Weekly News Roundup: Friday, Sept. 30

Catch up on this week's news about Teton County ballot initiatives, new sagebrush research, a rebrand for the Jackson housing trust and more.
Sagebrush is declining across the West, but Wyoming is home to its largest intact ecosystems. (Jackson Hole Photo Shelter)


Town embarks on education campaign about SPET initiatives  

This November, Teton County residents will vote on projects related to employee housing, transportation, education and more. Fifteen initiatives could be funded through the county’s Special Purpose Excise Tax, or SPET,  a penny of sales tax that goes toward infrastructure projects. 

Arne Jorgensen, the vice mayor of the Jackson Town Council, clarified that voting for these initiatives doesn’t increase taxes. 

“You could vote for zero, you could vote for one, you could vote for 15,” Jorgensen said. “There’s no weighting between one or the other. So it’s just a question of how many years does it take to pay off what the voters approve.”

The town recently launched a webpage explaining the various initiatives. More information is available here.

Sagebrush is thriving in Wyoming compared to other western states

A team of scientists from a dozen organizations published a report on Sept. 22 that maps out the threats to the West’s vast sagebrush ecosystem. The report says that sagebrush is declining at an alarming rate: Over the last 20 years, an average of 1.3 million acres of sagebrush have been lost or degraded each year. However, the report showed that Wyoming is home to the largest intact sagebrush ecosystem in the region. 

One of the authors, Zack Wurtzebach, said there’s still room for improvement. 

“While the picture in Wyoming is really good — Wyoming is a stronghold for sagebrush habitat — the data shows there are some problem areas, particularly in drier areas like the Bighorn Basin,” said Wurtzebach, who’s a program director at the Center for Large Landscape Conservation in Bozeman. “I think a key message moving forward with all this is, it’s good, but there’s still a lot of work that needs to be done to keep it good.”

Wyoming’s sagebrush still faces the same threats as in other states — just to a lesser extent. These include wildfires that give way to invasive grasses, expanding conifers and human development. 

Another author, Lief Wiechman, said climate change is also playing a role. 

“If we’re only looking at climate change on its own, it’s not the driver, but in combination with these other complex threats, it can exacerbate the impacts coming from things like invasive annual grass and fire,” said Wiechman, who leads the sagebrush program for the U.S. Geological Survey.

Instead of focusing on these declining regions, the scientists called for investments in already-thriving sagebrush areas — like Wyoming’s. The researchers plan to update their report annually to monitor changes in the ecosystem.

Community Housing Trust rebrands to make room

The Jackson Hole Community Housing Trust is rebranding to better align with its mission to create affordable housing. Its key message? Make room.

“It’s not this idea of expanding our town, but making room for those that we rely on everyday,” said Katie Bernasek, from the Housing Trust, “whether those are our plumbers, our first responders, our nurses, our teachers, our hospitality staff — folks who make Jackson run.”

The 30-year-old nonprofit isn’t changing its name or mission — it’s just using language that aligns with that mission. Bernasek said the trust is prioritizing “conserving community” as one of the organizations building housing in Teton County for local workers. This includes the patrol staff for the Teton County Sheriff, 90% of which live outside of the county. It also includes employees of the Bridger-Teton National Forest, 80% of which can’t afford housing in Jackson.

According to Bernasek, the housing trust prioritizes making room for people like this, who have worked in Jackson for a long time and contributed to the community, but can’t keep pace with the housing market. 

More information is available on the organization’s website here. 

Trailblazer Tori Murden McClure to give talk on exploration in Jackson

Female empowerment nonprofit Womentum will welcome Tori Murden McClure to Jackson on Oct. 4. She’ll give a talk on exploration at the Center Theater. 

McClure was the first woman and first American to row across the Atlantic Ocean and ski to the South Pole. She’s now the president at Spalding University, a Catholic university in Kentucky. 

For McClure, her intellectual curiosities are often inspiration for her outdoor adventures.

“I don’t know if it’s my own form of mental illness but I have this intellectual passion that occasionally takes a physical form, and I just have to leave civilization and go off and try and make sense of it,” McClure said.

In-person and livestream tickets are still available here for McClure’s Oct. 4 talk at 7 p.m. The in-person event is $38 for adults and $28 for students, while livestream access is $10.

Find KHOL’s full interview with McClure here.

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About Hanna Merzbach

Hanna is KHOL's senior reporter and managing editor. A lot of her work focuses on housing and local politics, but also women's health — and whatever else she finds interesting. You can hear her reporting around the country and region on NPR, Wyoming Public Radio and community radio stations around the west. She hails from Bend, Oregon, where she reported for outlets such as the Atlantic, High Country News and Oregon Public Broadcasting. In her free time, you can find Hanna scaling rock walls or adventuring in the mountains.

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