red, at least one land-use planner, along with many conservation groups, would rather see communities fighting about their future than taking little or no interest in how land and space will be used. Luther Propst, who directs the Sonoran Institute in Tucson, Arizona, travels from town to town with his Successful Community workshops, offering residents and business owners of gateway communities a way to see around the jargon. In many ways, planning is nothing more than a tool to be used by communities whose residents want to protect the values they share. Many rural communities lack basic zoning ordinances and have never considered using planning as a means to preservation.

Typically, nonprofit groups seeking to prevent unwelcome or unwise development invite Propst to present his two-day workshops, which draw everyone who cares about the community--land developers and park managers, ranchers, teachers, lawyers, Main Street business owners, and retirees. The variety is essential, Propst says. "The most important lesson is the need for communities to build their land-use strategies around a positive, shared vision of what the community can be. By focusing on a vision with popular appeal, communities can build lasting constituencies for protecting local assets."

Propst has conducted his workshops in towns throughout the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem including Red Lodge, Montana, where the 70-mile Beartooth Highway begins its climb to Yellowstone National Park. Residents were worried that unchecked development might turn historic Main Street into a ticky-tacky strip mall or divide large tracts of property into small lots.

In this workshop, people compiled lists of what they appreciate most in Red Lodge, One resident suggested that Red Lodge's supply of water--no small asset in the arid West--was extremely valuable. Another suggested, and nearly everyone agreed, that the small-town atmosphere should be protected. "It's a place where people are visitors, not tourists. Somebody had his appendix taken out at the hospital, and we treated him so nice he moved here," said a city council member.

Once values were established, others in the workshop listed some of the town's needs, such as a four-season resort, a protected greenway, and an infrastructure that would lure small, clean industries.

After participating in a workshop, Propst said, most groups want a master plan for future development. And it is important for a community to have a clear plan for its own future even before the first developments are proposed. "Identify the scenic views you want to protect before major developers arrive," Propst says. "Find a middle ground for land-use control. And remember, you can't regulate people nearly as effectively as you can educate them. Go out and teach the new people what you value."

Propst is not alone in his effort to harness tourist-based economies and development interests in a battle to protect the gateway regions that surround every park. Under the guise of various labels--the Man and the Biosphere (MAB) program, ecosystem management, community development, environmental activism, or pure neighborliness--land managers and local residents are becoming increasingly cooperative when trying to solve problems that threaten an entire region.

Many gateway communities present common problems for the parks. And many of these problems are created by greater numbers of people moving into these towns simply because they are next door to a national park. Human effluent and agricultural runoff pollute the Buffalo National River in Arkansas; forests are clearcut around parks throughout the West; essential winter range for wildlife is destroyed; shopping malls are built beside historic battlefields; air pollution blots the vistas and stunts tree growth in parks throughout the country; landfills are proposed next door to several national parks; a huge-screen theater is proposed next to the entrance to Zion National Park in Utah; and subdivisions and golf courses edge up to Saguaro National Monument in Arizona.

"The fate of a lot of our parks rests on what happens outside their boundaries, outside of the state, even outside of the country," says Denis Galvin, associate director of planning and development with the National Park Service. "Park managers are increasingly moving outside of the park's boundaries and discussing local actions that affect park resources."

Many problems have resulted for the same reasons: unplanned, uncontrolled, and unhealthy development. And the solutions are as unique as the communities inventing them.

In Cooke City, Montana, on the northeast edge of Yellowstone, residents are afraid that a proposed gold mine on state and U.S. Forest Service land will poison creeks with cyanide and fill the town with transient miners and ore trucks. They are also afraid of being trapped into a boom-or-bust business cycle typical of some other Western towns. Residents are fighting for a local planning district, an action the townspeople hope will severely limit the mine's development.

In Dubois, Wyoming, the job base plummeted after a sawmill closed despite residents' efforts to keep it open. So the town, which has long decorated itself with larger-than-life wildlife statues, embraced its most famous resource--the largest herd of bighorn sheep in the Lower 48. Through cooperative efforts among state and federal agencies and nonprofit groups, the town soon will open a museum dedicated to the bighorns. New problems facing the townspeople include a boom in vacation homes for retirees, which threatens to overwhelm ranchland and wildlife habitat.

Small towns embracing land-use planning and sustainable development are not restricted to the Yellowstone region. Some time ago, when Provincetown, Massachusetts, threatened to expand its landfill next to Cape Cod National Seashore, communities up and down Cape Cod united to form a regional planning commission. The commission developed a regional landfill solution that did not threaten the seashore and today continues to fight for open space.

In Winthrop, Washington, east of North Cascades National Park in the Methow Valley, Friends of the Methow have been fighting a 10,000-skier-a-day resort that would devastate a pristine rural valley, says Tom Robinson, a local activist. So far, the friends group has beaten three developers and is working on a fourth.

"The community is split on development," Robinson says. "But even the boosters got fed up with the last proposal." Now the community is discussing the formation of a land institute to focus development ideas, and may consider either buying the contested land or working to scale down the size of the ski resort.

In the Rincon Valley next to Saguaro National Monument, the Sonoran Institute and its affiliate, the Rincon Institute, along with NPCA, worked with a developer to reduced the size of a proposed resort community by half. The developer also agreed to include covenants on homes in the new subdivision that required annual fees to be paid to the Rincon Institute. The institute serves as a local environmental center and educates residents about their responsibilities in living next to a park. While still controversial, this approach might eventually result in a greater portion of desert habitat preserved as open space.

And in Pittman Center, Tennessee, local residents and the Southern Appalachian Man and the Biosphere Cooperative (SAMAB) work together toward a common goal. Pittman Center, which shares a six-mile boundary with Great Smoky Mountains National Park, has banned helicopter overflights and has begun to remove billboards. An ordinance is in the works to control ridgetop development, and a citizens' group hopes to forestall the need for a new water system, which, residents fear, would increase taxes and the number of homes and businesses.

While Pittman Center may provide a model for other communities, SAMAB--which forged connections among a variety of agencies, including the Park Service, Forest Service, and Tennessee Valley Authority--suggests that cooperative efforts for state and federal agencies are not impossible. Man and the Biosphere programs--sanctioned by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and intended to protect environmentally sensitive areas while allowing for human economies--have been criticized for allowing federal inaction on land preservation to become interagency inaction.

It's clear that MAB is no substitute for protection, but the designation succeeds because it provides a forum for communication, not regulation. In Pittman Center, the SAMAB cooperative provided the information and start-up money that allowed a local community to determine its own economic and environmental vision.

And sharing information may be the key to success in ecosystem and regional planning, according to Bill Gregg, the MAB coordinator for the Park Service. "MABs help land managers develop common goals but with a broader base of understanding and with a broader constituency."

At Glacier National Park in Montana, regional planning has long been synonymous with international cooperation. And this tradition of park outreach has allowed Brace Hayden, the park's regional issues coordinator, to pursue thornier goals closer to home.

"The Park Service," Hayden says, "would like to encourage growth in established communities rather than along highway corridors." Hayden argues that highway improvements by the state of Montana have encouraged a development boom on Highway 2, west of the park, so the state should help mitigate the damage to wildlife corridors and scenic vistas. Hayden has suggested that developers could fund programs to help the community develop better planning guidelines.

Hayden is also organizing a workshop in West Glacier, for which he plans to invite "business men and women who have been through this, leaders from West Yellowstone and Gardiner, and from Gatlinburg, so we can learn what to do differently, and what [to do] the same."

Not everyone welcomes Hayden and his Park Service peers when they step outside their boundaries. "I get sick and tired of the hostility," Hayden says. "But 1 make it clear, we're not trying to expand our boundaries. We're just trying to learn how to protect values that everyone wants protected."

If Hayden is acting more boldly than park bureaucrats have in the past, it is partly because of a change in Park Service culture. Nearly 200 managers have gone through a course titled "Planning Across Park Boundaries," hosted by Bill Paleck, who is now superintendent of North Cascades and who was formerly superintendent at Saguaro National Monument. While he was at Saguaro, Paleck often dealt with air pollution and encroaching development.

In the past, Paleck says, park managers didn't dare poke their noses outside their official jurisdictions. "Six years ago, it took a lot of risk to do this, but the risk-takers were not impaled, and some were even promoted. People notice that, and it becomes safer to take those risks." Denis Galvin agrees with Paleck and finds that the greatest role a park can play in shaping the politics beyond its borders is to document the values that are threatened.

This year the Park Service will begin awarding grants to promote community planning outside of national parks, and a few model gateway communities will be chosen to demonstrate how parks and towns can work together to solve mutual problems. Fighting unwanted subdivisions, however, may not be as easy as targeting smokestacks, and neither is possible without a community that recognizes the values of the park.

For Saguaro National Monument, meeting development challenges may require a park manager to spend more time with Tucson land developers. For Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in Arizona, boundary communities include Ajo, a former copper mining center, and villages across the Mexican border and within the nearby Tohono O'odham Nation. The challenges here may be more complicated for Park Service managers than those around Yellowstone, because the park's neighbors have three different languages and cultures. Even so, the Park Service understands the need for cooperation from all three communities.

For Ben Read, private lands director of the Jackson Hole Alliance for Responsible Planning, the debate surrounding life along the edge of parks is a chance both to question and reaffirm basic values. "There's growth pressure found in any gateway community because national parks are cathedrals," says Read. "The millions who travel to the Ganges are not much different from the millions who travel here. All are seeking renewal and re-creation." The goal, says Read, is not only to preserve these special places but also to preserve the character of the towns and villages that surround them. "You have to do better than other places that have been ruined," he says.

The pilgrims will return, one tour bus and RV and stationwagon after another. Whether they discover renewal, or a traffic jam like the one they left behind, is something that each town and park must decide.

Ron Steffens has been a visiting writer at Central Wyoming College and works as a seasonal park ranger in Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming.
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Title Annotation:towns located near national parks
Author:Steffens, Ron
Publication:National Parks
Date:Jan 1, 1993
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