Wyoming Governor Explains Threat to Sell Grand Teton Land

By: - July 16, 2010 12:00 am

Photo courtesy of Wyoming Governor’s office

Wyoming Governor Dave Freudenthal wants the U.S. Interior Department to agree to exchange state-owned land inside the famous national park for federal land elsewhere in the state to help finance public education.

Millions of acres in the western U.S. are owned by states, which in turn lease them to cattle ranchers to generate revenue for schools. These “school sections,” as the federal Bureau of Land Management calls them, were set aside by acts of Congress to encourage K-12 and college education.

Wyoming Governor Dave Freudenthal recently said while touring Grand Teton National Park that he would like to sell two square miles of school sections within the mountain park to private developers, which could fetch an estimated $125 million for education compared to the paltry ,000-a-year the state earns now on the land from ranchers who lease it. (See Stateline ‘s series on developing state lands, Part 1 and Part 2 .)

The idea of selling off part of one of America’s most revered  national parks drew immediate attention from federal officials and conservation groups, which was the whole point. Freudenthal, a popular Democrat in his last year in office, wants to nudge federal officials to make a deal with Wyoming to swap the Grand Teton parcels for cash or federal land of equal value elsewhere in the state. Officials are appraising the property this month; it was valued at about $100 million in 2004.

The governor answered questions about the plan from Stateline staff writer Stephen C. Fehr while attending the annual summer meeting of the National Governors Association July 9 in Boston:

Could you talk a little about the land in question here?

Could you talk a little about the land in question here?

At the time of statehood (1890) all of the western states got ownership of certain lands to support the schools. Some of our lands ended up being inside the area that was eventually designated part of Grand Teton National Park.

What is the problem?

The federal government has gone out of its way to purchase all of the private in-holdings to add to the park and to keep people from developing it. They’ve never done anything with regard to the state’s holdings on the assumption that they’re getting to use it for free so why should we pay the state for it. We’re supposed to use those lands to support public education.

Why is this an issue now?
This issue has been around forever. (Former) U.S. Senator Craig Thomas tried (in 2003) tried to get authorizing legislation in Congress to allow a purchase and an exchange of land. In those days the Department of Interior ended up with a list of what they called excess land they wanted to give us, which was lands they didn’t want. And we said, ‘No, not really. That land is not really value-for-value.’

Outside Wyoming, it looked like a governor needing revenue so bad he was willing to sell part of a national park.

No, no. We’re not short of revenue. We’re in pretty good shape. Our revenues are ahead of projections. We’re sitting on about $800 million in cash reserves and we expect the next projections to show revenue probably $200 million to $300 million over projections. So this thing about the Grand Teton is not driven by that.

What will it take to resolve this?

There was a meeting in Cheyenne yesterday (July 8) talking about what some of the options might be for a way to do an exchange. This is something the Bureau of Land Management and the National Park Service want to do. What’s not getting attention is this will probably take congressional authorization. So we’ve got to get the (Obama) administration and Congress to move.  I’m not holding my breath. But this is an issue that remains important. It’s beautiful country. It ought to be in the park. The federal government ought to pay us for it.

 [Editor’s note: Some of the questions and answers were edited for space and clarity.]

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Stephen Fehr

Stephen Fehr is a senior officer with Pew’s government performance portfolio. He is a lead writer on many of the products generated by the portfolio, specializing in state and local fiscal health.