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Wyoming Legislative Session Brings Conservation ‘Wins and Losses’

An amendment to the state budget authorizes land managers to sell the Kelly Parcel to the National Park Service for $100 million. Some bills are more worrisome.

The 640-acre Kelly Parcel in Grand Teton National Park has been a contentious piece of public land. It may now have a pathway to permanent protection. Photo by Craig Benjamin/GYC
The 640-acre Kelly Parcel in Grand Teton National Park has been a contentious piece of public land. It may now have a pathway to permanent protection. Photo by Craig Benjamin/GYC
by Alex Hargrave

Twenty days doesn’t give the Wyoming Legislature much time to waste. But during its contentious 2024 budget session that concluded earlier this month, it passed more than 100 bills and fulfilled its one key objective: pass the state budget. But just barely.

Nearing the session’s end, the chambers still stood nearly $1 billion apart on the initial drafts. Ultimately, it took two iterations of a Joint Conference Committee to craft a compromise, and that agreement paved the way for a section of public land that’s been making headlines for months.

Included in the budget is an amendment that could seal the fate of the Cowboy State’s most valuable piece of land: the Kelly Parcel that sits within Grand Teton National Park. Another implication for conservation in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem includes anti-federal overreach bills designed to, in some cases, weaken land managers’ influence on Wyoming’s public lands.

“Like most sessions there have been wins and losses,” said Era Aranow, the Wyoming Outdoor Council government affairs manager. “We play a lot of defense as a conservation organization.”

The contentious budget includes stipulations surrounding the Kelly Parcel, a 640-acre section of state-owned land that sits within Grand Teton National Park and borders other federal land. It was a dominating topic as state land managers have recently weighed the fate of the valuable inholding, considering an open-market auction at the end of 2023 that was ultimately postponed amid public pushback.

The amendment urges the State Board of Land Commissioners to sell the Kelly Parcel to the National Park Service to be managed as part of Grand Teton National Park for no less than $100 million.
The Kelly Parcel was a dominating topic as state land managers have recently weighed the fate of the valuable inholding, considering an open-market auction at the end of 2023 that was ultimately canceled amid public pushback.
One of the sale’s proponents, Jackson-based Democrat Senator Mike Gierau, said the sale was included in the budget rather than as a standalone bill, since in a budget session, legislation needs to clear a high bar for introduction to the full body—a two-thirds majority—and because the sale would benefit the school foundation program.

Groups are divided on the value of the Kelly Parcel. In a financial sense, the land was most recently appraised at $62.5 million. Some proponents of a private sale, however, suspect the state trust land could net much more for public education and other institutions that benefit financially from such parcels.

One related bill that did not ultimately clear the budget session’s two-thirds vote for consideration, House Bill 121 would have prohibited the State Board of Land Commissioners from selling the land for less than $750 million, more than 10 times higher than its appraised value. This price would’ve likely kept the land in state hands, which some lawmakers hoped for in order to let it keep appreciating in value.

Cash value aside, the land sits beneath the Teton mountain range and provides critical habitat for the region’s wildlife, including elk and bison in the oft-harsh winter. Pronghorn, elk and mule deer use the area as a key migration corridor that should be protected in perpetuity, according to the Greater Yellowstone Coalition.

“This transaction is mutually beneficial,” Jared Baecker, the organization’s Wyoming Conservation Coordinator, said in an email. “The sale will fulfill the Office of State Lands and Investment's constitutional obligation to fund public education throughout Wyoming. The returns on the $100 million Kelly Parcel sale will have a significant impact on the fiscal solvency of the School Trust for generations to come.”

The Park Service is working to secure $62 million in federal funding for the sale, and the Grand Teton National Park Foundation, a nonprofit that supports the park, has committed to raising the remaining $38 million to make the purchase by the end of the year.
The Wyoming State Capitol building in Cheyenne. Photo by Jimmy Emerson/CC photo
The Wyoming State Capitol building in Cheyenne. Photo by Jimmy Emerson/CC photo
Lobbyists and legislators who hoped for this outcome celebrated the budget amendment, though there are conditions attached to the sale. The first two—that the parcel will still be leased for livestock grazing and available to public hunting in perpetuity—are ones the Greater Yellowstone Coalition says it does not oppose.

The other condition relates to another federal agency’s plans for southwestern Wyoming. Revisions to the Bureau of Land Management’s Rock Springs Resource Management Plan have drawn the ire of plenty of Wyomingites, including southwestern Wyoming residents and officials at all levels of Wyoming government, as well as agricultural and energy interests. Critics of the plan, which includes some protective land designations, see it as the BLM shunning its multiple use mandate and fear it could have negative economic impacts in the region.

Per the budget amendment, the sale is contingent on the agency foregoing its preferred alternative, which involves more conservation measures.
For Gireau, the tie to the Rock Springs RMP is not ideal, but it helped move the Kelly Parcel sale toward the finish line, he said.

“It’s not a deal killer,” he said. “It makes it more difficult but I think we made a good statement by doing this at the same time. If nothing else, the [Biden] administration knows that Wyoming really does care about open, wild spaces, places to recreate … Different areas require different types of protection, and the Kelly Parcel is a key piece to be protected. Wyoming folks want conservation, and they also want and need their livelihood and some energy uses. We all need to work together on that.”

While the Kelly Parcel decision has the most direct impact on Greater Yellowstone, other bills were passed that would have statewide conservation implications, including one that the outdoor council’s Aranow said is likely a result of the Rock Springs plan. “A pushback against the feds is always a theme that we see in Wyoming politics,” she said. “Spurred by the Rock Springs RMP, that was a stronger theme than usual.”
“This time, a red state said, ‘We’re going to give you something you covet: the Kelly Parcel.’ "I’m hopeful [the federal government will] say, ‘These folks in Wyoming, we can work with them.’” – Mike Gierau, Wyoming State Senator
A few bills targeting federal land managers were introduced but two survived the session, and just one, House Bill 36, was signed into law by Governor Mark Gordon. Also known as the Natural Resource Protection Act, the bill prohibits state resources from being used to enforce a federal land management order or plan if the governor determines the measure does not comply with federal land management laws. Conservative state legislatures with abundant federal lands, including Utah, have passed similar bills this year. Still, in western Wyoming, where federal land dominates the map, its potential impacts are uncertain.

“The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem has remained largely intact because of the vast array of federal public lands managed by the National Park Service, the Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and the Fish and Wildlife Services,” said Baecker with the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. “Additionally, there are hundreds of thousands of acres of Tribal lands managed by the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho Tribes. All of these lands are managed by dedicated public servants and GYC is grateful for our partnerships with these employees and agencies in protecting these public lands, waters, and wildlife.”

Another bill, Senate File 13, would have appropriated millions of dollars and given authority to the legislature to sue the federal government for management actions it disapproves of.

Gordon vetoed that bill on Friday. In his veto letter, the governor cited its $75 million price tag, and he said that while he appreciated the Legislature’s concerns, it would blur the lines between the branches of government. Like the Natural Resource Protection Act, the law signals the Cowboy State’s growing frustration with federal land management decisions within its bounds.

That contention is likely to only grow as federal agencies prepare to release some consequential decisions, including the BLM’s conservation rule and revisions to its sage-grouse management plan. The U.S. Forest Service will soon release a draft of its Old Growth management plan that could amend each national forest plan, according to the agency.

Local governments and Wyomingites alike broadly oppose these rules set to drop throughout this year, citing these agencies’ multiple use mandate and risks to economic drivers in the state, such as logging, mineral extraction and grazing. Gireau, whose district is majority federal lands, said that lawsuits rarely produce the desired result. He said he hopes the voluntary sale of the Kelly Parcel to the federal government can set precedent on relations with land management agencies.

“This time, a red state said, ‘We’re going to give you something you covet: the Kelly Parcel,’” Gireau said. “We’re going to offer this up to you and say, ‘We’re concerned about how you’re dealing with other areas of our state, but with this one we agree completely, so let’s take care of business.’ I’m hopeful they’ll say, ‘These folks in Wyoming, we can work with them.’”

The Legislature’s management council will meet on April 1 to determine which topics its committees will study before its next legislative session in 2025.

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Mountain Journal is the only nonprofit, public-interest journalism organization of its kind dedicated to covering the wildlife and wild lands of Greater Yellowstone. We take pride in our work, yet to keep bold, independent journalism free, we need your support. Please donate here. Thank you.

Alex Hargrave
About Alex Hargrave

Alex Hargrave is a journalist covering the environment and natural resources in northeastern Wyoming. 
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