Jerry Tracy, a county commissioner who lives in a subdivision here, has seen bull moose stroll around on his patio. One developer here has a couple of American bald eagles in a tree where he wants to put up some more houses. Phil Hocker, an architect with a nice picture window in his home, looks out on about 9,000 elk all winter long.
Besides wild creatures that dwarf Buicks and endangered birds that make patriots teary-eyed, this northwestern Wyoming valley is surfeited with postcard gorgeousness. The Tetons, snow-streaked granite mountains that look like the teeth of the gods, leap up from the valley floor to 13,770 feet with no foothills to cheapen the view. The air, the water, even the wooden sidewalks in the tourist trap called Jackson seem invigoratingly clean. w
But in this enchanted valley there is a potential spoiler preparing to move north out of the Wyoming deserts: the oil business. Jackson Hole, which is mountain-man jargon for a flat mountain-ringed valley, lies on the Overthrust Belt -- a geologic formation the oil experts claim will produce more oil and natural gas than any on shore or offshore area in the continental United States.
The Overthrust Belt, a 40-mile wide swath of tortured sedimentary rock that runs along the western edge of Wyoming, has already laid claim to flatland towns south of here. Places such as Rock Springs and Evanston are boom towns with banks full of money, jammed trailer courts and problems with oil field workers who like to get drunk, take off in their four-wheel-drive rigs and shoot antelope.
Local governments in the boom-town flats have grown dependent on oil revenue. More than 80 percent of the operating budget of Sublette County, where Evanston is located, comes from taxes on oil and natural gas. "By God, if it wasn't for the oil, we couldn't survive," says C.F. (Bill) Alexander, chairman of the Sublette County board of commissioners.
In Jackson Hole, however, the city of Jackson and Teton County do not need the money. They take in plenty of of their own from the nearly 4 million tourists who drive through every year on their way to Yellowstone and Teton national parks and the Bridger-Teton National Forest. Most of the businessmen and citizens say they have enough problems with tourists and development; they don't want oil companies to come in and muck up the money-making beauty.
"We don't need the oil and natural gas to make a living like they do in the rest of Wyoming," says Ralph McMullen, executive director of the Jackson Hole Chamber of Commerce. "It is the beauty of this area that brings people here in the first place; we want to make sure the beauty is not destroyed." A recent poll showed that 69 percent of 800 business owners in Jackson Hole share McMullen's sentiments.
Not to salivate at the prospect of oil wealth is unheard of in Wyoming, which has only about 450,000 people and next to Alaska is the most sparsely populated state. Saying no to industry here is considered un-American, comparable to a cowboy refusing to punch cows because of all the mooing and the mess.
Nearly 65 percent of all the money collected by local and state governments here, some $750 million, comes from taxes on coal, oil and natural gas. Coal and oil companies are notorious influential in the state legislature.
"We have so few people out here," says Guy Sterling, chief auditor of the state land office in Cheyenne, "that if we didn't have this industry, we couldn't afford to live."
Because Jackson Hole hasn't greeted the oil industry with open arms, the area is seen as slightly odd, especially by oil company people.
"Jackson is avant garde. Jackson is jet set," says Shel Codman, an oil and gas expert for Overthrust Consultants Inc., one of the few businesses in and gas expert for Overthrust Consultants Inc., one of the few businesses in Jackson that bills itself as "serving the energy industry."
Codman adds that people from back East have come out here and decided this is a good place to live. This whole place has a weird emotionalism to it."
There's a long history here of easterners falling in love with Jackson Hole and feeling compelled to protect it. There's an equally long history of Wyoming businessmen resenting the intrusion.
John D. Rockefeller Jr. kicked off the feud in 1927 when he tried to buy 100,000 acres of Jackson Hole and the Tetons in order to donate the land to the National Park Service. The scheme was fought for years by local residents, the Wyoming congressional delegation and state newspapers. Rockefeller ultimately bought less than half the land he'd wanted. But Teton National Park was created and thousands more outsiders have moved out here to fall in love with the land.
Phil Hocker, a latter-day easterner and architect who moved to Jackson Hole in 1972, bristles at the argument that because he wasn't born here he should keep his mouth shut and let the locals develop it. Hocker, 36, a national director of the Sierra Club, designed his home with a breathtaking view of the Tetons and the nearby National Elk Refuge. He refuses to apologize for trying to protect a place that he says still fills him with "awe."
"I can easily argue that the people who criticize me as a newcomer are narrow-minded rednecks who find themselves in an oil boom and can't see past their jackboots," says Hocker.
According to several oil companies, an inevitable oil boom in the Jackson Hole area will begin in the next two years.In the Bridger-Teton National Forest, which, along with Teton Natyional Park and the federal elk refuge, surrounds the town of Jackson, nearly 2.2 million acres have been leased to oil company interests. More than 25 exploratory oil wells, 11 of them in the immediate Jackson area, are slated to be drilled in the next year.
"All the potential for oil and natural gas is there," says Elmer Parsons, chief geologist of True Oil Company of Casper, Wyo. "It is just a matter of time and a tremendous amount of money."
If members of the Jackson Hole Alliance, a local citizens group opposed to oil exploration and over-development in the areas, have their way, it may be far more expensive than the oil companies now imagine to drill around Jackson Hole. The alliance, the most influential lobby in the valley, is made up of about 200 members, many of whom are wealthy newcomers to Jackson Hole.
Last year the alliance led a successful effort to postpone the drilling of an exploratory oil and gas well in Cache Creek, a narrow valley that is an unofficial city park for Jackson. The town of Jackson and Teton County's board of commissioners also opposed the drilling.
Having slammed into the first serious opposition to oil exploration in the entire state, the oil interests suffered at least a long delay.
The U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Geological Survey, which own the above- and below-ground resources in Cache Creek, agreed to write an environmental impact statement on the drilling proposal.
The guardians of Jackson Hole claim that the government's agreement to study the possible harm the well may do to the environment and the tourist-based economy is a great victory. The study, which will not be completed until the fall of next year, is the first of its kind in the Rocky Mountain West.
Lon Raymond, in charge of finding oil and gas for Amoco Oil on public lands throughout the Overthrust Belt, says he doesn't like the precedent set by the decision to study the impact of a well.
"Who are these guys in Jackson anyhow? These environmentalists are a minority. The majority of people who make a living in the town depend on fossil fuel to bring in the tourists," Raymond argues.
McMullen of the Chamber of Commerce admits there's a certain irony in Jackson Hole, where an abundant supply of gasoline is vital to tourism and yet most residents fear and distrust those who look for oil.
Even without the industrial traffic and new residents that an oil boom would generate, Jackson Hole has barely been able to handle the flood of newcomers attracted by the valley's picture-book beauty and big-time skiing resorts.
The population of Teton County, now estimated at about 10,000, has doubled since 1971, and is growing at a rate of about 12 percent a year. More land has been subdivided in the past five years than in the previous 168 years since white men arrived in the valley. In less than 13 years, if the growth rate continues, Jackson Hole could be clogged with 40,000 people.
The run-away growth rate has spawned complicated schemes to stop development. To preserve the 50 or so remaining large ranches in the valley, the National Park Service and area activists have tried to persuade Congresss to buy up development rights to the land, creating the Jackson Hole Scenic Area.
But so far, Congress has been unwilling to spend the money. So, when oil workers descend on Jackson Hole in the next couple of years, they'll be able to find land for houses. The only problem may be the price. A quarter acre vacant lot in Teton County is now selling for about $30,000, the price of home sites in major cities.
Besides making the valley crowded and ugly, wildlife officials in Wyoming fear that development of Jackson Hole will deprive thousands of mule deer, elk, moose and scores of eagles of their traditional winter feeding areas.Big-game hunting is a mainstay of the economy, pumping some $8 million a year into the greater Jackson Hole area.
In Sublette County to the south, where oil has already taken hold of the economy, local politicians say the wildlife in Jackson Hole doesn't stand a chance against the oil business.
"With the energy situation the way it is in this country, the oil companies don't have to give one damn about wildlife," says county commissioner Alexander. "If Jackson Hole proves to be big oil producing country, then they're going to come and get it."
The Jackson Hole Alliance, however, says that it will not allow the area to give in as easily as the rest of Wyoming.
"The people in Jackson Hole look around the rest of the state and see what's happened there and they don't want it," says Story Clark, 26, a transplanted New Yorker who leads the alliance. "People moved here for different reasons than those who moved to the boom towns. They have to do with the way the place looks and the wildlife."
Jackson Hole, Clark says, is the only town in the state that can even try to say no. "This is the best place in Wyoming to be hated by the right people," Clark says.