Envision Teton Valley

At the eastern base of the Big Hole Mountains, Jake Kunz conducts business over the phone while standing in his office doorway. He gazes west into the thick forests hiding his favorite Big Hole trails. Scanning east, his eyes follow the sloping rolls of land that have nurtured his family for five generations.

In the heart of Driggs, Rich Rinaldi pulls up a tall stool behind a counter and cash register. The white, two-story home of Yöstmark Mountain Equipment is neatly quartered into small retail squares holding skis, boots, clothing, and maps and camping supplies. Drawn to the mountains since childhood, Rich left the confines of Connecticut to move west for college and soon after settled in Teton Valley.

Less than a block away, Juanita Flores organizes the bright colors and ribbons and lace of the dresses hanging near the front door. The kids will soon bustle in after school to practice for the upcoming folklorique performance. Her office is marked with small letters on the glass door—Teton Valley Hispanic Resource Center. Juanita arrived in Teton Valley in 2002 and has stayed because, she explains, her family loves it here.

Jake, Rich, Juanita—their names aren’t on the ballot for elected positions, their words aren’t often quoted in the local paper. Rather, their conversations occur in the minutes unrecorded, at back-to-school meetings and in the aisles of the grocery store, Sundays in church, and at local events and celebrations. Their influence is felt through their daily work and service to the community. They have goals and visions and hopes for Teton Valley that mirror those of many local residents.

But as Teton Valley faces greater challenges and deeper transitions, these local perspectives are often drowned out by louder voices of disagreement and contention. Facing some of the toughest issues—population growth, conservation, and planning for the future—eight residents offer a look at Teton Valley through their lenses.

On Population Growth

How do we plan/transition for this? How do we respond to the needs of more residents, such as roads, recreation opportunities, education, emergency services, and housing?

Ann: We need to know what our community values. We need to know what we have in common versus what we don’t. We need to look beyond numbers; it’s demographics. How do we respond to the needs of different community members? We could have five thousand more people here [with] half of them low income and the other half second-home owners. You have to find those bridges.

Carrie: Our county and city governments face the challenge of being a rural economy. They don’t have a lot of resources to help with social issues. So the nonprofits are stepping in, filling the gaps and taking responsibility. If it weren’t for the nonprofits, we wouldn’t have an animal shelter, a hospital, the Family Safety Network. Because we are a rural community with limited resources, I see the answer now and in to the foreseeable future [to be] nonprofits.

Rich: The best thing is to plan … so that the people who want to live here can afford to do so. I’ve seen young teachers come here and then move on because they can’t afford it, or [they] get a better job elsewhere. It’s a big impact. We are losing good people that could be a part of our community. We need to plan for it so we aren’t just another ski town where people can’t afford to live.

On Conservation/Heritage

What do we protect geographically, culturally, historically? What should be preserved? What have we lost already? What are the implications?

Michael: We’ve lost some of our connection to nature, to the land. I remember teaching elementary kids—this is going back a few years—and very few of them had any understanding of agriculture. I found this stunning. When I was growing up, we were all involved in it in some way. Not many of us still work on the land, and our connection to nature is more ephemeral, not deep-seated.

Jake: It’s not fair to expect all people to appreciate or want to protect a culture that is not theirs. With that being said, those who have deep roots here have the right to fight for and protect their culture and heritage. There’s that balance. Everyone has a different perspective of what that heritage is. How I view this area of Cedron is completely different from how some others see it. To me, it’s where my great-great grandfather immigrated from Switzerland, poor as a church mouse, and started milking cows. And it’s been passed on for generations. I don’t expect you to have that same [type of] appreciation.

Billie: One thing to protect is that spirit of cooperation that [historically] existed between all the different types of people. When the valley was first founded there was a school over in Hayden, which was a long ride for people down in the south end of the valley. A second school was established in Cedron, and all the parents came together to build the school. Each parent had to make a desk for their child. That spirit of cooperation really was the foundation for the valley.

On Diverse Ideas & Divisiveness

Is there a middle/meeting ground for the different groups/voices in the valley? What will it take to work together? What happens if we don’t?

Joe: As long as we keep going back and forth between candidates that run from both sides, either 100 percent right wing or 100 percent left wing, then nothing is going to happen. The [ironic thing] about it is they are all awesome people. I know if something happened, I could go to five families that have been here over a hundred years, or five families who have only been here five years. I trust them with my kids, but I don’t trust them with politics.

Juanita: There is a lot of divisiveness within our own group because people are from different areas of Mexico, or people are coming over from Jackson. One way to overcome this is to create art festivals and celebrations related to Hispanic culture. I’m planning events where these kids can learn more about their culture; other people can join us and we can learn from other people.

Billie: If we recognize that we need a bit of a patchwork quilt where there are opportunities for cycling and fishing and farming and ranching—one shouldn’t be at the exclusion of another—we can figure out a way to make it happen. We need to think of ways that make it economically feasible and accessible to all the people who are here now to do the things they need to do to maintain their quality of life.

On Quality of Life

What should be prioritized to maintain our quality of life? What will contribute to an improved quality of life?

Joe: Our quality of life is the best. … We are always going to disagree. Compromise would make a better quality of life here. But it would be less entertaining during election season.

Carrie: There are so many wonderfully gifted, talented people in this community—and so much opportunity for these folks to step up into leadership roles and take an active hand in crafting a thoughtful community. Inclusivity is important; not just the powerful leading the charge but the inclusion of all the voices. We need to be talking to immigrant families and the elderly, and thinking about children and people with disabilities. We’ve got to hear from everyone and find ways to include them in the decision-making process.

Michael: For a lot of folks these days it’s about recreation, about access to the tremendous recreation opportunity we have here. And that’s a big part of who I am. But I would hope that for the folks [for whom] recreation is the major perspective, they would recognize the need for places where we don’t recreate, where nature is allowed to function without disturbance. … I think we need to temper our pursuit of recreation a little bit. Take Teton Canyon, for instance. It used to be a huge winter range and now it’s the mecca for Nordic skiers.

On Greatest Loss

What do you think has been, or will be, the greatest loss for Teton Valley?

Rich: We’ve made mistakes along the way and we’ve learned from them, and I think that’s progress. I think the greatest loss would be repeating some of the same mistakes we’ve made in the past.

Joe: The feel of Teton Valley. That’s what I’d be most afraid of losing; it has its own feel, from Fred [the late Fred Mugler] at Mountaineering Outfitters to SUBA [Sub-Urban Body Adornment in Victor]. It’s a unique place. People are nice. Even people from New Jersey move here and they’re nice.

Billie: Prioritizing the people here and their needs are critical. We need to recognize that the natural resources are a part of that conversation, but the people are the most important thing. When we lose sight of that, I think we are in trouble. It’s easier to go out and clean up a hiking trail than it is to help someone clean up their drug problem.

On the Greatest Achievements

What do you think are, or will be, the greatest achievements in Teton Valley?

Juanita: When my kids were in school here, they were the only Hispanics on the sports teams, one or two Hispanics on the basketball team, one on the volleyball team. Now I see a bunch of Hispanics on the sports teams. There are more opportunities; that is an achievement.

Ann: What will be our greatest loss and our greatest achievement are almost the same thing. Our county and community leaders need to understand that Teton County, Idaho, has forty nonprofits. When you look at what those nonprofits are doing, look at all the health and human services. This is not sustainable. We cannot keep asking the same people in our community to pay for community services … child protective services, mental health support, counseling, substance abuse, youth services, families in poverty. We need to house a community services program within our county, an actual county-supported department that reaches out to all these different groups and understands their issues.

Rich: If we could band together to improve our public school system, we’ll [overcome] one of our biggest barriers to being the best of the West and [to] growing our economy.

On Our Role as a Community

What is, or could be, our role as a community in our region, state, and nation?

Michael: We are connected to a much bigger landscape. Thinking ecologically, we have wildlife here that connect within and among populations on a much bigger stage. The wolverines that make their homes in the Tetons are connected to the population that goes all the way to Canada. The same is true economically, our role in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and how that plays out for recreation. We are on the map.

Ann: To an extent, we need to stop saying, “We are a rural community so we can’t do that.” Yes, we have limitations, and we have a limited tax base. We don’t have the economic growth we need to build a tax base. We are geographically isolated. We need to understand the art of compromise and accept it. That’s a tough one. But there is no reason why Teton Valley cannot be a model for how to care for your community. We have the right people, we have the right nonprofits, and I believe we have the means.

Jake: In regard to the region, we are a blue county in a red state. I would hope that we can show the rest of the state, and other rural communities going through what we are going through, that we can co-mingle. We can live together, regardless of political affiliation, religious beliefs, tax brackets. Regardless of all that stuff, all those titles, we can respect each other.

Sometimes, rather than leading us to the answers we are seeking, hard questions lead to even harder questions. But in these questions beyond questions, the conversation begins to circle around core values, answers that transcend the immediate or contentious topic at hand. When we unfold these core beliefs, the focus shifts to what we have in common—the value of accepting one another, the belief in compromise, and the spirit of community. In identifying what makes this place Teton Valley, we find embedded a love for the mountains, the river, and the valley. That can be our compass to the future.

Full interview transcripts will be added to this story.