On March 21, The Center for Jackson Hole convened a “SHIFTx” stakeholder discussion to ascertain potential for a “Friends of the Bridger-Teton” group to support the operations of the Forest in the midst of increasing budget uncertainty.
Following a productive discussion, a majority of stakeholders agreed that pursuit of a Friends group was in the best interests of the Bridger-Teton National Forest community, with progress contingent on an “environmental” or “competitive analysis” of the landscape that ascertained partners, gaps and needs.
Present at the SHIFTx were Mark Berry of the Grand Teton National Park Foundation, Len Carlman of the Snake River Fund, Nancy Leon, Director of JH Nordic Alliance, Jan Lynch of the Grand Teton Association, Penny McBride of Terra Firma, Joe Petrick of Teton Science Schools, Jim Wolf of Backcountry Horsemen of America and Tim Young, Executive Director of Wyoming Pathways.
Mary Cernicek, Derrick Ibarguen, and Linda Merigliano represented the Bridger-Teton National Forest. Christian Beckwith, The Center for Jackson Hole’s Executive Director, facilitated the SHIFTx.
As Ibarguen noted at the outset of the meeting, the current climate around National Forests offers opportunity for targeted support. Visitation is increasing, and resources at hand are decreasing, with potential for more cuts. A Friends group could positively influence the capacity of the Forest to deliver benefits and services, as well as deepen the connection between community and Forest.
Ibarguen concluded by emphasizing, “This isn’t just about budget cuts or lack of resources. This is about relevancy of public lands, and community engagement both in and around Jackson.”
Merigliano followed by illustrating the national landscape for similar Friends groups. Many friends groups currently assist national forests, some supporting and advocating for a particular place, others organizing volunteers, and some as advisory councils.
Regarding the BTNF, Merigliano noted that a small staff limits their ability to build real community connections.
A SWOT analysis that examined Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats of the idea of a Friends group identified the following results.
Participants agreed on the deep inherent passion for recreation within both local and international users (2.3 million in total) of the BTNF for the environmental character and opportunities that forest provides. Jackson Hole’s legacy is one of world-class public lands access, and the BTNF represents a valuable cog of local opportunities, including heavy use areas like Teton Pass, Cache Creek, and Jackson Hole Mountain Resort.
In addition, Jackson Hole’s network of sympathetic and successful non-profits provide valuable intellectual and financial capacity to a potential Friends group. Any progress that emerges from these stakeholders would seek to complement, augment, and amplify the capacity of the Forest Service to work effectively, and fellow non-profits would provide coordinated support, messaging and advocacy for a friends group.
As with any new non-profit, organizational logistics would require great investment via committed parties to succeed. Staffing, time, and money were all cited as challenges to the success of a friends group. In the fundraising world, donor/board fatigue could provide barriers to success.
In addition, the vast non-profit experience in Jackson Hole was also identified as a potential weakness in the plan for a Friends group, as competition between existing organizations could result from creating a new non-profit.
Finally, BTNF and its 3.4 million acres extend into multiple counties: Sublette, Teton, Lincoln, Park, and Fremont. The difficulty of managing the needs and interests of five counties cannot be overstated; a concerted effort would need to be made to communicate effectively among different communities associated ranger districts, and to overcome the notion that a Friends group is “just another Jackson non-profit”.
The combination of the current political climate and associated lack of funds for federal agencies indicates that a Friends group might be well-positioned for success. Jackson Hole, a predominantly wealthy liberal community, possesses a strong network of local donors who may be looking for opportunities to give in order to counteract the efforts of the national administration to curtail USFS funding.
Bridger-Teton has often lacked the historic perception that other local public lands (Grand Teton National Park, National Elk Refuge) have become known for in the Jackson Hole community. In addition, the local representation of BTNF is often as an enforcement agency (trail policies, pet cleanup, closures) versus an asset to the community. For these reasons, participants identified an opportunity of storytelling and brand-building for BTNF.
Above all, a Friends group would provide an opportunity to put forth a better BTNF: a healthier forest with improved services and infrastructure directly benefits the community.
Some threats to the success of a friends group were grouped in the category of “Jackson Hole Challenges”; for instance, competition for funding among the many non-profits in Jackson and donor fatigue from the community. In addition, local constituents could connect increased support for the forest to increased use, development, and impact.
Other threats included regional fragmentation between the jurisdictions served by BTNF, and specifically, the perception that Jackson is setting the agenda for all stakeholders, who may not share the same interests for the land.
At the conclusion of the BTNF SHIFTx, a majority of the group offered a “Yes” or “Yes, with reservations” to the idea of a Friends group as one worth pursuing.
To move more members of the group into the “Yes” category, it was suggested that a leadership team carry out an “environmental” or “competitive analysis” of the BTNF landscape—including partners, gaps and needs—to determine the feasibility of a Friends group. This would include research into work done by existing non-profits, and potential for partnership with those whose work is most aligned with BTNF.