Completing the Tetons

State of Wyoming to sell critical land to Park Service.


By Scott Kirkwood


It was a great idea at the time. In 1890, when Wyoming became a state, the federal government designated two square-mile plots of land in each township to be held in trust as a source of revenue for the state’s school system. For the most part, that revenue came from cattle grazing, gas and oil drilling, or coal mining. But things have changed a lot in the last hundred years. In 1949, John D. Rockefeller handed over 35,000 acres of land to the federal government, setting the stage for the creation of Grand Teton National Park. Sixty years later, the park now contains several of those critical plots—an 86-acre site along the Snake River, and a 640-acre site in the center of the park; a third 640 acre plot of land separates the park from Bridger-Teton National Forest, and offers panoramic views of the Teton Range and key habitat to bison and pronghorn.

As nearby Jackson Hole became an international destination for skiing and outdoor recreation, real estate prices in the region skyrocketed. Soon, the idea of grazing animals on prime acreage didn’t make a lot of sense. One Wyoming Congressman suggested the land inside the park be sold off for multi-million-dollar homes or hotels that would launch snowmobile tours into the park. But others thought it was about time to complete the original vision for the national park. The Park Service wanted the land, and the state school system was interested in cashing out. Now, with help from state and federal lawmakers, the office of the governor, NPCA, and others, that vision is close to becoming a reality.

The state and the feds had been trying to cut a deal for years, but negotiators from both sides could never agree on the fair market value of the land. Land swaps were proposed, but never completed. Finally in 2010, Wyoming Governor Dave Freudenthal was nearing the end of his time in office, and he grew determined to leave a lasting legacy while ensuring the state’s educational system had the funding it needed for years to come. Freudenthal’s staff worked with the Department of Interior to negotiate the deal in December 2010, but there was one problem: State law required the land to be sold at public auction, which would raise the price and allow uses incompatible with the park. NPCA worked tirelessly to support the deal, delivering 18,000 public comments to the Department of Interior, while urging state legislators to waive the need for a public auction. And, with the help of NPCA’s allies, it worked. In February 2011, the state legislature agreed to make a special exception, allowing the park to purchase the land for $107 million.

“It was a privilege to sign the bill finalizing the sale of our land for use by Grand Teton National Park,“ says Wyoming Governor Matt Mead, who succeeded Freudenthal. “The deal maximizes revenue for our school children and also practices good stewardship, bringing in over $100 million while ensuring the land is preserved for future generations.”

That just leaves the matter of finding a few million dollars—no simple task. But despite the tough budget climate, Congress approved $5 million in funding for the Grand Teton land sale, and another $10 million is included in the President’s budget for 2012. All of that money would come from the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), which was established back in 1965, when Washington decided to funnel federal revenue from offshore oil drilling into acquiring critical land. (In recent years, LWCF funds have been allocated to other government expenses, so the move is encouraging news for conservation advocates with even more potential parklands in mind.) Under the terms of the agreement, the federal government will seek $22 million in LWCF funds by 2013 as a down payment of sorts to the State of Wyoming. Additional funds would be needed to complete the acquisition, which has been appraised at approximately $107 million. The land will be sold in four phases over 10 years, with the remaining funds secured through cash, land exchanges, and other arrangements yet to be determined.

“The level of cooperation between the county, the state, and conservation groups like NPCA, paired with the overwhelming support from our members and the general public, have given this project such momentum,” says Sharon Mader, senior program manager in NPCA’s Grand Teton field office. “It’s been a joy to see it all unfold in what’s often a very contentious environment: Even as the federal government was on the verge of a shutdown, one of the most conservative states in the country has come to a very important agreement on preserving key land in one of our country’s first national parks.”

Scott Kirkwood is editor-in-chief of National Parks magazine.

This article appears in the Summer 2011 issue.

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