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Fremont County, Idaho, has been hard at work for the last several years to protect its open space and natural resources. We were delighted to learn recently that it has been awarded a major grant to bolster conservation efforts in this important gateway to Yellowstone National Park. The $1.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) will help Fremont and neighboring counties develop a plan for sustainable development in the region.
"Fremont County stepped into a leadership role by sponsoring this initiative and inviting neighboring counties, communities, and federal agencies to participate," says Jan Brown, executive director of the Yellowstone Business Partnership who spearheaded the initial effort to secure the grant from HUD.
It is also a tribute to Fremont County's dogged dedication to develop and implement a vision for the county that preserves its resources, integrity, and rural values.
Community Organizing at its Best
Located in southern Idaho, in the eastern corner bordering Montana and Wyoming, Fremont County has it all. With features ranging from mountains and meadows, to sagebrush steppes, sand dunes, lodgepole pine forests, volcanic highlands, and working farms, the county has some of the most diverse and drop-dead gorgeous scenery in the West. Its history is rich with the adventures of early western exploration and pioneering. Today's residents and visitors enjoy blue-ribbon trout fishing and other outdoor recreational opportunities on the doorstep of Yellowstone.
Like many other counties in the Intermountain West, Fremont County experienced the kind of rapid growth starting in the 1970s and peaking in the late 1990s that threatened to degrade the very attributes that made it so attractive. A century after becoming the state's first county, Fremont County saw its farmland, ranches, and private forest land transforming into summer-home subdivisions and retail strip developments, particularly in the Island Park area adjacent to the national park.
Amid rising tensions and frustration about how their lower elevation communities were changing, county commissioners decided in 2005 to begin the process of updating Fremont's 12- year-old Comprehensive Plan, the document that sets the county's long-term vision and goals. In the early 1990s, Fremont County's Comprehensive Plan had received several regional awards because it concentrated development and reflected the active engagement of its citizenry. To repeat this successful model of public involvement, the Henry's Fork Foundation, a local river conservation group, called on the Sonoran Institute to put together a series of community forums on land-use planning and visioning. The rest was classic Sonoran Institute community engagement.
"The Sonoran Institute was really instrumental in helping to facilitate and guide those forums over a three-year period," says Kim Ragotzkie, stewardship director of Henry's Fork Foundation and a newly appointed member of the Fremont County Planning and Zoning Commission. "The forums really brought a lot of people out to realize that they had many of the same concerns - like wanting to see the natural beauty of this place protected - even though they might not agree on how to get there. The Comprehensive Plan very much grew out of the dialogue that the forums opened."
"Energy and persistence conquer all things." (Benjamin Franklin)
Building consensus and common goals in a county the size of Delaware is no small feat, but Fremont County stuck to it, ultimately adopting a very good and widely supported Comprehensive Plan in 2008. They then persevered through the often rancorous process of creating the Development Code that governs the plan's implementation. The most significant outcome was the new requirement that subdivisions protect 65 percent of the most sensitive land on the property. Not the 80 percent that some had hoped for, but still a far more rigorous standard than in most similar counties.
The recent grant announcement is a welcome sign that the county not only continues to make progress but, together with neighboring Idaho counties and Teton County, Wyoming, is building momentum toward coordinated regional sustainable development and smart growth.
"This initiative is significant because it means we will be collaborating regionally and across state boundaries to create a plan that will guide sustainable development in communities for years to come," says Jan Brown of the Yellowstone Business Partnership.
Like the long-ago expeditions of its namesake, Fremont County's experience reminds us that the journey of community conservation can be long and arduous. But for those who stay the course, it can also be the path to tangible results, community prosperity, and long-term rewards.