Wyoming Land Board Won't Auction Off Pristine Teton County Land -- For Now

The State Board of Land Commissioners on Thursday delayed taking any action on the controversial 640 acres of pristine land in Teton County known as the Kelly Parcel until at least next fall, saying it wants to explore options for a possible exchange.

Leo Wolfson

December 07, 20237 min read

Chip Jenkins, superintendent of Grand Teton National Park, testifies to the State Board of Land Commissioners on Thursday about the Kelly Parcel.
Chip Jenkins, superintendent of Grand Teton National Park, testifies to the State Board of Land Commissioners on Thursday about the Kelly Parcel. (Matt Idler for Cowboy State Daily)

CHEYENNE — Wyoming Superintendent of Public Instruction Megan Degenfelder wasted little time Thursday afternoon bringing up the controversial piece of pristine land in Teton County known as the Kelly Parcel with the rest of the State Board of Land Commissioners.

The 640 acres of land that borders Grand Teton National Park was on the commission’s agenda after weeks of emotionally charged public comment about the potential to auction the land off to the highest bidder.

But Degenfelder, appearing virtually, made a motion less than 10 minutes into the group’s discussion and before receiving any public comment to table the issue.

She said the board needs to “roll up it sleeves” to maximize the benefit of the land for the state and its residents, while considering options for a potential land exchange that frees up mineral rights in other parts of the state.

“We need to let the federal government know that they cannot just roll over Wyoming,” Degenfelder said. “They need to come to the table, negotiate, so we can protect the Kelly Parcel. There are other options than the auction we have on the table today, we just need more time.”

The board voted unanimously to approve Degenfelder’s motion to delay taking any action on the Kelly Parcel until next fall or winter to explore possible exchange options for the parcel and to work with the Department of Interior on the matter.

Public Interest

A land exchange option on the parcel was already explored in 2015, but Degenfelder said what has changed is a reinvigorated interest in what happens to the land from the public.

Many have said they would like to see the land sold to the federal government and Grand Teton National Park rather than be put in a public auction and possibly sold to a private buyer for luxury home development.

In the event of a public auction, the federal government could only bid as high as the appraised value of the land, which could open the opportunity for a private buyer to easily outbid the park. However, if a direct sale is facilitated with the government, a nonprofit could step in and offer money to boost the sale with its own private funds.

Chip Jenkins, superintendent of Grand Teton National Park, told Cowboy State Daily he supports the desire of the board to explore options that take into account the public’s desires, but the park is fully ready to buy the Kelly Parcel with the support of Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland.

But he also said the park is not prepared to act on a land exchange as it has no experience in this approach. That process would likely involve a different branch of the Interior Department like the BLM or another agency like the U.S. Forest Service.

“We’re prepared to travel a path that has been a proven success,” he said. “A land exchange is a different path, and it’s a path that when it was tried previously was not successful.”

U.S. Rep. Harriet Hageman said last month that the Kelly Parcel should be exchanged for subsurface mineral rights of an equivalent value on federal land elsewhere in Wyoming, an idea that Degenfelder also expressed some interest in Thursday.

“The federal government has its own land that we could truly maximize value to our beneficiaries, namely in areas with oil and gas development,” she said.

What’s The Real Value?

Degenfelder spoke to the value she sees in the land 14 miles northeast of Jackson that was appraised at $62.5 million, but many believe is worth much more. The parcel only brings $2,800 in revenue for the state each year from a series of low-use lease agreements and would bring in significantly more long-term revenue if it were sold off.

Although she doesn’t view the current arrangement “as an acceptable rate of return” for the state, Degenfelder said a deal must be struck that simultaneously maximizes the value of the land and access to the land for the people of Wyoming.

The appreciating value of the land increases at a 7.2% rate that is slightly quicker than the growth that would be experienced from selling the land and investing it. Although the land and state gains value for the land as long as it owns it, these gains can’t be realized until it is sold.

State Treasurer Curt Meier said he also supports pursuing an exchange for the purpose of leveraging more revenue on pieces of federal land that are perceived as less sensitive and as more readily developable for mineral or home development.

Positive Response

The decision to delay was received well by those in attendance, including Leslie Mattson, president of the Grand Teton National Park Foundation.

“We didn’t want it to get auctioned. That’s a scary thought,” she told Cowboy State Daily.

Teton County Commissioner Luther Propst said he wants the land to remain public and thanked the board for making the decision it did.

“We look forward to working with you, the Legislature, the Interior and others to see this land conveyed to the government, conveyed to the National Park Service, so that we can activate the investment, generate money for public schools and see it protected,” Propst said.

Various members of the public also spoke against letting the land go to a public auction. This roughly matches the sentiment of the 8,232 comments received from the public about the parcel.

“I would argue that Wyoming has spoken. They’re saying this is it, this is a good one,” said Jess Johnson of the Wyoming Wildlife Federation about those comments.

Jenkins and others also expressed concern about what could happen to migratory corridors for animals like pronghorn if the land was allowed to be used for home development.

He said the park is concerned about development in inappropriate places, the same reason he said led to the creation of Grand Teton in response to growth of the town of Jackson.

“If you care about the pronghorn herds and mule deer coming from Pinedale, you care about the mule deer herds connecting with the Wind River Reservation, it’s ensuring that there is no development on the Kelly Parcel that is needed in order to maintain those wildlife populations,” he said.

But Josh Metten, Wyoming field manager for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, expressed concern about potentially tying the parcel to other land conflicts happening across Wyoming with the federal government, particularly when considering the majority of the public comments support selling the land directly to Grand Teton.

“I don’t think that the people of Wyoming want to see us enter into a gridlock with this parcel,” he said. “I think they want to see forward momentum and they want to see this parcel conveyed to the Park Service.”

Johnson and Cheyenne resident Marguerite Herman offered a similar sentiment, urging the board to not take too much time considering what to do with the land, warning that arranging large federal land exchanges can be difficult.

“There’s a lot of different ways to cash out this land — conserve it, protect it, put it in the park,” she said. “The sooner we put this land to work for our kids the better.”

Leo Wolfson can be reached at leo@cowboystatedaily.com.

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Leo Wolfson

Politics and Government Reporter