Former Chamber director has touted ‘Power of Place’ as Jackson’s strength.
The power of place is an elusive idea, but you know it when you feel it.
Steve Duerr, a Jackson lawyer, real estate agent, conservationist and history buff, spent the last 35 years trying to articulate Jackson’s unique blend of natural beauty and small-town community to protect and preserve it.
He said legendary Jackson Hole conservationist Olaus Murie came the closest to doing so.
“How can we encompass it in words?” Murie wrote in 1943. “I have heard residents try to pin it down in outbursts of enthusiasm, but they couldn’t find the words. … No, we cannot describe the spirit of Jackson Hole, the ‘Spirit of Place,’ but many of us feel it.”
Duerr moved to Jackson in 1985 and began working for Jackson Hole Mountain Resort as executive vice president, director and general counsel for the Jackson Hole Ski Corporation after earning a Master of Laws in tax law from Georgetown University Law Center.
As vice president of Jackson Hole Ski Corporation, Duerr was given “a special opportunity” to spend a lot of time doing outreach in the community and get to know the players. He specifically noted meetings at the Rotary Club, the Chamber of Commerce, the Jackson Hole Historical Society and other key community organizations.
“The stories of people like the Lucas brothers and Cliff Hansen and Martha Hansen and Paul McCollister, and the original owners of the ski corporation were the things that you talked about over coffee,” Duerr said. “You’d see them at The Wort or at The Virginian. It’s a concern those people aren’t here and it’s a big loss.”
This sense of a community, filled with talented and accomplished people with a passion for the environment, was intoxicating, Duerr said. It generated a sense that anything was possible — especially in a rapidly changing world.
In 1989 the Berlin Wall came crumbling down. That same year Secretary of State James Baker III met with Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze at Jackson Lake Lodge in Grand Teton National Park to discuss nuclear nonproliferation agreements between the Soviet Union and the United States.
Watching the historical events unfold, Duerr got his first look at the true power of place in Jackson. He began speaking to people arou nd town about the ability of this place to inspire people to do great things. To play his part, Duerr set about trying to build a monument to world peace in Jackson.
“A reporter for The New York Times at the time said, in the eyes of some visionaries Jackson Hole is becoming the Geneva of North America,” Duerr said. “Those kind of words about Jackson Hole really catch people’s attention and it has such international prominence for its natural beauty, that idea [for a world peace center in Jackson] just sort of simmered for awhile.” In 2000 Duerr was introduced to David Wendt and Olivia Meigs, who had just moved to Jackson from Washington D.C., where they worked at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Here, they created the Jackson Hole Center for Global Affairs.
“Only in Jackso n does stuff like this happen,” Duerr said, “because it draws talented people from all over the world.”
The unique confluence of natural wonders with human intelligence in Jackson, Duerr said, must be maintained no matter the costs.
In 2008 Duerr left a job at Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation managing nearly $1.5 billion in troubled loans to become the executive director of the Murie Center, working to educate the next generation of conservationists about the value of conserving wildlife and wild places.
“People have always sacrificed to live here,” he said, “but as the homestead ranch families are gone and as many people who lived here for a couple decades and now can’t afford to stay and their kids can’t come back, what’s the soul of this place in the next 20 years?”
In his 35 years in Jackson, Duerr has fought for Jackson’s soul like few others.
In 1988, three years after arriving, Duerr founded and acted as president of the statewide ski area association, Ski Wyoming Inc. The following year he was a founding board member and incorporator of the Jackson Hole Museum and Jackson Hole Historical Society. During the 1990s he worked for political campaigns and founded political advocacy groups like the Center for Resolution and the Teton County Community Advisory Group. By 1996 Duerr had cemented a reputation as a community leader in Jackson and was elected to the board of directors of the Jackson Hole Chamber of Commerce. In 1999 he became the chamber’s executive director.
“If I stood for anything in my career with the chamber, it’s the proposition that Jackson can’t become Anyplace, USA. It just can’t, it’s too special. Our conservation and natural history demands better of us,” Duerr said. “There’s got to be mindfulness in our community about the natural world as the foundation of our economic world and we have to keep striving to find a balance between commerce and conservation.”
Since leaving the chamber he continued his work in the community to help achieve his vision of creating a thriving economic community that uses its economic success to help preserve and protect the natural beauty surrounding it.
Duerr was a founding member of the Yellowstone Business Partnership, elected to the board of directors of the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative, worked for the U.S. Department of Interior reviewing natural gas development in Sublette County and served on the Teton County School Board.
“We have everything w e need [to responsibly develop Jackson] on paper,” Duerr said. “We have the Comprehensive Plan’s vision statement about the natural world and the environment being the foundation of our economy but words aren’t getting it done. There has to be some deeper commitment than what happens in planning meetings because in spite of everyone’s best efforts, we’re destroying this place by growth.”
With Jackson’s resources, including the people who move from all over the world to live, work and play here, Duerr believes the community can set a precedent for others to follow should Jackson figure out a sustainable and environmentally friendly way forward.
“We’re at a tipping point as a community. I would like for [Jackson] to be known for succeeding at finding the right balance between commerce and conservation and growth that is appropriate to a special place like this, ” Duerr said. “That would be our story to the world, we actually did it right here.” Contact John Spina at 732-5911 or email@example.com.