Taylor Phillips' first experience with wildlife watching was as a child growing up in Richmond, Virginia. He and his family would drive the dirt roads outside of town at dusk and dawn looking for turkey, deer, and owls.
Now, as owner of Jackson Hole EcoTour Adventures, looking for animals is Phillips’ job.
He opened the tour company in 2008, wanting to create a business that offered something more than just a wildlife watching tour.
“I wanted to bring in true ecotourism principles,” he says. Phillips’ interest in ecotourism isn’t a new development. He even wrote his thesis on the topic at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida.
In college, he also experienced his first glimpse of the Tetons. He bought a photo of a river running in front of a mountain range, but he didn’t know where the photo was taken. One day, a friend who had just come back from a ski trip to Jackson told him those mountains were the Tetons.
Dreaming of heading West, Phillips made his way out to the Tetons during the summer of 2002. That single summer turned into a summer and a winter. And then, minus a break to hike the Appalachian Trail, Jackson became his full-time home.
Phillips spent time working as a guide for other wildlife tour companies, but he knew he wanted to offer something different and built his company around ecotourism principles.
This emphasis on ecotourism includes contributing to the area’s economy by hiring local staff and using local services. The company also donates 2.5 percent of its sales to nonprofits like Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance and Teton Raptor Center which are dedicated to protecting local resources.
Additionally, Phillips uses organic food and reusable items like coffee mugs, napkins, and water bottles on his company’s tours. He also works hard to give visitors a deeper experience when they visit the area.
“I want to make this experience more meaningful,” he says. “I want people, when they leave the tour, to be able to interpret what they are seeing. I want them to see the natural world in a different way.”
To provide that experience Phillips encourages using the five senses: enjoying the silence and recording what they hear, eating edible vegetation or berries, smelling the sage or forest, physically touching the landscape, and seeing how species interact.
“Beyond that, we provide a high dose of natural history information,” he says. Phillips asks visitors to think about why pronghorn live in certain areas. Why might a moose be where they see it? And why are its legs so long?
“Really, it’s giving them a deeper appreciation for these resources,” he says. “Instead of just enjoying the beauty on the surface, they have a broader and deeper understanding of this whole ecosystem and its components. With a better understanding of what’s occurring, I feel like folks will make better environmental decisions and better everyday decisions that take the natural world into account.”