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Trouble in Paradise: Montana, Costa Rica, and the Double-Edge of Development

Between the cooing of a dove and a howler monkey’s guttural cry, a jack hammer pummeled. It’s a familiar noise, the jack hammer. I’ve heard it every summer at home for the last five years, all summer long.

The howler monkey’s scream is a foreign sound—a jungle musician I came here to hear. As a Rocky Mountain dweller, a trip to Costa Rica offered novel beauty and adventure. Like the thousands of tourists that visit Nosara every year, we traveled south for surf, sand, and tropical fruit.

Walking the dirt road to Destiny Café for smoothies, I waved at a construction worker on the roof of a home he was building.

“Imagine if we had a home here,” I mused to my husband. “We could surf half the year.” Mango trees shaded the front porches of the houses we strolled past. A sun-tanned couple in their early retirement waved as they biked by on rusty cruisers. The fantasy was undeniably attractive, if farfetched for us.

After smoothies we surfed. The break was busy, with boards and curse words flying. Many surfers were kind and courteous. Some, not so much.

I get the frustration with an influx of tourists and transplants. My husband and I live in our hometown of Bozeman, Montana. Since graduating high school in 2005, our sleepy little mountain pueblo has more than doubled in growth. For six years we have been named the fastest growing micropolitan in the United States.

Like the crowded waves in Nosara, many of my favorite trailhead parking lots fill up. A dozen million people visit Montana every year for mountain vistas and wildlife; they move here for small town perks like clean air and water.

Sure, crowded trails are not ideal for people like myself who like quiet time in nature. But outdoor activities are recreational—extra curriculum born of privilege. I often remind myself that beautiful places and the activities they offer do not inherently belong to anyone. While I grieve for the Bozeman of my childhood with empty trailheads, I cannot fault anyone for wanting to enjoy the Rocky Mountains as well.

Yet the irony—the rub—in places like Bozeman and Nosara is that the very things people move to enjoy are diminished by development. Things like clean air, water, and healthy habitat housing wildlife. When we develop land for human purposes, we sometimes fragment ecosystems and thus diminish the services they offer. Life-sustaining services like clean water.

In Bozeman, water shortage grows as a pressing issue in positive correlation with the mushrooming city borders. Though our green springs may lead people to believe otherwise when they visit in June, our valley lives as a semi-arid desert. Climate change contributes to dwindling water supplies as reserves of snow in the surrounding peaks melt fast, resulting in flash floods in May, droughts and wildfire by August.

As no stranger to flash floods, Nosara navigates the pairing of heavy rainfall with impaired waste treatment facilities, causing more frequent and intense red tides. My husband and I returned home from our trip to Nosara with gastroenteritis from a sewage contamination of ocean and drinking water. Though inconvenient and uncomfortable, our short-bout of diarrhea is a tiny problem compared with the issues facing human and non-human locals as they consistently navigate the health crises resulting from compromised septic tanks.

The core challenge in development hubs like Bozeman and Nosara is not in the fact that people want to visit or transplant; as I mentioned earlier, who can blame folks for seeking nature? The crux resides in how large influxes of humans are managed in areas with sensitive ecosystems.

In Bozeman, we’re seeing regulations like irrigation restrictions. It’s a humble start to tackling the two-headed behemoth that is shrinking snow reserves and a waning aquifer. Local scientists are scrambling to compile the data necessary to inform policy makers about the water crisis before land can be sold for development.

The market simply outpaces the science needed to make intelligent decisions for the future of this place.

Same same in Nosara, as WCA’s Dr. Vanessa Bezy described to me over baked goods and coffee at LuvBurger. She does her best to compile research to help inform local decision makers about Nosara’s ecosystem limits, but sometimes decisions are made before she can collect the data.

It’s a game of go—yet there’s no winning in an ecosystem that has been pushed past its limits.

It seems unkind to halt development, or at least slow the roll of the jack hammer. Closing the gates on someone’s dream home, or preventing economic gain of selling property, or even limiting the number of tourists allowed to visit seems…morally problematic. Xenophobic. Elitist.

And yet what happens when we transcend ecosystem limits? That’s the question we should be asking our decision makers. The answer, though, can only be found through scientific research—and only if science is allowed the space and time to take part in the decision making.

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