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Skeptical public tells Wyoming ‘don’t auction Kelly Parcel’ as developers lurk

Environmental and cultural values aren’t being considered in a proposed auction of 640 acres of state-owned land in Grand Teton National Park, said one speaker after the next.

Jackson Vice Mayor Arne Jorgensen, right, attends the protest in Jackson on Nov. 6, 2023, challenging the proposed state auction of the 640-acre Kelly parcel in Grand Teton National Park. Pronghorn migrate through the state land, which could be sold for development. (Angus M. Thuermer Jr./WyoFile)

by Mike Koshmrl, WyoFile

JACKSON—Fourth-generation Jackson Hole cattle rancher Cody Lockhart thought back to his childhood, the days when he’d select his 4-H calf from a herd out at pasture every summer. 

Those calves grazed a state-owned section of land in the corner of Grand Teton National Park known as the Kelly Parcel, which could soon go to public auction.

“I have distinct memories of bouncing around in a pickup truck around the Kelly Parcel — my dad, my brother and Glenn Taylor — to pick out our 4-H calves for the year,” Lockhart recalled. 

Lockhart grew one of those calves, a black baldy, into a steer, and it won reserve champion at the Teton County Fair and performed well at the Wyoming State Fair, he said. 

“That calf taught me respect, how to work hard,” Lockhart said, “and it was a big part of my education.” 

Hundreds of members of the Jackson Hole community learned similar lessons from Taylor Ranch calves grazed on the same state parcel, he said. Lockhart recited one of the tenets he tries to live by, a passage from the Code of the West, which has been adopted as the official state code.

“One of the principles is, ‘Remember, some things are not for sale,’” Lockhart said. “I’m pretty sure that these lands, and our children’s future, is one of the things that’s not for sale.” 

The last rays of sunshine cast down on a state school trust property known as the Kelly Parcel in October 2023. An inholding of Grand Teton National Park, the parcel has been proposed to go to public auction with an appraised value of $62.4 million. (Mike Koshmrl/WyoFile)

The story elicited the biggest applause during a hearing last Thursday in a packed Teton County Library auditorium. Listening were Wyoming Office of State Lands and Investments Director Jennifer Scoggin and Deputy Director Jason Crowder, who were in Jackson for a public hearing about the proposed auction of 640 acres of state land — property that’s been managed to benefit the state’s public schools since statehood.

Earlier, Crowder walked the audience through the lengthy history of Wyoming’s failed efforts to sell the Kelly Parcel directly to the U.S. Department of the Interior for inclusion as part of Teton Park. For years, the federal government didn’t have the money to make the acquisition. Those dollars are now available to purchase the tract, last valued at $62 million, but now the Wyoming Legislature, which must approve a direct sale, stands in the way

If the Wyoming Office of State Lands holds onto the Kelly Parcel, Crowder explained, the section will likely appreciate by $22 to $42 million over the next decade, lifting the valuation to $84 to $104 million. But those are unrealized earnings from uncertain appreciation, he said. An auction that nets the appraised value of $62 million today would provide an estimated actual return of almost $40 million over the same timeframe, given the Wyoming School Permanent Land Fund’s 6.4% investment income rate. 

And that could be low. Under the Wyoming Constitution, Crowder said, the selected bid from a land auction must return the “highest possible proceeds.” Some real estate agents queried for the Kelly Parcel’s appraisal estimated that the section, with its full Teton views, could bring in $100 million from a developer that would turn around and subdivide the land into luxury 35-acre homesites. 

At the Teton County Library, however, those who spoke up were united in their opposition to assessing the Kelly Parcel only in terms of dollars and cents.

John Turner speaks Nov. 6, 2023, at the state land office hearing on the proposed sale of the state school trust Kelly parcel in Grand Teton National Park. (Angus M. Thuermer Jr./WyoFile)

First to speak at the hearing was Triangle X Ranch’s John Turner, a former member of the Wyoming Legislature who led the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service during the George H. W. Bush administration. He charged that an open auction — and the “starter castles” and no-trespassing signs that could result — would clash against the will of the people. 

“I’m just confident … that the people of Wyoming would not want to be a part of a legacy where this state disposed of land that became available to private developers [and caused] a major intrusion into Grand Teton Park,” Turner said. 

Grand Teton National Park Superintendent Chip Jenkins spoke at the hearing, too, and he reminded Scoggin and Crowder of the conservation ethic that ultimately created the park he now steers. One hundred years ago exactly, he said, Jackson Hole business owners took action over concerns about “tawdry development” that would “damage or destroy the very values” that attracted tourists. 

Grand Teton National Park Superintendent Chip Jenkins speaks Nov. 6, 2023, at the state land office hearing on the proposed sale of the state school trust Kelly parcel, located in the park’s southeast corner. (Mike Koshmrl/WyoFile)

“They actually called upon the superintendent of Yellowstone at the time, to meet with them to have a conversation about what can be done in terms of preserving and protecting what’s best about this place,” Jenkins said. “Out of those conversations, the idea of being able to acquire parcels where development would be inappropriate was created.” 

Ultimately, that idea led to the creation of Grand Teton National Park. Hundreds, if not thousands, of people have participated in the acquisition of parcels that built the park over the last century, he said, and the state of Wyoming has been a partner in the effort. 

Conserving the Kelly Parcel isn’t just about Jackson Hole, the park superintendent said. The Path of the Pronghorn cuts right through, he noted, and so does a mule deer migration route that bridges to winter range on the Wind River Indian Reservation. 

“The National Park Service stands ready to once again work in collaboration and partnership so we can figure out a way to be able to provide revenue for schools, to be able to prevent development and to have this preserved as part of the park,” Jenkins said. 

Kevin Krasnow, an ecologist on staff at the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance, listed off the invaluable wildlife resources the Office of State Lands’ process is not accounting for. He spent 14 years working from the Teton Science School’s Kelly Campus, just over a mile away.

“I know firsthand the wildlife who use these lands: grizzly, moose, elk, deer, badgers, beaver, sage grouse, bald eagles, golden eagles, goshawk, porcupine, ermine, marten, great gray [owls], great horned [owls], coyote, fox, skunk, pronghorn, cougars, wolves,” Krasnow said. “I could go on. These are just the charismatic wildlife that I saw up there, and these critters are going to be true losers if this land is sold and subdivided.” 

“… these critters are going to be true losers if this land is sold and subdivided.”  KEVIN KRASNOW

The five most important opinions about the Kelly Parcel are those of the State Board of Land Commissioners. Composed of Wyoming’s top five elected officials — the governor, secretary of state, treasurer, superintendent of public instruction and the auditor — the board is scheduled to decide at its Dec. 7 meeting whether to send the parcel to auction. 

There’s evidence that several of the commissioners are skeptical of doing that. 

Jackson Hole Community Radio queried the board, and three of the five commissioners made remarks that suggested they were hesitant or opposed to an auction. 

“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 Gray told the radio station, known by its acronym KHOL. 

State Auditor Kristi Racines told the station she’d have a “hard time” supporting a free-for-all-auction, while Superintendent of Public Instruction Megan Degenfelder said that going with a high bidder is “short sighted.” 

Although everybody who spoke up at the Teton County Library auditorium was opposed to the idea of an open auction, more than 100 people packed the room. Plenty of them were reticent.

Rep. Andrew Byron (R-Jackson), a real estate agent, noticed that there were at least a couple of other agents in the room. He declined to name names but said that at least one of his peers has a client interested in the Kelly Parcel who is prepared to bid a whole lot more than the appraised value. The willingness of ultra-wealthy Americans to carve up the valley with trophy homes has been a consistent theme of modern Jackson Hole, especially in the post-pandemic era.

“You could look around and everyone was clapping for conservation, but there were other people in that public meeting that didn’t have the same goals,” Byron told WyoFile. “From what I can gather — and it terrifies me — there are multiple qualified buyers out there in the private sector that don’t have conservation at the forefront of their thought process.”

From fragile nighthawk eggs to views of the rugged summit of the Grand Teton, this 640-acre state school trust parcel near Kelly in Grand Teton National Park holds significant natural resource values. (Angus M. Thuermer, Jr./WyoFile)

This article was originally published by WyoFile and is republished here with permission. WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.