A standing-room-only crowd of about 100 packed the Ordway Auditorium at the Teton County Library on Thursday for a presentation on the controversial disposal of the Kelly parcel.
The 640-acre tract of land is a state-owned inholding of Grand Teton National Park slated for auction to the highest bidder if the State Board of Land Commissioners — made up of Gov. Mark Gordon, Secretary of State Chuck Gray, Auditor Kristi Racines, Treasurer Curt Meier and Superintendent of Public Instruction Megan Degenfelder — votes that way at their next meeting Dec. 7.
The Teton County show-and-tell Thursday was the first of four total scheduled statewide. Casper (Saturday), Cheyenne (Nov. 21), and Cody (Nov. 28) are next during the 60-day public comment period prior to the board’s Dec. 1 deadline.
A public hearing is only required in the county where the land is, but Office of State Lands and Investments (OSLI) Director Jenifer Scoggin acknowledged that, “The thought is this is a very unique parcel. We know a lot of people across the state are very passionate about this and we want to better understand the statewide impact.”
Passionate was the word of the night as many Teton County locals literally begged the state to not let the property fall into the hands of a private developer.
“The people of Wyoming would not want to be part of a legacy where this land fell into a private developer’s hands and see that beautiful landscape dotted with a few select starter castles,” said John Turner to open feedback portion of the program and set a decidedly one-sided conservation tone for the evening.
Turner is the former director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, a former state legislator and a part of the family legacy that owns Triangle X, an inholding dude ranch operating within Grand Teton National Park.
Dave Sollitt heads the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance and has been outspoken from the beginning about the detrimental aspects of an auction where the highest bidder could be a billionaire with an agenda.
“It only takes one,” he said.
But it was Sollitt quoting former Republican House Speaker Kermit Brown with the zinger of the night.
“If you want to see the greatest amount of political scorn rain down on this state than you’ve ever seen, just put this in an auction situation where the general public has a chance to buy it without being reasonable about it,” he said. “We’d absolutely be the scorn of this nation and we’d never recover from it.”
He was quoting what Brown told Wyoming Public Radio in 2016 when the Antelope Flats and Kelly parcels were being considered for disposal.
Introducing himself as a fifth-generation Wyomingite, local attorney Bill Schwartz called the parcel the “crown jewel” of the OSLI inventory.
“This is special land and we all know it. And this generation has every obligation to make sure this crown jewel is not auctioned off like any other piece of land,” Schwartz said. “The state Legislature doesn’t boss you around on this. I know there is a lot of rabblerousing going on around there, but you [board] have sole authority.”
Price Of Paradise
Valuation of the land in question came up again and again at the meeting.
Too low, said many of the $62 million appraisal. Others wondered whether intrinsic value like wildlife, water and unspoiled viewsheds were considered as important ledger entries.
“When was this appraisal done and by whom?” wondered one audience member during the Q&A session. “Because I'm shocked to hear a pristine acre of land with unobstructed views of the Tetons is only $97,000. I would like to buy one, then.”
OSLI Deputy Director Jason Crowder assured that the assessment was completed as recently as 2021 based on the highest and best use of the land (a 35-acre subdivided residential neighborhood consisting of, maybe, 13 homes) and agreed to by the feds.
“Then could these same people appraise my property for tax purposes?” asked the commenter to a roar of laughter.
“We are about to send $80 million to the rest of the state for education through our property taxes,” added local newspaper columnist Paul Hansen.
Others wondered, why now? What’s sudden urgency?
Crowder explained the state has waited and warned for decades that something needed to be done with the property. State coffers continue to dry up with the dwindling energy extraction revenues.
Nonetheless, with an annual budget of $1.6 billion, an additional $62 million to the Wyoming Department of Education would amount to little more than a 4% cost of inflation adjustment. In fact, state lawmakers are now considering a $68 million supplement to the fiscal year 2024-25 budget to cover inflation.
Then there is a matter of money and what kind of value is placed in that.
Constitutionally obligated to the highest level of fiduciary duty as far as a return on land, OSLI has hardly been satisfied with the $2,845 a year the property now brings in on leasing rights.
“I am urging you to rise to the highest level of fiduciary responsibility here. That doesn’t mean just considering the financial aspects,” Sue Lurie reminded board reps, adding that the migration path of the pronghorn and protected sage grouse habitat are also at stake.
The legacy of leaving land for future generations began a century ago in the valley. Conservation has always been important to communities in northwestern Wyoming where Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks are.
Is $62 million, an amount the Department of Education can spend in two weeks, a large enough one-time revenue jolt to offset a future of regret?
Generational homesteader Ruth Huyler Glass doesn’t think so.
“My grandfather bought a ranch property here in 1925. He sold a great portion of it to John D. Rockefeller with the knowledge it would become part of Grand Teton National Park,” Glass said. “Not everyone was on board about that back then, but now think of the millions of children that have come through this park.
“What they’ve seen, what they’ve experienced. Many of these kids live in cities where they hardly ever see the stars and have never seen animals like this in the wild.
“I beg of you to think about our children. And our childrens’ children. We will never get this property back if you do this.”
Superintendent of Grand Teton Chip Jenkins also asked the board to view the land as something more than a balance sheet asset.
“Grand Teton National Park employees have kids. So, we recognize the value of education,” Jenkins said. “But we are also very concerned about inappropriate development. Just as 100 years ago people were concerned about development.”
It was exactly a century ago in 1923 that a historic meeting took place in Moose, Wyoming, where prominent Jackson Hole figures mapped out a plan for what would become Grand Teton National Park. A place they thought could capture the “old West character of the valley” and become a “museum on the hoof.”
“Together, we have done this before and together we can do this again,” Jenkins said.
Parcel For Posterity
In the end, the reasons to wait, stop or consider some other alternative came in rapid fire Thursday night. Scoggin and Crowder explained it was too late in the process to simply try something else. Auction was where the parcel was headed.
Next month, five people will determine if that gets a go-ahead.
Still, the message from Jackson to Cheyenne was clear: This piece of land is too precious a place for trophy homes. It must be preserved and protected.
Two men who make their living on the valley’s wildlife petitioned the board to consider its inherent value to the rest of the state, nation and world.
“I'm a small business owner and we guide wildlife programs here. In our 15 years of existence, we have toured close to 100,000 people in wilderness areas all around the Kelly parcel. We know this is a vital migration corridor and winter habitat. We see it,” said EcoTour owner Taylor Phillips. “Wildlife is a main driver of our travel and tourism economy — the state’s No. 2 industry. People come from all over the world to see our wildlife.
“I implore you to put this property into a conservation buyer’s hands.”
Kevin Krasnow, Ph.D., has spent the past decade at Teton Science Schools’ Kelly campus. He listed off dozens of animals he’s seen and shared with students there.
“These critters are going to be the true losers if this land is sold and subdivided. Hunters and anglers also stand to lose access. The costs extend far beyond $62 million,” he said.
The biggest round of applause came during a “Yellowstone” moment. Playing Kevin Costner’s role of John Dutton was Cody Lockhart. The Lockhart Cattle Co. has been running cows in Jackson Hole for generations.
“I know we are lucky to have such good schools in Teton County. I also know there are some economic realities,” Lockhart said. “But the future of our children depends on more than just money. This land sold to highest bidder is not in our children’s interest.
“I'm reminded of the Code of the West,” Lockhart continued. “Remember that some things are not for sale. I'm pretty sure this parcel is one of those things that’s not for sale.”