Reaching Common Ground

16 May 2024

Crista Valentino brings a big-world perspective to the Jackson Hole tourism board

Summer/Fall 2024

Written By: Evie Carrick | Images: David Bowers

It was 4 a.m. when Crista Valentino’s phone buzzed in her tent — a text from the other side of the world was the last thing she expected to see. A woman she met while hiking across Armenia the year prior was asking her to send over her resume. There was an opportunity in Saudi Arabia that she thought Crista would be perfect for — but she needed her resume, now.

Polishing a resume from a phone in a tent isn’t ideal, but Crista says it was one of those moments “when things present themselves to you and you think, ‘I have no reason to say no, I have to say yes,’” she says. “That’s the theme of my life. Things seem to come up and I can’t say no, so I don’t.”

She landed the job, which had her working with The Royal Commission for AlUla, a project that protects the natural and cultural significance of northwest Saudi Arabia. And just like that, Crista moved to the middle of the desert in Saudi Arabia for a year, with a task of helping to develop five nature reserves and reintroduce native species, including the Arabian leopard.

Saying “yes” has been a recurring theme in Crista’s life. Eight years prior to her move to Saudi Arabia, Crista met the president of the WILD Foundation and ended up starting CoalitionWILD, a global, youth-run conservation initiative that gives young people the voice and support to make change. She was just 26 years old.

“We got talking, and he goes, ‘Hey, every four years we put on a World Wilderness Congress and we need a youth delegate or youth voice. Would you be interested in putting that together?’” remembers Crista. “How could I say no to that?”

During the forum, Crista talked with other young people from all over the world and found it surprising that there wasn’t an organization tasked with elevating the voice of the youth.

“It was one of those things where we were like, we should do this, and it just kind of just took off,” she says.

The venture connected her with like-minded young people and kicked off a string of youth-driven projects focused on conservation and climate. She went on to serve as a founding board member for Youth for Our Planet, a global, youth-run movement that calls on world leaders to take action on the climate and biodiversity crises, and worked with the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and the Global Youth Biodiversity Network.

Closer to home, she teamed up with members of the Wind River Indian Reservation on a Native entrepreneurship project funded by the National Science Foundation, and works as an advocate for Jackson’s Community Safety Network. She earned a spot on Wyoming’s Top 40 Under 40 and recently got her master’s degree in global leadership. She also sat on the Jackson Hole Travel and Tourism Board for five and a half years before being appointed as the board’s executive director in June 2023. The role is tasked with promoting travel and tourism in a way that is sustainable — something that can be tricky to accomplish.

“Quite honestly, in a lot of ways, I not only liked it, but I felt that I had the ability to move us as a community in the direction that we’ve heard from the community and the hospitality industry that they want to go,” she says.

The new job might be located in Jackson, but it drew from her experience leading people and driving conservation efforts around the world.

“It isn’t about finding compromise, but about finding common ground,” she says. “I’ve seen that around the world in different communities and situations. Coming back here has given me that patience and perspective to move without agendas and preconceived notions and to truly make decisions from a place of equality and equity versus being influenced by my viewpoint or one heavy-handed voice or perspective.”

Her take? We all value the same thing. We all look at the mountains and feel awe and wonder. People’s reactions to tourism and conservation typically come “from a place of fear that the landscape is changing or they can’t pay their mortgage,” she says. But, “it all comes from a place of, ‘We all love this place.’ ... The answer is opening up and looking out and seeing that everyone wants the same thing.”

As someone who is the face of Jackson, it makes sense that when she’s off work, she likes to go into the wilderness.

“I climb, I run, but what I find I really love are just long days in the mountains — exploring, scrambling, and getting a bit lost,” she says. “All of it is really just a way to see places that I haven’t seen before.”

She also found solace in the construction of her home in Victor, which she built largely herself.

“I learned how to tile an entire bathroom and lay 1,000 square feet of flooring and build a kitchen, and I know more about wood-burning stoves for tiny spaces than you would ever need to know,” she laughs. The task of building a home isn’t in Crista’s wheelhouse, but she’s not the type to shy away from something new.

In fact, saying “yes” has gotten her where she is today.

“Every decision I’ve ever made or any step I’ve ever had to take has been right in front of me,” she says. “I just had to be brave enough to say yes.”

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