After decades of debate, a state land parcel within Grand Teton National Park may finally be sold to the Department of the Interior.
Earlier this week, according to the Billings Gazette, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and Wyoming Governor Matt Mead announced a tentative agreement for the state to sell a 640-acre parcel of land in Antelope Flats to the Interior Department, whereby it would be incorporated into Grand Teton’s holdings.
Jewell and Mead’s announcement coincided with the annual June meeting of the Western Governors’ Association.
Although details of the settlement still need to be settled (the proposal needs to be approved by the Wyoming Board of Land Commissioners, according to Wyoming Public Media, among other factors), Mead was optimistic the deal would go through. From the Gazette:
Monday’s statements were nonetheless significant because they signaled new resolve by Wyoming and federal officials to complete a deal before a deadline imposed by state lawmakers expires at the end of the year. The Wyoming Constitution requires state lands be managed to generate revenue for local schools. Advocates of the transaction have warned Wyoming might be forced to sell the parcel to a developer should the federal deal fail, raising the prospect that houses or subdivisions could be built in the shadow of the Tetons.
“When you look at this parcel, you think about mansions, or condos, or parking lots, I don’t think any of us feel great,” Jewell said during a news conference at the Snow King Resort.
Mead spoke in strikingly personal terms about the importance of completing the sale. The governor recalled driving cattle from the family ranch to a grazing allotment in the park as a boy growing up in Teton County. He didn’t always appreciate those early mornings, but even then, Mead recalled, he grasped the uniqueness of the place.
The governor’s grandfather, the former U.S. senator and governor Clifford Hansen, had opposed the creation of the park, Mead said.
“I think about years after that. My grandfather made clear that he was on the wrong side of that. How he recognized that and how glad he was he lost that battle,” Mead said. “Not only did he recognize what it meant to him and his family, but the pride he felt being able to say people from all over the world come to Grand Teton.”
It is the rare person, the governor added, who comes to the park and doesn’t develop a special connection with the place.
Mead and Jewell expressed hope that in completing the deal for the property in Antelope Flats, they would be able to buy more time from the Wyoming Legislature to complete Washington’s purchase of a second state parcel bordering the Gros Ventre River.
Antelope Flats, Jewell said, had been made the priority because it lies in the plains at the base of the Tetons.
The two parcels’ price tag has long been the hang-up to any potential deal. Together they are appraised at more than $90 million.
Under the current deal, the Interior would acquire the parcel for $46 million. The Interior would provide $22 million in funds, while the rest would need to be raised by the Grand Teton National Park Foundation and the National Park Foundation. Currently, according to the Gazette, the two Foundations have already raised $5 million. Secretary Jewell added she expects additional money will come from the Land and Water Conservation Fund.
Critics of the plan say the Interior Department should pay the full $46 million, something Jewell is loath to do, since the Antelope Flats parcel is but one of several in-holdings spread across the whole national park system and, in concentrating funds on Grand Teton, she’s forgoing other purchases for the near future.
Other critics, especially in the Wyoming Legislature, have criticized the deal on personal grounds, calling it the latest iteration in a string of broken promises. Indeed, in 2010, Mead’s predecessor David Freudenthal made headlines saying the land could be sold to developers unless the federal government ponied up funds at some point in the future. The current deal has stirred up old antipathies; however, Mead has shrugged off said frustration, standing with Jewell and saying, ”We can do it.”
If the sale goes through, it could resolve an outstanding complaint regarding in-holdings in Grand Teton National Park. We previously reported a coalition of environmental and wildlife advocacy groups had sued the National Park Service, saying the pockets of state land could complicate grizzly bear recovery—especially if the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service transfers management responsibilities over to the states of Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho. Each state has expressed interest in limited trophy hunts.
Of course, that lawsuit covers all in-holdings in Grand Teton, not just the parcel at Antelope Flats.