The National Park Service will get another chance to buy a 640-acre parcel of state-owned land inside the border of Grand Teton National Park after the Wyoming State Board of Land Commissioners voted Thursday to delay a proposed auction.
But state officials made clear that they want to extract a high price from the federal government, including a possible land swap that would give the state more rights to develop oil and gas.
Megan Degenfelder, the state’s superintendent of public instruction and one of five board members who voted to table an auction until the fall of 2024, said the land in Teton County “is of incredible value and really the crown jewel of Wyoming.”
“I don’t think that the answer is a sweetheart deal to the federal government — our land and our people, our education, are worth more than that, and Wyoming is really who I want to protect,” she said.
Bowing to a huge public outcry, the board voted unanimously to approve her motion to hold off on the sale and to begin new negotiations that ultimately could give NPS control of the land, commonly known as the Kelly Parcel.
The board, chaired by Republican Gov. Mark Gordon, decided against moving forward with a proposal by Jenifer Scoggin, the director of the Office of State Lands and Investments, who last week recommended selling the land in a public auction by Jan. 30, 2024.
Under her plan, the board would not have accepted a bid of less than $80 million, or $125,000 an acre, with the proceeds going to aid the state’s public schools. The price tag would have been roughly $18 million higher than the parcel’s appraised value.
Opponents of the proposed auction feared that it could result in a sale to a developer and the construction of nearly 20 multimillion-dollar “trophy homes” on large subdivisions within a national park.
While the delay will give NPS more time to gain control of the land, it could also drive up the price in one of the nation’s most expensive real estate markets centered around Jackson Hole.
Secretary of State Chuck Gray, another of the board members, said he was “deeply skeptical” of the parcel’s appraised value of $62 million, calling the land “truly priceless.”
“Even if the appraisal were correct, however, it makes no sense to divest of land for quick cash in this inflationary economy,” he said, adding that the board also needed to allow more time for public input on its decision.
Feds ‘cannot just roll over Wyoming’
Under the board’s new plan, the state will form a working group to negotiate a land exchange “and other options” with the Interior Department.
Degenfelder said the board needed “to roll up its sleeves to protect our state … and to let the federal government know that they cannot just roll over Wyoming.”
“They need to come to the table and negotiate so we can protect the Kelly Parcel for citizens across the entire country and the world while allowing us to fully develop our mineral resources. … There are other options than the auction that we have on the table today,” she said.
Republican Rep. Harriet Hageman, Wyoming’s lone House member, endorsed the idea last week, saying the state had a limited amount of non-federal land and that Wyoming “must gain something significant and meaningful in return” if it gives up the Kelly Parcel.
“This is a case of the federal government and wealthy out-of-state interests wanting something that the state of Wyoming has,” she said in a social media post.
NPS has long struggled to buy the Kelly Parcel, one of four plots of school trust lands owned by Wyoming since the time of its statehood, before the creation of the park.
The agency has already bought the other three parcels. Under an agreement with the state approved in 2010, NPS could have also bought the Kelly Parcel for $46 million, provided that the sale was finalized by 2015. But officials with the Office of State Lands and Investments said they decided to propose the auction, placing it on their “disposal list,” after the deal fell through due to a lack of federal funding.
Grand Teton Superintendent Chip Jenkins told the board that NPS is concerned about “inappropriate development” of the Kelly Parcel and is eager to buy the land, saying it would also help preserve wildlife populations.
“We’ve been successful three times before in terms of finding a path forward,” he said. “We are confident that we can work together in terms of finding a path forward for this, the fourth time.”
Leslie Mattson, president of the nonprofit Grand Teton National Park Foundation, told board members that the organization raised $23 million to help buy one of the four parcels in 2016 and is ready to help buy the Kelly Parcel, too.
“While we recognize the exploration of an exchange is something certainly of value, we believe that we can deliver actual dollars in a short amount of time,” she said.
‘The clock is ticking’
Many Wyomingites had opposed the proposed auction, including Rob Wallace, a Wyoming native who oversaw national parks during the last two years of the Trump administration as Interior’s assistant secretary for fish and wildlife and parks.
Like many other auction critics, Wallace is hoping the Wyoming Legislature helps determine what happens next by approving a land sale directly to NPS.
But such a plan could run the risk of driving the acquisition price far beyond the reach of the federal government.
Some lawmakers already are floating legislation that would allow NPS to buy the land, but for no less than $100 million, according to WyoFile, an online news site in the state.
Green groups, meanwhile, said they’ll continue their push to preserve the land.
Jennifer Rokala, executive director of the Center for Western Priorities, said the Wyoming governor and land commissioners “did the right thing” Thursday by delaying the sale.
“Now the clock is ticking,” she said. “It’s up to the governor and the Legislature to ensure this land remains in public hands forever, as part of the national park.”