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Wyoming officials say yes to Teton land sale

by Mead Gruver
| December 12, 2010 8:00 PM

CHEYENNE, Wyo. - The state land board on Thursday approved selling 2 square miles of property within Grand Teton National Park to the federal government for $107 million in a deal that would be completed in four phases over three years.

The proposal next goes to the Wyoming Legislature for approval, although Gov. Dave Freudenthal doubted lawmakers would vote against the plan and undo months - and in a sense, years - of negotiations with the Interior Department.

"Negotiating is always slow, but I'm glad that we got it done," the governor said. "This is a reasonable deal."

The state Board of Land Commissioners, made up of the top five statewide elected officials, voted 4-0 for the plan. State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jim McBride was not present.

Less certain is whether Congress will allocate money for the acquisition. Talk about reducing the federal deficit has been plentiful lately, but there is time: The first transaction requiring an appropriation under the deal would occur in 2013.

Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., said through a spokeswoman he would work to see the sale through while keeping in mind the federal budget.

Wyoming has owned the land since statehood. The National Park Service has been gradually acquiring private land inside Grand Teton since the park was established in its current form in 1950. The process has left Wyoming holding the largest remaining pieces of land within the park that are not part of the park.

The state leases some of the land for cattle grazing, bringing in $1,625 a year, but Wyoming's constitution requires state land to be managed to generate maximum revenue for public schools. Selling the land for $107 million and investing it at a 1 percent return would bring in more than $1 million a year.

More than a decade of talks between Wyoming and the Interior Department on what to do with the state land got bogged down a couple years ago. Ideas discussed over the years have included a sale, a land-for-land trade, or trade for federal mineral interests.

In February, Wyoming threatened to begin auctioning off the land if the Interior Department officials didn't resume negotiations in earnest.

State Treasurer Joe Meyer said he would have supported an auction, had it come to that, but he acknowledged that the idea stirred up a lot of opposition.

"You might get some prince from Arabia who would pay $300 million," he said. "The problem is that it's politically sensitive."

He said he no longer wished to pursue an auction.

The plan looks much like a proposal Assistant Interior Secretary Tom Strickland outlined in a letter to Freudenthal in November.

"By entering into this agreement, Wyoming is ensuring the conservation of these lands as part of Grand Teton National Park while providing revenue to support state school systems," Strickland said in a news release. "This is an agreement in which everyone - the park, the state and the citizens of Wyoming - comes out ahead."

The land is scattered among four parcels. The first transaction would be a Jan. 5, 2012, sale of 40 acres of state mineral rights for $2,000, money the Interior Department already has available. The federal government, not Wyoming, owns the surface rights to that land under a "split estate" arrangement common in the West.

Wyoming would sell 86 acres along the Snake River for $16 million on Jan. 5, 2013.

After that, Wyoming would sell two parcels measuring 1 square mile each. One flat section of grass and sagebrush in the middle of the park would be sold for $45 million on Jan. 5, 2014.

The final section, on the east side of the park, would be sold for $46 million on Jan. 5, 2015. That section is considered the most valuable because there is a road through it.

"We did strategically say, 'Look, we're going to save the best parcels for the last,'" Freudenthal said. "Dessert is last in this agreement."

The agreement calls on the Interior Department to meet each deadline or the deal becomes void.

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