Conservationists and Jackson Hole residents came out in droves Thursday night in Jackson to fight back against a proposal to auction off what’s known as the ‘Kelly Parcel’ — a valuable piece of state-owned land in the boundary of Grand Teton National Park.
Dozens of people said they want the land and its wildlife protected, to remain undeveloped and either sold to the park service or a conservation group.
“This is special land, we all know it,” said Jackson resident and attorney Bill Schwartz. “In fact, I would say this is probably the crown jewel of the Wyoming state land’s inventory.”
About a hundred people packed into the Teton County Library as land management officials explained the history of the 640 acres, failed legislative actions to sell it to the National Park Service and how they arrived at the more than $60 million price tag for the corner lot in a migration corridor next to the National Elk Refuge.
However the State Board of Land Commission, made up of top state officials who will have the last word, may not even have the votes to move forward with the plan. The majority of members say they have concerns, calling a sale “the wrong move” and “short-sighted.”
Thursday night’s Jackson meeting was the first in a series hosted over the next several weeks throughout Wyoming by the Office of State Lands and Investments to gather public comments. Those will be passed to the State Board of Land Commissioners — the state’s governor, treasurer, auditor, secretary of state and superintendent of public instruction — who will vote on the proposal to sell the land to the highest bidder on Dec. 7.
“This process is rather unique,” Deputy Director of the Office of State Lands and Investments Jason Crowder said to the concerned crowd. “We don’t sell property like this every day.”
Crowder detailed the near decade of unsuccessful attempts to sell the parcel to the Department of Interior. The land is now only pulling in just under $3,000 a year off agriculture leasing, grazing and temporary-use permits. And so the goal is to turn a profit off the parcel through a proposed land “disposal,” a term Kelly resident Sunny Hoover took issue with.
“‘Disposal’ is the keyword. This land can not be disposed of,” Hoover said from the podium with emotion in her voice. “Wilderness is now a necessity.”
Crowder also went into the $62 million dollar appraisal value of the parcel, which breaks down to just more than $97,000 an acre. Given Teton County’s affordability crisis with a average home price at more than $5 million, some residents questioned just how the land was valued.
One woman, who didn’t state her name, stood up during the presentation.
“Anyone else in the room shocked that an acre of land with pristine Teton views is appraised at $97,000?” she asked. “I’d like to buy one — or five. That’s crazy!”
Crowder told the crowd that the appraisal had been vetted by multiple state offices.
During the limited public comment portion of the meeting, roughly 20 people had time to speak and most laid out a dire plea to save the land for both Wyomingites to enjoy and for wildlife to survive.
“Goshawk, porcupine, vermin, martin, great gray, gray horn, fox, skunk, pronghorn, cougars, wolves — I could go on,” said Kevin Krasnow with the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance. “These critters are going to be the true losers if this land is sold and subdivided.”
Selling to the park service
There were calls by several in the room to sell the land to a “conservation buyer” who may not be able to afford the auction price but could be an ecological steward to the land. Many others asked the parcel to be sold to the National Park Service.
This included Grand Teton National Park Superintendent Chip Jenkins.
“We are really concerned about inappropriate development,” Jenkins said, describing a storied state history of preserving land for recreational use and how wildlife depend on the parcel for a migration corridor. “The National Park Service stands ready once again to work in collaboration and partnership, if we can figure out a way to be able to provide revenue for schools, to be able to prevent development and have this preserved as part of the park.
Jenkins and others who spoke took care to acknowledge that sale of public lands benefits the Wyoming Public School system, but asked that the state look for other methods to generate that revenue.
“Together we have done this before and together we can do this again. We look forward to making that happen.” – Grand Teton National Park Superintendent Chip Jenkins, on working with Wyoming to protect the Kelly Parcel while also generating revenue.
Crowder told the room that, should the parcel not go to auction, there is an avenue in which the land could be sold to the park service, but it could be a lengthy process and require actions by the state legislature. Over the past 10 years the three other nearby parcels have been acquired by the Department of Interior.
Skepticism from top officials
“This is a priceless piece of property, and I just think it’s the wrong move for the people of the state of Wyoming for this to be sold,” Secretary of State Chuck Grey told KHOL prior to the meeting, saying he wants it to remain appreciating in the state’s hands.
Gray sits on the State Board of Land Commissioners, which needs three out of five of the state’s top elected officials to vote ‘yes’ to move forward with the sale.
And he’s not alone in his skepticism.
State Auditor Kristi Racines said she also may vote ‘no’ when the group meets in early December. She said she hasn’t decided where she wants the land to go, but doesn’t want it to end up in developers’ hands.
“If it’s an auction that’s just a free for all for anything, I would have a hard time supporting that,” Racines said.
Also on the board is Superintendent of Public Instruction Megan Degenfelder, who said in a statement that selling to the highest bidder is “short sighted.”
“This land has extraordinary value to the State of Wyoming,” the statement reads. “Cash payment from a high bidder is short sighted and we need visionary leadership on how we can leverage the Kelly Parcels to create a generational benefit to Wyoming citizens.”
A representative for Governor Mark Gordon, another board member, said the state’s top official is still reviewing public comments. And the fifth voter, State Treasurer Curt Meier, didn’t respond to a request to comment in time for publication.
Speaking after Thursday’s Jackson meeting, Crowder said, so far, no one has come out in support of selling the land to the highest bidder.
“At this point, ‘for public auction,’ I have not heard anything,” he said.
The Office of State Lands and Investments will hold three more public meetings on the sale of the Kelly Parcel this month in Casper, Cheyenne and Cody. They will also be streamed on YouTube, but online viewers will not be able to comment.
The State Board of Land Commission is scheduled to make a decision on whether or not to move forward with an auction on Dec. 7.