MOOSE — Conservation supporters hailed key players in the public and private sectors Dec. 16 — including 5,421 individual donors — who raised $46 million to conserve 640 acres in Grand Teton National Park while boosting education funding for Wyoming’s school children.
A crowd of perhaps 100 heard Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell and Grand Teton National Park Foundation director Leslie Mattson describe their successful efforts to each corral $23 million to buy the property inside Grand Teton from the state of Wyoming. The Wyoming Legislature had set a year-end deadline to complete the deal or see the school trust land auctioned, perhaps for development.
The Department of the Interior provided half the purchase price, much of that through the Land and Water Conservation Fund from offshore oil and gas leasing. Mattson and her nonprofit raised the other $23 million from 5,421 donors.
Jewell called the Dec. 12 purchase “one of the most significant achievements in the history of the Park Service.” It protected world-class scenery on a priceless square mile of wildlife-rich Antelope Flats.
“How do you put a value on that … on a connected ecosystem, building resilience,” Jewell asked. Located in the heart of the park where ecological values and views are paramount, the 640 acres of sagebrush could have been developed with 18 homes.
Her department obtained half the purchase price despite a Congress with tight purse strings. Jewell first visited Grand Teton National Park as a high school student in 1973, she said, and it is one of her favorite places.
Gov. Matt Mead hailed her leadership. “We wouldn’t be here without Secretary Jewell,” he said. Mead himself traversed the unmolested ground of Antelope Flats while growing up in Jackson Hole, and now future generations will be able to share that experience. “You have given them a gift … a gift that I had,” Mead said.
The two praised Mattson for raising $23 million in private donations in eight months. Jewell called her “a force;” Mead called Mattson “the all-star.”
Mead described the fundraising challenge to Mattson’s nonprofit organization as “darn near impossible.” Mattson agreed. “It was a big risk,” she said. “We all agreed we had to try.”
The 5,421 donors came from every state, she said. Closing the purchase involved obtaining a bridge loan secured by pledges and transferring millions of dollars among accounts by wire.
Grand Teton National Park Superintendent David Vela said both the money to the Wyoming Permanent School Trust Fund and the preservation of Antelope Flats are investments. “The children of our great state and nation will be the ultimate benefactors,” he said.
Saved by a 3-2 vote
Mead himself shepherded a purchase agreement through the Wyoming Board of Land Commissioners where it received a narrow 3-2 backing. He recognized board members Cynthia Cloud, state auditor, and Mark Gordon, Wyoming treasurer, who joined him in approving the sale contract and were present at the celebration in Moose.
Speakers at an informal gathering Dec. 16 recognized a long line of elected officials and private donors, including the late U.S. Sen. Craig Thomas who sought federal legislation to complete the conservation of the property through a land exchange. But that idea fizzled as energy prices — a key component in the value of land that Wyoming would get in exchange for its park property — turned down. Authorization for the sale had to be approved by the Legislature where influential members resent federal control of property in the state.
Philanthropy and private donations enabling the purchase carried on a tradition stretching back to John D. Rockefeller Jr.’s 35,000-acre gift in the early 1940s, Jewell said. That gift enabled the park to protect the Tetons’ scenic and wildlife-rich foreground.
Ceded to Wyoming at statehood, the property is dedicated, through the Wyoming Constitution, to the funding of K-12 education. As such, Wyoming is required to make a reasonable rate of return from its holdings, Mead said.
Antelope Flats was not even leased for grazing, causing a problem for the state. “Zero dollars is not in the equation,” Mead said.
People who visit the park form a personal attachment, like the one he has from growing up in Jackson Hole, Mead said. As a youth he drove cattle through Antelope Flats’ dew-dappled sagebrush. His ranching mother died in a horse accident nearby.
“These are the things I think about — how special the park is,” he said.
No Taj Mahal or monument on the Washington Mall could improve the simple sagebrush sea, he said. “Not one of them replace the beauty of Antelope Flats.”
Another 640-acre section of school trust land in Grand Teton National Park near Kelly is also being considered for sale by the state. Purchase of Antelope Flats is “a clear sign to the Wyoming Legislature,” that conservationists and the Department of the Interior are serious about its preservation too, Jewell said.