Look around and the evidence of growth is obvious: home construction is booming, new businesses are opening, there’s more traffic and less available parking (especially during summer), and lots of new options for entertainment and recreation catering to the increasing fulltime and seasonal populations.
Given that McCall and other local communities in Valley and Adams counties are surrounded by national forest or other public lands, there’s only so much space available for private ownership and growth. Pastures give way to subdivisions. Business vie for limited commercial space in downtown cores, and landowners there can’t build upward because of height restrictions. Private lands once available to the public for recreation are suddenly posted No Trespassing, funneling more people onto public lands for recreation.
How much growth is sustainable? What impacts will it have? And how does a changing climate and its negative impacts factor into our region’s long-term economic and environmental health?
Last week’s headlines throughout traditional and social media, pulled from a new U.N. report regarding the impacts of climate change on species diversity, were chilling and depressing: Around 1 million animal and plant species are now threatened with extinction, many within decades, more than ever before in human history.
I relocated here in 2005 from Seattle, a city and region loved to death because, like McCall and this region, it offers superb natural amenities and recreational opportunities. There, it’s called the Rainier factor and is used by employers to attract new talent. I was born there in the mid-fifties and lived through decades of growth without much in the way of anticipatory planning to accommodate it. No one likes paying taxes today to fix tomorrow’s issues. I fled the traffic, noise and crime and would never go back. Now, though, I’m seeing the stirrings of those same problems that caused me and others to flee our home states and relocate to this area. Smaller scale, of course, but same issues. Can we get ahead of these problems? Maybe even by utilize the knowledge and talents of those moving here, who have seen and lived through them before? Learn from other communities that have faced similar struggles so we don’t fall behind, wasting time as we try to reinvent the wheel?
Understanding the issues we face is a good first step. I’ve spent the past week researching. Here are some statistics and reports to help shine light on our current situation.
How Much Growth in Idaho and Valley County? And where are New Residents Coming From?
In 2018, Forbes magazine declared Boise the fastest-growing area in the United States, although it was actually Meridian’s growth driving that designation.
According to Population Review the 2019 estimate for Idaho’s population is 1.79 million, based on the most recent Census estimates and its current growth rate of 0.89% per year.
According to KTVB : The oldest available U.S. Census data dates back to 1900 and shows that Idaho only had 161,772 residents at the turn of the century, which is less than a tenth of Idaho’s estimated 1.75M population in 2018. In 1900, Ada County and Canyon County had a combined population of 19,056.
And according to Community Planning Association of Southwest Idaho (COMPASS) director Matt Stoll, their recent data estimates put the current Treasure Valley-wide population at 710,000, and projects over 1 million by 2040, with 30 to 40 people per acre in Meridian and Boise.
Growth is a factor in and around McCall, as well, in part fueled by the growth in the Boise and Treasure Valley. People living there vacation here, own second homes here. Growth in the Treasure Valley directly impacts growth here.
Here’s a Valley County growth chart from World Population Review showing booms and busts over the last century. Our current growth levels, hovering between 2-4 percent, are less than Boise’s four-to-five percent, but observable and feelable.
The website further breaks down our current population in Valley Countyt by city, education level and race.
Where are these new residents coming from? Not surprisingly, California provides the biggest number, according to the Idaho Department of Labor, both in total number coming into the state and when factoring in out-migration of Idahoans to California to derive a net number arriving from California. A significant number of migrants (like me) arrive from Washington state, but that’s offset by an even larger number of Idahoans moving to Washington. More charts, this time from the Idaho Department of Labor.
What these graphs and statistics don’t provide is the reasons why individuals move here. I suspect for many, like me, they’re escaping growth and its attendant issues of traffic, noise and crime.
Why Worry About Growth?
In a word: conflict.
More people seeking to use the same limited space and resources adds pressures that inevitably lead to conflict. Old-timers resent newcomers and the ways and ideas they bring with them; old-times want things to stay the way they were in some mystical-mythical “back then” while retaining all the current changes and amenities they do like.
Newcomers are attracted to the lifestyle and outdoor amenities, and often are fleeing all of the issues of growth in their former region. They want to fit in and contribute to their new home, but often meet resistance because they’re too eager, too quick to offer advice, or simply because “You’re not from around here.”
Areas where conflict is already increasing and negative impacts are being seen and commented upon in local social media:
Traffic through downtown during summer and holidays; speeding in residential neighborhoods.
Dogs roaming and/or harassing livestock.
Increased crime in town – unlocked bicycles stolen, cars broken into.
Noise complaints, especially about short-term vacation rentals in residential neighborhoods, or motor boats and jet skis on lakes.
More crowded trails and trailheads, with more litter (and soon, no doubt, as in many more populated areas, cars at trailheads will be broken into).
Conflicts between motorized and non-motorized trail users on popular trails, as well as conflicts between those with dogs and those without.
Increasing numbers of electric bikes bringing more riders onto trails, especially those trails close to town and at the ski resorts.
A troubling social divide within the community – more minimum-wage workers in service industry jobs supporting tourism businesses, trying to survive on multiple seasonal jobs – versus the wealthy second-home owners or retirees relocating here.
Lack of affordable housing, to buy or rent.
Increased waste and pollution in town – more cars, people, businesses, fewer recycling options.
Increased air pollution – from wildfires, more vehicles and motorized recreation (snowmobiles, jet skis, power boats, dirt bikes, UTVs).
We had hints of these issues during the boom of the early 2000s, but they mostly disappeared during the Great Recession. With the current booming economy, the same conflicts have returned and increased, yet we’re found flat-footed, having not addressed them adequately a decade ago.
It’s an age-old story: Change happens, whether we embrace it or not. These changes and pressures are hardly unique to McCall and this region.
By anticipating and embracing change, though, a community can help manage and shape it in ways that allow the community’s members – in our case, the old-timers, newcomers, and yes, even tourists because often they end up investing and living here – to continue to thrive and enjoy what brought us all here to begin with. Still, what one person considers a change for the better makes another person’s blood boil. Not everyone will be happy with every change. Communication and consensus going forward matters.
What to do? What questions to ask? And How Does Climate Change Come Into Play?
The bigger picture must move to the forefront of discussion: What growth and change best promotes the long-term health and viability of our communities and region? Can we get in front of some of the issues, lessening conflict in the short term while also promoting economic and environmental sustainability in the long term?
As a tourism-based community and economy, the natural beauty and accessibility of the outdoors around us is our most valuable resource for ongoing economic viability. How, as a community, can we best protect and utilize that resource so that we all can continue living and working here, enjoying the amenities that make living here a joy? What sort of tourism do we want to attract a decade from now, three decades from now? How do we create a sustainable environment our children and grandchildren will be able to enjoy?
That last question leads to the related question: What sort of community do we want to be in 10, 20, 30 years? Do we want to be affordable for young teachers starting their careers, and those working in the service industry? Towns in our area rely heavily on tourism and the promotion of outdoor recreational activities. But what types of tourism will sustain our communities best, going forward and given strains on our climate? Those that have a large carbon footprint, or those that don’t? Those that add to pollution – air, noise, water, garbage – or those that minimize those impacts?
Burying our collective heads in the sand regarding climate change and how it will impact our resources and economies won’t hold back those impacts. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the world as 12 years left to severely curtail greenhouse gas emissions if we’re going to avoid the most severe impacts of climate change.
If you haven’t heard about or read the U.N.-sponsored Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) Global Assessment, a summary of which was released May 6, 2019, then perhaps your head is already firmly in the sand. “The overwhelming evidence of the IPBES Global Assessment, from a wide range of different fields of knowledge, presents an ominous picture,” said IPBES Chair, Sir Robert Watson. “The health of ecosystems on which we and all other species depend is deteriorating more rapidly than ever. We are eroding the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide.” According to Prof. Settele, co-author of the Assessment, “Ecosystems, species, wild populations, local varieties and breeds of domesticated plants and animals are shrinking, deteriorating or vanishing. The essential, interconnected web of life on Earth is getting smaller and increasingly frayed. This loss is a direct result of human activity and constitutes a direct threat to human well-being in all regions of the world.”
Read it for yourself. Please. Be prepared to be depressed and anxious about our future. But that’s a good thing, if it leads to action, now.
Who knows exactly which local plant and animal species will disappear in this oncoming extinction, or how much our biodiversity will be impacted? We already see some of the negative impacts of climate change in longer and more devastating wildfire seasons.
Our area ski resorts are big drivers of the local economies. Will they be able to sustain operations, and continue supporting local economies, if ski seasons shorten significantly in coming decades and snow depth and quality degrade?
According to a recent article published by NOAA addressing the impacts of climate change on ski resorts, “Ski season is shortening at both ends. As worrisome as earlier spring melt may be for resorts serving Spring Break skiers, the worst economic losses likely strike during the holiday season. ‘The Christmas-New-Year’s week is the biggest week of ski season,’ McEvoy says, ‘A lot of workers rely almost solely on the holiday period to make most of their money, and it’s not just people directly involved in the ski industry. Restaurants, bars, and other businesses rely on that busy season, too.’”
Here are some charts from the NOAA article with predictions of the impact on climate change and length of ski season at various U.S. ski resorts, showing both a moderate (RCP 4.5) versus a high (RCP 8.5) pathway of carbon dioxide emissions for years 2050 and 2090.
While the hits to high-elevation resorts like Brundage and Tamarack aren’t as severe as to lower-elevation resorts, these charts should still make us shudder and worry.
And remember, these predictions of less snow and shorter snow seasons apply to other snow sports attracting tourists to our area, including snowmobiling and xc skiing. In fact, over time those activities will be more heavily impacted because they take place at lower elevations where there will be less snow and more rain.
Wisely, our local ski resorts are focusing much energy and resources on becoming year-round tourist destinations, for example adding to their single-track trail systems for summer mountain biking, hiking, trail running, and offering outdoor concerts and other leisure activities. Some new trails at local resorts will feature gentler slopes and less-technical terrain, targeting the growing number of electric bike enthusiasts. These are all low-carbon footprint activities. Other local summertime recreational activities, such as boating and fishing, will likely see increases in numbers, but some of those activities are already causing conflicts in terms of noise, wakes and pollution, and have a large carbon footprint.
There are no clear answers about how to react except that we can’t continue on as we have, ignoring the problem, hoping it will simply go away or won’t directly impact us. Many difficult questions about how to implement adjustments as soon as possible need to be raised, discussed and addressed, both personally and collectively, before the negative impacts are so noticeable and irreversible that all that can be applied are temporary Band-aids. Some hard choices will have to be made by local politicians, residents and business owners. Those with skin in the game need to become politically involved. Some will feel the pain of negative economic impacts as well as loss of enjoyment of the surrounding natural environment more acutely than others. The sooner everyone gets involved, helps plan and strategize with these dire climate predictions in mind and with a willingness to compromise, the more agile, better prepared and robust our communities will be, enhancing their ability adapt to the coming changes.
The alternative – doing nothing, pretending everything is fine – is too dark to contemplate.
We can’t control growth and change; we can control how we choose to react to it. Start talking, planning and acting, making choices today to lessen your carbon footprint going forward while getting involved in ways that make you part of the solution rather than part of the problem. Create a group dedicated to making some change, no matter how small. Support politicians who acknowledge the problems and are working on ways to address it. Educate yourself and help educate others. We cannot continue on the path of ignoring what’s happening all around us or hoping it won’t change things here. It already has. We need to act. Now. Everything starts with you and me.