A chunk of Grand Teton Park could go up for auction. Price tag: $62M
UPDATE: This story was updated at 8:25 p.m. on Oct. 2 to include remarks from Rep. Steve Harshman (R-Casper). —Ed.
The state of Wyoming has taken a key step toward unloading its last remaining 640 acres locked within the borders of Grand Teton National Park. The land, in the heart of Jackson Hole, could be sold at auction.
Progress toward the sale of the so-called Kelly Parcel came late Monday, when the Wyoming Office of State Lands and Investments announced it was initiating a land disposal in conjunction with releasing a detailed analysis of the square-mile property.
“This is one of the very first steps in the process, and there certainly is a long way to go,” Wyoming Office of State Lands Deputy Director Jason Crowder told WyoFile. “It definitely has consideration by the [State Board of Land Commissioners] still in front of it.”
The Kelly Parcel is located along the eastern edge of Grand Teton Park, though it also shares boundaries with the Bridger-Teton National Forest and National Elk Refuge.
The State Board of Land Commissioners — the governor, secretary of state, treasurer, superintendent of public instruction and the auditor — are scheduled to review the issue at its Dec. 7 meeting. If the board approves of the proposed sale, it’ll direct the Office of State Lands to proceed with putting the pricy acreage surrounded by federal land to auction.
“Any sale of state lands, by constitution, has to be sold at public auction,” Crowder said, “unless we do an exchange or unless the Legislature gives the board authorization to do a direct sale.”
The Wyoming Legislature has enabled direct sale of state land to the U.S. Interior Department — the National Park Service’s government parent — twice in the past. In 2016, a $46 million sale was completed for 640 acres in the Antelope Flats. In 2012, the state sold off an 86-acre tract near the Snake River.
Negotiations between the Interior Department and Wyoming about state-owned land in Grand Teton began in 1949, the year before the park was enlarged.
All that remains is the Kelly Parcel.
The 640 acres has an estimated value of $62.4 million, according to the OSLI analysis. Past appraisals, in 2010 and 2016, put the value at $45 million, then $39 million. The tract is bisected by Gros Ventre Road, but its development potential is inhibited by a scenic easement lining the road.
There are no statutes currently on the books enabling a direct sale of the Kelly Parcel to the Interior Department, Crowder said.
But lawmakers have attempted to facilitate the sale in the past. As recently as 2021, former Rep. Andy Schwartz (D-Jackson) ran a bill that would have authorized a direct sale, though it fell apart after Rep. Steve Harshman (R-Casper) successfully passed an amendment that set the floor price at $3.2 billion — around 82 times the appraised value at the time.
The Wyoming Legislature has also unsuccessfully tried to wring more money out of the parcel. In 2019, a bill died that would have allowed for economic development on the tract — even a casino.
Securing permission for a direct sale could be difficult during the Legislature’s upcoming budget session, at least judging by one lawmaker’s reaction.
“Why would Gov. Gordon bargain sale for our most priceless 640 acres of state School Trust lands to the Biden Administration?” Harshman, a former two-time House speaker, told WyoFile in a text. “Wyoming people will be shocked.”
It’s unclear if Grand Teton National Park and its nonprofit partners have secured $62 million in the instance that the Legislature approves a direct sale to the Interior Department.
WyoFile was unable to reach Teton Park officials before this story was published.
Any major development, either an auction or direct sale, will not occur until 2024 at the earliest, Crowder said.
“We’re required to advertise it for four consecutive weeks before we go to a public auction, if [the board] approves us to move in that direction,” he said.
West Maui May Reopen To Tourism On Oct. 8 As Economic Slowdown Predicted
The Hawaii governor also plans to distribute $1,200 to each adult affected by the Lahaina blaze.
Economic Shocks From Wildfires Reverberate Across Maui
Local businesses struggle to cope as visitor spending drops $15 million per day, economists say.
Even in Libby, Montana’s housing crisis having an impact
Is Montana’s pandemic tourism boom over?
After three years of congested trailheads, crowded restaurants and packed hotels, Montana tourism officials say this summer might be a little calmer as the state’s pandemic-fueled travel boom starts to level out into something closer to normal.
While the state remains a popular tourist destination — especially places like Glacier and Yellowstone national parks — advance hotel reservations are slightly down this year in destinations like the Flathead Valley. Officials attribute that to a number of factors, including rising costs and the end of the COVID-19 emergency, which means people have more travel options than they did just a few summers ago.
“I think it’s because the rest of the world is opening up,” said Julie Mullins, executive director of Explore Whitefish. “The pandemic made people want to be outside, and so places like Whitefish and Glacier National Park saw a huge increase in visitation because of that. But now people feel more comfortable going to cities, and they can travel internationally again.”
Mullins said that in the summer of 2019, Whitefish’s hotel occupancy rate (calculated by dividing the total number of occupied rooms by the total number of rooms available) ranged between 75% and 85%. In 2021, the occupancy rate in June, July and August ranged from 80% to 85%. In 2022, it dropped slightly to pre-pandemic levels of 70% to 80%. Mullins said that trend will likely continue this year.
Short-term rental reservations, like Airbnb and Vrbo, are also down slightly, Mullins said. Since the pandemic, the number of homes available for short-term rentals in the 59937 zip code (Whitefish and the immediate surrounding area) has skyrocketed, from 2,100 in 2019 to 3,300 in 2022.
“It’s still going to be a great summer, but I think it will be flat,” she said.
Daryl Schliem, CEO of the Bozeman Area Chamber of Commerce, said a similar story is developing in Gallatin County. As in the Flathead, Bozeman area hotel occupancy rates spiked in 2021 and 2022 when outdoor recreation remained a major draw for tourism and Montana was high on people’s list of destinations.
Data from Bozeman’s airport reflected that as well. Right before the pandemic, Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport saw nearly 800,000 passengers annually. That dropped to below 500,000 once the pandemic hit, but quickly rebounded in 2021 and 2022, hitting well over 1 million boardings. This year, the growth is expected to continue but not at the same rate, with an estimated 1.2 million enplanements for 2023, according to data from the airport.
Schliem said he expects tourism to continue to grow in the state by 4% or 5% annually. That’s not the type of growth that was seen over the last few years, but is on par with what the state experienced before 2020.
In 2022, 12.5 million nonresidents came to the state, spending more than $5.8 billion, according to the University of Montana’s Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research. Tourism supports 43,900 jobs in the state, and 1 in 13 Montana workers are supported by out-of-state travelers.
The national parks were a big driver of visitation in recent years, with Glacier hitting more than 3 million visitors in 2021 and 2.9 million in 2022. Yellowstone hit 4.8 million in 2021 and 3.2 million in 2022 (despite parts of the park being closed due to flooding).
While American travelers begin to look elsewhere for their vacations, Schliem said he thinks the number of international travelers to Montana will start to increase as travel restrictions are eliminated.
“I don’t think we’ll see a full recovery of international travel this year, but I think it will make up for the Americans who are going elsewhere,” he said.
One part of the state that isn’t expecting a ton of change is Missoula. Barbara Neilan, executive director of Destination Missoula Convention & Visitors Bureau, said the Garden City didn’t see the same spike that places like Bozeman and the Flathead saw over the last few years. Neilan said that’s probably because Missoula isn’t as well tied to iconic outdoor recreation destinations such as Glacier and Yellowstone. In 2018 and 2019, Missoula’s annual average hotel occupancy was at 64%. But in 2022, it was at 61%. During the summer months, that occupancy rate can be between 84% and 88% and Neilan expects similar numbers this year.
In-depth, independent reporting on the stories impacting your community from reporters who call it home.
Public lands or private profit? West Virginia RV campground debate raises questions over role of state parks
On warm spring days, the forests of Cacapon Resort State Park sprout bushy, lime-green leaves as people walk along wooded trails, fish in the lake, birdwatch or share a meal at a picnic table.
For nearly a century, the park’s old forests, sweeping views and peaceful waters have attracted visitors, many seeking a nature-filled respite from the Baltimore-Washington D.C. rat race. But the park holds a particularly special place in the hearts of local residents who often gather there with friends and family.
“When I bring my grandkids over here, it’s the happiest time I can imagine,” said Craig Thibaudeau, who lives nearby. He recalls fond memories of playing with his grandchildren on the swing sets or beaches and fishing with his brother from Texas.
So when state officials announced plans to build a private RV campground in the park and one of the proposals included several hundred campsites, he was concerned.
“You lose the humanity of this park if you go corporate,” Thibaudeau said. “And that’s the bottom line. It’s the humanity that makes it so special.”
In public protests, he and dozens of others argued the environmental and social consequences of the development would be devastating.
The outcry eventually led the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources to abandon the current campground effort entirely, and the agency is now seeking public input on what facilities it should add to the park.
The fierce debate over the RV campground at Cacapon was the first test of a law passed last year allowing private development of facilities in almost all state parks. While the project is on hold, the law remains on the books and state officials could explore development at Cacapon or another park in the future, setting up another struggle over the role of private companies on public land.
Why a request for campground proposals sparked intense backlash
The dustup over development in Cacapon Resort State Park started in December, when the WVDNR put out a request for proposals from private companies interested in developing both campgrounds and recreational facilities at the park.
“The WVDNR welcomes community engagement for this development project and will work with local stakeholders to maintain Cacapon’s natural environment as currently enjoyed,” Commerce Secretary James Bailey said in a March statement releasing the three proposals received from different companies, all for a combination of RV campgrounds and other amenities.
One plan, by a Harpers Ferry-based company, would create 50 RV campsites and also provide a shuttle service. A second proposal by a Berkeley Springs-based company sought to partner with the park on the development of an RV campground on nearby private land.
The third plan by Blue Water Development in Maryland, contained a number of options, including the creation of as many as 350 RV campsites, a floating dock called an aquabana, mini-golf, and in one proposal, a “snowflex” that would involve using artificial snow to support year-round skiing and snowboarding.
Community members quickly rallied against this plan, launching local protests, community meetings, and an online petition to withdraw the request for proposals that received more than 1,000 signatures.
They argued that hundreds of campsites and the recreational facilities would create a disruptive amusement park-like atmosphere and advocacy groups raised concerns that some of the new amenities would affect the affordability of the park.
“Cacapon is a very unique, very mountainous area,” said Mike Jones, the public lands campaign coordinator for the West Virginia Rivers Coalition. “Putting in these kinds of mega-projects is just incompatible with that.”
In a letter to state officials, the Morgan County Commissioners said that a large RV campground would strain already struggling sewer and road infrastructure and “diminish many of the reasons that folks visit our park to begin with: the natural beauty, the historical significance, and the peaceful tranquility.”
State parks officials canceled a public hearing set for mid-April after a lawsuit brought by a citizen argued that they did not notify the public as required by law. Several days later, they announced that they would not be moving forward with any of the three proposals and would seek further public input.
Critics note a new state law allows for private development in parks
While plans for an RV campground at Cacapon have been put on hold for the time being, advocates pointed to the proposals as confirmation of their concerns around HB 4408, a bill passed in 2022 that allows for private companies to develop projects and facilities in all state parks, except for Watoga State Park, the state’s largest.
“Our state parks, up until this administration, never seemed focused on being profit-making centers, at least not for private businesses,” said Angie Rosser, executive director of the West Virginia Rivers Coalition.
In an email, House of Delegates spokeswoman Ann Ali noted that the 2022 legislation was requested by the WVDNR. Del. Mark Dean, a Republican from Mingo County and the lead sponsor of the legislation, said in a statement that he supported the bill because he “thought it could provide a new opportunity for outdoor recreation to expand throughout the state, especially those activities with high start-up costs.”
Local residents and delegates however, have criticized the measure in recent weeks.
“I tried to talk it down. I changed about five or six votes,” Del. George Miller, R-Morgan, told a local online news outlet of his decision to oppose HB 4408 last year after initially backing it. “But it would have passed anyway. We have to deal with it now.”
Residents say environmental concerns are paramount
During recent protests against the proposed development, some residents held signs with sharp slogans, like “CCC does not mean Corporate Cash Cow” – a reference to the Civilian Conservation Corps. The New Deal-era employment program created millions of conservation jobs for young men and hundreds of state parks – including Cacapon.
The park’s roots in a movement intended to preserve public lands made recently proposed development all the more concerning to those living nearby. In addition to aesthetic worries about hundreds of new RV campsites, residents also had environmental concerns.
Development would’ve likely included cutting down trees on several acres of land, paving over soil with concrete and draining a wetland to create a beach. All of these measures can increase the likelihood of flooding, already a major concern for West Virginia due to its many mountains, valleys and river systems.
Five years ago, park visitors and nearby residents alike were evacuated when the Cacapon River rose more than seven feet above the flood stage.
“They evacuated my street. And it wasn’t voluntary. They stayed there until you left,” said Morgan County resident Dale Kirchner, who filed the lawsuit over the public hearing and lives very close to the park. “So now if you have acres more of runoff – not only for the campground, but the amenity areas – how much worse is that going to be? Do we really want to take a chance with global warming and the storms getting worse?”
Kirchner and others also expressed concerns about safety. If the park could suddenly host an additional thousand visitors, they worried there’d be more campfires and people partying. They worried that could lead to more injuries and forest fires. Just last week, multiple forest fires burned across more than 1,500 acres in nearby Pendleton County, eventually setting ablaze beloved environmental landmark Seneca Rocks.
Such a fire in Cacapon could endanger priceless resources. The park is home to two endangered species, the wood turtle and the harperella, a plant with white flowers that typically grows along shallow streams. It’s also home to old-growth forests, often described as irreplaceable because of their unique ability to provide a haven for biodiversity, reduce flood risk and mitigate the effects of climate change — in a way younger forests can’t mimic.
As state moves forward, local residents say their voices must be heard
After scuttling the current proposals for an RV campground, the state must now go back to the drawing board. The Division of Natural Resources has released an online survey about future development that will be open until late May.
Beyond that, it is unclear what will happen next — neither the WVDNR nor State Parks responded to questions about the now-scrapped proposals or future plans at the park.
But for Morgan County residents, the defeat of the RV campground bids presents a clear victory for local efforts to ensure community input in the park development process. And for critics of privatization efforts, the recent controversy likely provides ammunition for future debates over development in other parks.
Now with the new law on the books, almost all state parks, including Cacapon, could be chosen for private development, raising the question again of whether public lands should be altered for the sake of economic growth.