This Tiny Parcel of Paradise Could Be Devoured

Ted Kerasote / The New York Times
This Tiny Parcel of Paradise Could Be Devoured A pronghorn buck on a hillside on the threatened Kelly Parcel, along an important migratory corridor next to Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming. (photo: Joe Riis)

In 1950, when Grand Teton National Park was expanded eastward across Jackson Hole, Wyo., its new boundaries nearly subsumed a square mile of state land. Like the national park, forest and elk reserve surrounding it, this is no ordinary piece of ground.

Called the Kelly Parcel for its proximity to the village of Kelly, where I’ve lived for 37 years, this 7,000-foot-high stretch of rolling hills, sagebrush meadows and aspen groves has magnificent views of the Teton Range and provides important habitat for elk, moose, pronghorn antelope, bison, mule deer and bighorn sheep. The annual migration of up to 150 miles by pronghorn from Grand Teton National Park to the Green River Basin — one of the longest mammalian migrations in the contiguous United States — goes through the Kelly Parcel. So does a long mule deer migration.

This square mile, 14 miles northeast of Jackson, is also home to grizzly and black bears, wolves, mountain lions, ruffed and sage grouse, raptors and Neotropical birds. Eighty-seven species that Wyoming has labeled “of greatest conservation need” count that land as habitat. In short, the Kelly Parcel is an elemental part of the surrounding Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, which is facing ever increasing threats from development, recreation and a warming climate.

This land should be protected. Yet it could soon be auctioned to the highest bidder. A billionaire wanting a baronial mansion, or a conglomerate of real estate developers intent on subdividing this sublime, 640-acre piece of ground into 35-acre trophy home sites, could outbid the park. This would destroy the parcel’s natural integrity, threaten an important wildlife migration corridor, force out many of the other species that use this landscape and end public access.

How we got to this point began with noble intentions. After the Revolutionary War, America was cash-poor and land-rich. To generate revenue, the new nation began to sell land in its Western territories to settlers. These lands were mapped into a checkerboard grid, and one centrally located section — one square mile — in each surveyed township was reserved to support public schools, in keeping with the founding fathers’ belief that education was a precursor to liberty. Today, nearly two dozen states have 45 million acres of these state trust lands.

To benefit schoolchildren, states generate revenue from these lands through grazing, timber, mineral and energy leases. Some states have also sold their school sections, investing the proceeds in permanent funds for education. The amounts aren’t trivial. In Wyoming’s case, state trust lands generated $810.4 million for K-12 schools between 2017 and 2021.

The Kelly Parcel brings in slightly less than $2,900 a year to Wyoming. In 2010, the Wyoming Board of Land Commissioners, noting the parcel’s natural values, agreed to sell it to Grand Teton National Park for $46 million on or before 2015. The park was unable to come up with the money, and the parcel was subsequently appraised at $62.4 million, a result of skyrocketing real estate values in Jackson Hole that have been fueled by an influx of billionaires and other extremely wealthy people.

Drawn to Jackson Hole by its beauty, as well as Wyoming’s lack of an income tax, these new residents have made Teton County one of the wealthiest counties in the United States. Last year, the federal government’s Bureau of Economic Analysis estimated the county had a per capita income of $406,054. (The figure for the United States was $65,470.) Some of these wealthy individuals have a strong conservation ethic, and if there is a public auction for the Kelly Parcel, some might be persuaded to help buy it and donate it to the park.

However, the spectacular location of the property, with its uninterrupted views of the entire Teton Range, makes it a prime candidate for a developer who might be able to build up to 54 multimillion-dollar homes. That number of homes could create roughly 60 new jobs in the county, according to a study that looked at the impact of development on the town of Jackson and Teton County — plumbers, electricians, landscapers, housekeepers — increasing the already high demand for police officers, firefighters and medical personnel. Many of these newcomers would also need housing, inevitably adding to the sprawl that has eroded the wild lands of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

A study published in 2018 by two ecologists at Montana State University found that since 1970, the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem’s human population has doubled and housing density has tripled, with both projected to double by 2050. One of the authors, Andrew Hansen, told Smithsonian Magazine last year: “Rural homes more or less ring the public land on all sides of the park. And changes in these private lands surrounding the park really influences what happens in the park.”

The Wyoming Office of State Lands and Investment, whose job is to generate income from these trust lands for the public schools, recently recommended that the Kelly Parcel be sold to the highest bidder. This followed an enormous outcry of opposition across Wyoming, with virtually all of the more than 8,000 people who submitted public comments to the agency opposed to auctioning off the parcel. The agency has suggested setting the opening bid at $80 million.

“It’s our job to provide the best fiduciary responsibility for the state,” Jason Crowder, the deputy director of the state lands office, explained as his agency set the opening bid above the land’s appraised value. He added that it was now up to the Board of Land Commissioners to weigh public commentary and decide how to dispose of the parcel.

On Dec. 7, the board — made up of Wyoming’s governor, secretary of state, auditor, treasurer and superintendent of public instruction — will decide whether to auction off the Kelly Parcel. But there is also another approach. The governor and the Wyoming State Legislature should step in and authorize a deal with the National Park Service that will both support public schools and protect the parcel.

There is precedent for this. In 2016, another 640-acre parcel of state land within Grand Teton National Park was in danger of being auctioned off before the governor at the time, Matt Mead, stepped in, with support from the legislature. The Interior Department ended up purchasing the land for $46 million, with $23 million coming from the federal government and the other $23 million from philanthropic groups. A similar public-private partnership might be negotiated again and provide a model to assimilate other state trust lands in the West into the national parks where they lie.

This parcel may only be a square mile, adjacent to a national park 485 square miles in size. But it is a crucial choke point in the migratory journey of pronghorn and mule deer during their arduous annual migration, animals that are integral to what the wildlife biologist Arthur Middleton has called “the lifeblood of many Western landscapes.” As wild lands continue to fall to development — in Wyoming, in the rest of America and around the world — protecting this piece of ground is the right thing to do.

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