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To Protect a Section of Precious Land
November 3, 2023
To Protect a Section of Precious Land
Why would Wyoming put a wildlife-rich 640-acre land parcel up for auction? Hint: Big money.
by Susan Marsh
A month ago, the Wyoming Board of Land Commissioners announced it was considering auctioning a 640-acre section of State Trust Land surrounded by Grand Teton National Park and Bridger-Teton National Forest. This has sent antennae of concern skyward among Teton County residents. Why?
Because Grand Teton National Park surrounds it, except for the east side, which is within the Bridger-Teton National Forest, and both agencies manage the adjacent land for low-impact recreation and wildlife. It’s on the celebrated Path of the Pronghorn (as well as on migration routes for elk and mule deer). It’s important moose
For those unfamiliar with state trust land, here’s a brief note about its origins. The Northwest Ordinance of 1785 created a land grant program to help fund education in each state as it joined the union. But the federal government didn’t have the actual cash to build schools and hire teachers, so it turned to its relative abundance of land in the public domain. Each new state received one 640-acre section for every township within its boundaries. (A township consists of 36 square-mile sections.) Later, two sections were deeded to new states.
While some states quickly sold off most of their state trust lands to generate immediate income, those encompassing the Greater Yellowstone region have retained the majority of theirs. According to a report by Headwaters Economics, state trust lands make up one out of every 20 acres in the western United States.
That sounds like a lot of land, but trust lands are scattered and dispersed among other ownerships, so they don’t form large areas. In Wyoming, state “school sections,” as they are often called, create a checkerboard pattern over many counties. Teton County has only a few school sections, since some have already been sold, and much of the county lies within a national park, forest or wildlife refuge.
Without realistic legislation to allow direct transfer to the park, and given the state’s apparent interest in disposing of the Kelly parcel sooner rather than later, it appears that the only option is an auction.
State trust land belongs to each state for the primary purpose of generating revenue. This differs from federal public land, which is managed by agencies like the National Park Service, but belongs to the people. State school sections belong to the state, and it’s up to each state to decide which, if any, will be open to the public. Some states allow, but don’t necessarily manage for, public use such as hunting, hiking and other outdoor recreation. Because of Wyoming’s generous public access policies, some of the school sections in Teton County have become favorite haunts for off-trail rambling. And since the school sections aren’t advertised the way the national parks are, they have found a loyal following of locals seeking to avoid the crowds.
The school section in question at the moment, the so-called Kelly parcel for its proximity to the town of Kelly, lies astride the popular Gros Ventre River Road and offers spectacular views of the entire Teton Range, the Gros Ventre Slide, and glimpses of landmarks like Jackson Peak with a foreground of aspens, lime-green in spring and orange-gold in fall. Its terrain is relatively gentle, with a mix of woods and open land, aspen, sagebrush and other shrubs. Informal trails join others on the adjacent national park and forest.
Comments on the proposed auction can be sent to: Attention: Jason Crowder, Office Of State Lands and Investments, 122 W. 25th Street, Herschler Building Suite W103, Cheyenne, WY 82002 or email at email@example.com.
The Kelly parcel is a haven for wildlife, from ungulates to sage grouse to songbirds. As part of a major migration corridor in the Gros Ventre River watershed, it hosts elk which travel over it in spring and fall as they move between the mountains and the National Elk Refuge. Pronghorn, the few that remain after the devastating winter of 2022-23, favor its vegetation and wide-open spaces. Mule deer and bison also find favorable habitat here. A few weeks ago, I was hiking along a trail on the parcel and stopped to watch a migrating flock of mountain bluebirds while Swainson’s hawks circled above. Sage grouse and sharptails have flushed from their roosts at my approach on skis.
There is a conundrum at play. The appraisal figure of $62 million represents the minimum bid the state will accept at auction. The Park Service is limited to offering no more than the appraised value. The chance of both entities agreeing to $62 million without being outbid seems unlikely.
The land has been a bone of contention between the National Park Service and the state for decades. Land exchanges have been proposed, and after failed attempts to consummate them, they were abandoned. A couple of years ago, the Park Service attempted to buy the Kelly parcel. Teton County’s legislators introduced a bill to authorize the purchase, but a representative from a county halfway across the state amended their proposal to demand a price of $3.2 billion. The full house voted for this amendment.
The outrageous price tag notwithstanding, land values in Teton County have shot through the roof in the past decade, and it’s hard to blame the Board of Land Commissioners for trying to increase its income from the state sections here. They have mostly been used for livestock grazing, gravel mining, and permitted recreational outfitting, which doesn’t bring much annual income compared to that from other counties through mineral and energy leases.
While not quite in the $3 billion range, the Kelly parcel has been appraised based on the assumption that subdivision into 35-acre (or larger) residential lots would be the most likely and appropriate use of the property. Considering sales of similar properties with similar zoning, the assessment pencils out to $62 million—or $97,000 per acre.
The cost of an acre of undeveloped land 15 miles from town with no utilities or infrastructure may sound stratospheric. But in Teton County, $97,000 sounds cheap. Other offerings in a random check I conducted for a handful of similar properties yielded an average asking price of $260,000 per acre.
Whatever the numbers, there is a conundrum at play. The appraisal figure represents the minimum bid the state will accept at auction. The Park Service is limited to offering no more than the appraised value. The chance of both entities agreeing to $62 million without being outbid seems unlikely.
To many who know and love the Kelly parcel, the highest and best use of this land is to retain it for public enjoyment and wildlife habitat by adding it to Grand Teton National Park. But non-priced/priceless and irreplaceable values cannot compete with the revenue to be gained through sale. Without realistic legislation to allow direct transfer to the park, and given the state’s apparent interest in disposing of the Kelly parcel sooner rather than later, it appears that the only option is an auction.
What can be done to protect this parcel? Grand Teton National Park and the Teton County Board of Commissioners have expressed concern. Local and regional news outlets have covered the situation and a public demonstration against the auction is planned in Jackson on Monday afternoon, November 6. The Wyoming Game and Fish Department has cited the potential impacts to wildlife, particularly the migrating big game that use this parcel. The department cites 87 “Species of Greatest Conservation Need” in the state whose distributions include the Kelly parcel. It seems that no one, aside perhaps from real estate businesses, wants this auction to happen, and a number of realtors have openly said that they think it is a bad idea.
The Wyoming Game and Fish Department has cited the potential impacts to wildlife, particularly the migrating big game that use this parcel ... A public demonstration against the auction is planned in Jackson on Monday afternoon, November 6.
Saving a state parcel within the national park is not new. Another school section within Grand Teton was acquired in 2016 with assistance from nonprofits and generous private donors who helped raise the appraised sum of $46 million. One would assume that the park is currently looking for similar help should the auction move ahead. It could offer its maximum allowable of $62 million—assuming the Park Service has that capacity at all—and donors would make up the rest.
The State Board of Land Commissioners will consider the proposal for disposing of the Kelly parcel at its upcoming meeting on December 7.
This isn’t the only school section in the county with the potential for being radically altered by sale or lease to private enterprises whose activities would, to put it mildly, be incompatible with current conditions of those parcels and surrounding federal land.
Do we rally to save the Kelly parcel, then, with empty pocketbooks, watch the school sections elsewhere go on the auction block? Given the state’s mandate to generate income through these school sections, is there a way to facilitate that without running into conflicts with county regulations and the management of national forest and other lands nearby? Generating income does not necessarily mean maximizing income at the expense of other values.
I write this with passionate love for some of these state sections, yet I realize this is a first-world problem. We sit in relative comfort in the Greater Yellowstone region, blessed with wild land and beauty all around us, while refugees go hungry in squalid camps around the world. I can’t do much about that, other than to write a check to Oxfam or such, but I can enjoy and appreciate and try to protect the land I love at home, while thanking the state that has so far allowed me and others to access school sections that have come to feel sacred. And I am reminded that what is sacred is also priceless, and it should remain that way.
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