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Sidebar 3: Land Use Prediction in Paradise Valley Brings Unexpected Consequences

One-way citizen groups and local government decision makers have tried to understand the nature, location and impacts of rural residential growth and associated land use change has been to try to envision the future of their communities. If possible land use scenarios can be accurately forecast; those changes could be integrated into public policy decisions about the local economy, the land, and growth of small communities.

The lands south of Livingstone around Emigrant and Chico appeared to be undergoing rapid transformation from agriculture to rural housing and local residents feared that the productive and scenic bottomland along the Yellowstone River would give way to homes. No trespassing signs would prevent access to fishing and agricultural earnings would be lost to the county.

Using a complex model that forecasts land use change we constructed future land use scenarios for approximately 100 square miles around Emigrant and the analysis yielded some surprising results. First, while the area was forecast to grow at a brisk rate, the model showed that the riparian bottomland was not likely to change substantially over the next fifty years. Rather, the lands that were likely to transition into rural home sites were the higher elevation range and juniper forests at the edge of the National Forest boundary.

This was good news to those interested in protecting the scenic and recreational quality of the Yellowstone River and the integrity of productive agricultural lands. But, when public officials saw the spread of homes across the steep and heavily fueled hillsides they immediately asked how the inevitable forest fires will be managed and how many homes will be at risk. They wondered what the scenic impact would be of lights from all these homes and wondered what effects development would have on the large migratory herds of elk in the Valley. Where would the water for these homes come from, what would be the fiscal impact of the road network? These are all-important questions to be asking about the future and, of course, are up to the local population to begin to tackle.

The lesson from this exercise is that there can be a collective misperception about reality and that quality data can inform decision-making and give locals the power to manage the future to the extent they care to.