JACKSON — Declaring the preservation of a Wyoming school trust section in Grand Teton National Park her top priority for conservation funds, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell on Monday signed an agreement designed to realize that goal.
With Gov. Matt Mead at her side, Jewell said the agreement, “will give us ’til the end of this year [to buy the property] at a guaranteed price.” The agreement sets the price for the Antelope Flats section at $46 million. Interior’s proposed Land and Water Conservation Fund contains an earmark for half that amount. Private conservation donors would need to raise the rest.
Mead said he would champion the proposed agreement in front of the State Board of Land Commissioners, which also must sign the document. Another 640-acre school section near Kelly also lies in Grand Teton and could be sold by the state for preservation by year’s end, possibly later.
“My goal and my desire is to get these parcels to the park,” Mead said. “You want to do it. I want to do it. We can do it. We will do it.”
Conservation partners are hoping to pass the Land and Water Conservation Fund budget through Congress soon, secure the Wyoming Board of Land Commissioners’ approval of the pending Jewell agreement, and raise some $18 million in the next 6 months to buy the Antelope Flats parcel.
Mead said progress like that could convince the state Legislature to let the federal government also buy the Kelly parcel for another $46 million — perhaps in coming years. Wyoming lawmakers have expressed frustration that sale and purchase plans have failed to come to fruition. “We are on plan Z-3,” Mead said. Various iterations of a sale or exchange agreement stretch back to 1900.
Purchase of Antelope Flats would be a “significant step” in showing earnest federal interest, Mead said. “I can’t think of a better indicator.”
Regarding how and when the Kelly parcel might be sold for federal conservation, “that’s a bridge we will cross over when we come to it,” Mead said. Over the longer term, “the bigger question is going to be the Legislature,” which hasn’t always agreed with conservation plans.
Jewell and Mead unveiled their pending agreement at a meeting of the Western Governors’ Association. Wyoming is required to manage the state school land for the interests of education. That means getting maximum return for the property, which could be highly prized by developers if sold on the open market.
The threat of development is real and unacceptable, Jewell said. Calling Grand Teton National Park “one of my favorite places on the planet,” she said potential development of 18 homes there “doesn’t make any of us feel good.”
The undeveloped Antelope Flats parcel is “part of what we take for granted,” Jewell said. Buying it would be an important first step in convincing Wyoming lawmakers to stay engaged in a deal for the Kelly parcel. “Maybe if we get it done this year, the State of Wyoming will give us a break,” she said.
Private interests, including the Grand Teton National Park Foundation and the National Park Foundation, already have raised $5 million toward buying the Antelope Flats parcel, representatives said. That leaves about another $18 million to be raised by the end of the year.
“It’s going to be a challenge,” Grand Teton National Park Foundation director Leslie Mattson said. “In the year of the centennial [anniversary celebration of the National Park Service] we’re going to get it done.”
The National Parks Conservation Association will work to see the Land and Water Conservation fund approved said Sharon Mader, the group’s Grand Teton Program Manager. “We urge Congress to support this proposal by providing the $23 million requested to keep these negotiations headed in the right direction towards the completion of this historic sale.”
The federal government needs the updated agreement after failing to meet conditions earlier this year that were set out in another pact with Wyoming. If Congress does not fund Interior’s conservation account and instead adopts a continuing budget resolution, Jewell said she would look elsewhere in her agency for the Antelope Flats money.
Mead said everybody who has visited Grand Teton has a personal story. He told his, which is especially deep. His grandfather, Gov. Cliff Hansen, ranched near the park and held grazing leases there. Hansen opposed park expansion before coming to embrace a larger Grand Teton.
Mead himself grew up in Jackson Hole and recalled herding cattle into Grand Teton as a kid. “Even as a young boy I knew I was somewhere special,” he said. Grand Teton was also where his mother, Mary Mead, died. “She was driving cows in Grand Teton when her horse [fell] over and killed her,” he said. “That’s my story.”
This story was updated to correct the date of the earliest iteration of a land exchange for the parcels, which was 1900, not 1931. The 1900 deal foundered by 1916 and Wyoming, which had deeded the two sections to the federal government in anticipation of a swap, got a quit claim deed for return of the property in 1931, according to county records — Ed.