Selling Grand Teton National Park

Wyoming Governor Dave Freudenthal, a Democrat, is floating a rather noxious idea. He is threatening to sell off two square miles state-owned land within the 485 square mile majestic Grand Teton National Park to private developers so as pressure the Federal government into coming up "with a good deal for the land."

The Wyoming state constitution requires the Governor and other state officials to manage state lands, a legacy of the statehood charter, for maximum profit, and right now, the Teton tract generates just $3,000 a year from cattle grazing. The Governor believes he can extract $125 million by selling the state's lands within the Park to developers though he admits it's mostly a negotiating tactic.

The story in The Guardian:

Some might call it blackmail. The governor of Wyoming calls it desperation.

Governor Dave Freudenthal is threatening to sell off a chunk of one of America's most beautiful national parks unless the Obama administration comes up with more money to pay for education in the financially beleaguered state.

He says he will auction land valued at $125m (£80m) in the Grand Teton national park, one of the country's most stunning wildernesses. Part of the park was donated by John Rockefeller Jr.

Other parts belong to the state government including two parcels of land of about 550 hectares (1,360 acres) designated as school trust lands to be "managed for maximum profit" to generate funds for education in Wyoming.

At present Wyoming raises only about $3,000 a year from the land by leasing it to a cattle rancher. Officials have menacingly suggested that the property might make a nice site for a ski lodge.

Freudenthal recently wrote to the Interior Department asking the Federal government to trade the park land for mineral royalties. "If the federal government won't dance with us, we will go look for another partner," said Freudenthal. "The purpose is to force the federal government to come to the table."

Washington says it is negotiating, but Freudenthal says the issue has dragged on for a decade. "The way the federal government has treated us to date is that we are like the people who own the land, but they figure there isn't anything else they can do with it," he said.

Previous negotiations led Washington to offer 800,000 acres of federal land in a swap but state officials rejected it as "trash land" not worth nearly as much as their "prime, in-park real estate".

"I admit we aren't as bright as those boys on the Potomac," said Freudenthal. "But this ain't our first county fair."

I don't really follow Wyoming politics closely so I was surprised to learn that Wyoming has a Democrat as Governor and even more surprised to learn that he's quite popular (he owes his popularity to taking on the Federal government). My knowledge of Wyoming's politics is limited to knowing the names of the state's two Senators, Dr. John Barrasso and Mike Enzi, two rather non-entities in the Senate. Alan Simpson or Malcom Wallop, they are not, at least, not yet. Barrasso, I suppose, made some noise during the healthcare debate but I can't recall the last time I heard Mike Enzi's name mentioned in the national press.

Naturally the suggestion of selling off a sliver of Grand Teton National Park - if you haven't been, you really should - is going to catch my attention. But I was even more stunned that apart from The Guardian, which I read daily, the story received very little coverage in the national press. MSNBC, ABC News, USA Today and the Denver Post all ran stories, none more than a blurb, when this news first broke over the Fourth of July holiday weekend. That timing perhaps explains why the story didn't make garner more attention and thus scrutiny.

Of the main news organization that have given this story some coverage the better coverage is from National Public Radio which ran a story yesterday:

The land inside the park consists of two parcels of roughly a square-mile each. They're known as state school trust lands — they're supposed to generate funds for public schools, and are supposed to be "managed for maximum profit." The problem is that the land is worth over $100 million, but the state is currently only getting about $3,000 a year from grazing leases to a cattle rancher.

For more than a decade the state has tried to negotiate with the feds to trade the pristine park land for property of equal value, such as land that could be developed for coal. But Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal says the federal government has not come up with a fair deal. So he decided to send a message.

"If the federal government won't dance with us, we will go look for another partner," Freudenthal says. He is in the final months of his last term in office. He's a Democrat in one of the most conservative states in the country. Yet he's one of the most popular governors in state history. That comes from battles with the federal government over issues from energy to wolf management. Freudenthal says selling the land is not in the best interest of Grand Teton National Park, but he says it's time for the stalemate to end.

"The sole purpose is to force the federal government to come to the table and recognize that the state has other options," he says. "The way the federal government has treated us to date is that we are sort of like the people who own the land, but they figure there isn't anything else they can do with it, so we are going to use it for free inside the park."

Still the most complete report is from Stateline, a online publication of The Pew Center on the States which features news and features about politics and social policy. Stateline had an interview with Governor Freudenthal on July 12th which it published on July 16th.

Stateline: 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.

Stateline: What is the problem?

Governor Freudenthal: 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.

Stateline: Why is this an issue now?

Governor Freudenthal: 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.’

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

Governor Freudenthal: 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.

Stateline: What will it take to resolve this?

Governor Freudenthal: 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.

Reading the Stateline interview, it seems more like a shakedown than anything else.

Tags: Wyoming Politics, Governor Dave Freudenthal, State Budget Crises (all tags)

Comments

2 Comments

Count me in as sympathetic with the Wyoming gov

While I am not familar with the specific situation in Wyoming, we face similar budgetary issues in Oregon.  In short, having massive amounts of federal land means that the tax based suffers because we cannot collect property tax for all of this land which does not belong to the state.  Since much of this money is used for education, local services, libraries, police, and fire, if is difficult to fund these services.  These rural communities are really suffering and the landlord for most of the local land is the federal gov and they are no longer interested in paying taxes. 

Back in the day, these lands provided jobs and a tax base through the timber industry.  Now, that is mostly gone.

http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=7122963

Twenty years ago, it seemed as if every other vehicle on Oregon highways was a logging truck. Back then, a lot of trees came from vast expanses of federal land in this state. The land is public, so it can't be taxed. To make up for that, the government shared with counties the money it earned from timber sales. The arrangement worked well for decades, but environmental concerns have all but stopped logging in federal forests.

So, in 2000, Congress created a safety net. Payments based on past timber harvests in rural counties in 41 states would continue for six years. It was a $400 million-a-year federal subsidy. Oregon received the most — $150 million. The last checks were sent in December, and now the counties are facing huge budget holes.

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This is an issue that progressives should be fighting for local rural communities. They see the end of their way of life as the result of liberal's enviornmental policy.  Now, we need to fight that these communities can survive and the federal govt needs to pay their fair share into the local tax base.

by zmus 2010-08-08 11:59AM | 0 recs
RE: Count me in as sympathetic with the Wyoming gov

I hear what you are saying but the tactics, essentially a threat, seem deplorable. I understand the frustration that Western states have with the BLM but the Governor admits in the interview that Wyoming is "not short of revenue."

by Charles Lemos 2010-08-08 04:39PM | 0 recs

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