Jackson Hole & Yellowstone Sustainable Destination Program

Yellowstone National Park. Credit: Rennett Stowe

The Greater Yellowstone region is the largest intact ecosystem in the continental United States and at the southern end of a corridor of wild lands stretching to the Yukon. Approximately 98% of the land and bodies of water in Teton County, Wyoming have some level of protection, including the world’s first national park: Yellowstone. Four million visitors come to experience the incomparable wildlife, scenery, and quality of the environment. The source of water for our nation is Yellowstone National Park which serves as the wellspring for 8 major rivers. The opportunities are innumerable and unparalleled to recreate, enjoy life, receive inspiration, and be well.

The Jackson Hole & Yellowstone Sustainable Destination Program was created by the Riverwind Foundation to strengthen and unify the programs, policies, and practices for environmental stewardship, social responsibility, and economic vitality in Teton County, Wyoming. The Program was created to address:

  • The results of the Global Sustainable Tourism Council Destination Criteria Early Adopters Program in 2012
  • The resolution passed by the Town of Jackson and Teton County for Jackson Hole to be a world-leading sustainable community and destination in 2017
  • The findings from EarthCheck Destination Certification Program in 2019.

The Riverwind Foundation is the coordinator of the Program. The Program has a seven-member working team, twelve-member tactical steering committee, and 57-member strategic council. The Program establishes partnerships on a project-by-project basis and has engaged over 300 businesses, nonprofit organizations, government agencies, and schools. These projects include sustainability training and technical assistance, assessments and certification, and resident and visitor outreach and education. As the Jackson Hole Travel & Tourism Board’s Sustainability Coordinator, the Riverwind Foundation coordinated the process for developing the Sustainable Destination Management Plan (SDMP) with destination stakeholders, contractors, and residents.

The Riverwind Foundation and Jackson Hole have received awards and recognition, including:

  • National Geographic as a Destination Leadership Finalist in the 2017 World Legacy Awards
  • World Travel & Tourism Council as a Destination Finalist in the 2018 Tourism for Tomorrow Awards
  • Green Destinations’ Top 100 Sustainable Destination in 2016, 2017, and 2018
  • Jackson Hole received EarthCheck Sustainable Destination Certification in March 2020.

Tourism is the basis of Jackson Hole’s and the Greater Yellowstone region’s economy and a significant source of economic support for the national parks, forests, rivers and lakes, wildlife refuges, and private protected areas as well as businesses and local government. The Jackson/Teton County Comprehensive Plan and land development regulations prioritize environmental stewardship over all land uses. Local stakeholders have the opportunity and responsibility to communicate our values for environmental protection and integrity to the millions of annual visitors with the intention of influencing their behavior during and after their visit.

Visitors generate millions of US Dollars in entrance fee revenue for Yellowstone National Park’s and Grand Teton National Park’s budgets. These funds support accessibility improvements, campgrounds, infrastructure, roads, native fish restoration, aquatic invasive species mitigation, and more. In addition, there are nonprofit organizations that contribute funding to enhance and protect Yellowstone’s and Grand Teton National Park’s cultural, historic, and natural resources. In return, the annual economic impact of tourism in Yellowstone National Park and Grand Teton National Park to surrounding communities is more than $1 billion and 15,000 jobs, important for supporting the numerous local, regional, and national conservation organizations that work to protect public and private lands in the Greater Yellowstone region.

The Jackson Hole & Yellowstone Sustainable Destination Program supports the sustainability programs of the parks and other protected areas through training workshops, facilitating collaboration with private sector organizations and resources to increase the effectiveness of sustainability initiatives, and promoting government messaging on conservation and sustainable behaviors to residents and visitors. In addition, the Program provides information resources and strategies to support local, regional, and national conservation organization’s programs to manage, restore, and protect public and private lands, wildlife, and natural resources.

Riverwind Foundation has assisted local government and the private sector in understanding and prioritizing sustainability and responsible tourism. This support has resulted in:

  • The passage of a resolution by the Town of Jackson and Teton County in 2017 for Jackson Hole to be a world-leading sustainable community and destination
  • An overarching community and destination sustainability policy in 2019
  • The creation of a position responsible for environmental stewardship within the Town of Jackson that works with the entire destination and community on sustainability and climate action initiatives
  • The creation of the Sustainable Destination Management Plan (SDMP) focused on eight priorities:
  1. Education & Communication: Create a common understanding of shared responsibility among residents, businesses, and visitors.
  2. Visitor Flow Management: Align the needs and aspirations of residents, businesses, and visitors across all lands.
  3. Workforce Recruitment & Retention: Increase the stability of the tourism workforce
  4. Community Housing: Advocate for and support solutions to create community housing
  5. Transportation & Mobility: Advocate for and support transit and mobility solutions
  6. Climate Action: Reduce climate risks and enhance destination resilience.
  7. Monitoring & Reporting: Monitor tourism andits impacts on people and place (all lands, all communities).
  8. Governance: Maintain effective all-lands tourism governance, collaboration, and plan implementation.

Financial support for the Riverwind Foundation’s Jackson Hole & Yellowstone Sustainable Destination Program comes from government grants (61%), private foundation grants and donations (36%), and program receipts (3%). The projects supported by this funding have accomplished the following:

  • Trained and assisted over 400 businesses in sustainability planning and practices
  • Inventoried the sustainability activities of over 120 local stakeholders
  • Created or enhanced over 50 local green collar jobs and educated over 230 students
  • Doubled the Sustainable Business Leaders to over 200 through the Sustainable Business Leaders education, training, and recognition program
  • Created the Business Emerald Sustainability Tier (BEST) Program for increasing the sustainability performance and recognition of the most committed Sustainable Business Leaders and assisted the top SBLs to achieve BEST Certification
  • Created & distributed the Jackson Hole Sustainability Code of Conduct to over 100,000
  • Created & distributed issues of Green Matters in Jackson Hole and Sustainable Business Guide to 7,800+
  • Created & distributed the first annual Jackson Hole Sustainability Report Card to 7,800+
  • Development of Jackson Hole’s Sustainable Destination Management Plan.

In addition to the resolution for Jackson Hole to be a world-leading sustainable community and destination, a five-year goal of the Jackson Hole & Yellowstone Sustainable Destination Program was to achieve sustainable destination certification by a GSTC –accredited body. On March 2020, Jackson Hole received EarthCheck Sustainable Destination Certification, the first destination to do so in North America.

Several key improvements for destination management and sustainability have been identified through the certification process, most notably the development of the Sustainable Destination Management Plan (SDMP) focused on visitor management and destination sustainability. A Destination Stewardship Council comprised of representatives from the diverse segments of the community and destination is being established to oversee the development and implementation of the SDMP and coordinate this framework with other key management plans and initiatives. A significant input to the composition of the SDMP was engagement with the community through workshops and focus groups, presentations, and surveys. Visitor input was factored into the SDMP through visitor surveys and social media reviews.

Coincident with the implementation of SDMP will be the continued sustainability training and technical support of businesses and organizations, education of school faculty and students, and outreach and engagement of the public.

The projects and activities of Jackson Hole & Yellowstone Sustainable Destination Program serve as a model or menu from which other communities that are tourism destinations can plan their own sustainable tourism programs. This model can be summarized as follows:

  • Baseline assessment of community/destination sustainability using an international standard for destination sustainability
  • Inventory of sustainability and sustainable tourism assets and attractions
  • Stakeholder training and technical assistance
  • Education and outreach to residents and visitors
  • Business sustainability certification and recognition
  • Destination sustainability certification and recognition
  • Destination stewardship council establishment
  • Tourism policy and strategic plan development and implementation.

The lessons learned from the Jackson Hole & Yellowstone Sustainable Destination Program that can support other communities and destinations include the following:

  • Establish a goal early that all stakeholders embrace and are inspired by, and regularly articulate it
  • Consider an initiating event(s) to create or build momentum for stakeholder and public engagement
  • Destination management and integration is dependent on relationships – take the time to build relationships with one-on-one and group meetings
  • Communications to destination stakeholders need to be regular and content-rich. Do not under-resource communications. Coordinate communications with key sustainability stakeholders
  • Educate, educate, and train. This builds stakeholder sustainability literacy, interest, and involvement
  • Diversify funding streams: Federal and local government grants, national and private foundation grants, private cash and in-kind contribution
  • Strengthen local capacity whenever possible. Minimize the export of work and reliance on outside parties for management and technical support
  • Focus on understanding strengths and areas needing improvement for destination, and place priority on building and sustaining collaborative partnerships (rather than competing with existing organizations and programs for resources)
  • The community and its values must drive tourism planning, not tourism driving the community’s future.

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