Wyoming may auction off huge piece of pristine land inside Grand Teton

Dec 6, 2023, 9:16 PM

Part of a square-mile section of state land in Wyoming's Grand Teton National Park is seen, Oct. 5,...

Part of a square-mile section of state land in Wyoming's Grand Teton National Park is seen, Oct. 5, 2023. Wyoming officials will vote Thursday, Dec. 7, whether to auction off the land for development amid their longstanding efforts to prod federal officials to buy the land to conserve it as part of the park. (Bradly J. Boner/Jackson Hole News & Guide via AP)

(Bradly J. Boner/Jackson Hole News & Guide via AP)

CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) — Off and on for over a decade, Wyoming leaders have threatened to auction off large chunks of pristine, state-owned parcels of land within Grand Teton National Park to the highest-bidding developer to prod the U.S. government to step in and pay millions to conserve the properties.

On Thursday, they might make good on those threats. Up for a vote is whether to auction off the last of those lands — and arguably most valuable of them all, a gorgeous, square-mile (2.6-square-kilometer) property with Teton Range views and road access — by the end of January.

Auction is the recommendation of State Lands Director Jenifer Scoggin, who suggests a starting bid of no less than $80 million. In a report for the Wyoming Board of Land Commissioners that will hold the vote, she said state law requires her to get the highest value from state-owned lands to raise revenue for public schools.

Scoggin works under Gov. Mark Gordon, a Republican who has been quietly nudging Interior Department officials to conclude a series of purchases of land Wyoming has owned since statehood and that has existed within — but technically not part of — Grand Teton since a park expansion in 1950.

One of the five statewide elected officials that make up the land board, the governor plans to keep hearing what people have to say about the auction idea. He has not decided whether to vote to approve auction, according to spokesman Michael Pearlman.

If the vast majority of hundreds of Wyoming residents who have crowded public meetings and submitted comments to the state Office of Lands and Investments over the past two months in opposition to the auction have any influence with him, he won’t.

Environmental groups, too, have organized online opposition within Wyoming and beyond.

“This area should not be destroyed by the construction of luxury houses and other development,” reads a form statement for submission to the state on the National Wildlife Federation Action Fund website. “Too much development has already encroached on critical winter habitat near the park.”

As of Wednesday, a counter showed more than 12,500 submissions of the form.

Meanwhile, at least one member of the all-Republican land board plans to vote no: Secretary of State Chuck Gray, an outspoken Donald Trump supporter who doubts President Joe Biden was legitimately elected. Gray questions whether the $62.4 million value in an appraisal for the state was high enough for land he considers “invaluable.”

Gray also wondered whether the 60-day public comment period for the auction proposal was long enough.

“There has been very little time for adequate public input from around the state. Given the permanence and magnitude of such a decision, more time should have been provided for public input,” Gray said in a statement Tuesday.

Previous sales of state mineral rights and 86 acres of state land in the park in 2012, followed by the sale of a different square-mile (2.6-square-kilometer) parcel in 2016, have so far netted Wyoming over $62 million. State officials and the Interior Department originally agreed the federal government would buy the Kelly Parcel for $46 million no later than early 2015.

But while an extension and 50-50 mix of federal funds and private donations saw through the sale of the last and biggest sale seven years ago, negotiations over the Kelly Parcel broke down — and have dragged on ever since.

Gordon raised the issue with Interior officials in a meeting of the Western Governors Association in Jackson Hole last month, Pearlman said.

By now it’s practically a tradition spanning three governors. In 2010, Democratic Gov. Dave Freudenthal fumed sarcastically that Wyoming officials weren’t “as bright as those boys on the Potomac” negotiating over the lands but “it’s not our first county fair.”

Freudenthal ultimately netted a four-phase deal that resulted in Wyoming selling three of its four Grand Teton inholdings to make them now part of the park, transactions that were completed under Republican Gov. Matt Mead.

Whether the feds are amenable — or even able — to buy the land this time around is unknown, however. Interior spokesman Tyler Cherry declined to comment and the National Parks Foundation, which raised private funds for the 2016 land purchase, did not return messages seeking comment Wednesday.

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Wyoming may auction off huge piece of pristine land inside Grand Teton