« Return to this article

for people who care about the West

Irony piles on irony in Wyoming


JACKSON, Wyo. - Backers of a proposed private-federal land swap want to prevent development of the last huge chunk of ranchland in Wyoming's Teton County. And they're counting on the highest officials in the federal Interior Department to keep their plan alive.

That's an ironic twist in a state where Clinton administration officials are regularly portrayed as remote bureaucrats.

The recently formed Spring Gulch Preserve board has proposed that four Jackson Hole ranching families - former Wyoming Gov. and U.S. Sen. Cliff Hansen, his daughter Mary Mead, and the Phil Lucas and Ron Lucas families - cede their combined 5,020 acres of ranchland north and west of Jackson to the federal government. In return, the families would receive an equally valued combination of lands and mineral rights in southwestern Wyoming.

Interior Department officials are working on the details of the plan, but local support for the swap has faded; it is increasingly branded an elitist Jackson Hole deal.

The elder Hansens and Lucases complain that their land will be assessed at market value upon their deaths, and that federal inheritance taxes will force their heirs to sell to developers. The families currently pay just over $2 per acre in annual property taxes on the lands, which are assessed for their agricultural productivity rather than their market value.

Under one scenario, the ranching lands would form a federal Bureau of Land Management "preserve." Public recreational access would be guaranteed on much of the scenic northern reaches that adjoin Grand Teton National Park. The continued ranching livelihood of the four families would be assured by granting them BLM grazing privileges on the southern portions. The families would retain their homes and ranch buildings.

The initial proposal foresaw that the ranching families would receive BLM land holdings, both surface rights and mineral royalty shares, with a combined total value of $40 million to $100 million - the estimated value on the private real estate market of the ranchlands.

But the cost of evaluating the natural and archaeological resources of any surface acreage, combined with widespread, angry reaction to giving the families hundreds of thousands of acres in southwest Wyoming, has made a smaller exchange, but one involving mineral rights, the most palatable option.

Antagonism mounts

Critics say Spring Gulch board members are trying to shore up their property values in Teton County. One board member, Tom Chrystie, former Merrill Lynch Inc. investment banking director, stands to benefit handsomely if the land swap succeeds. His toney Spring Creek Resort sits atop a knoll overlooking the proposed Spring Gulch Preserve. His resort would be worth less if it looked down on tract housing.

The Spring Gulch board - a roster of the rich and famous full-time and part-time residents of Jackson Hole, including former secretary of Defense and Wyoming Congressman Dick Cheney - threw their early efforts into wooing Wyoming's all-Republican, ultra-conservative congressional delegation and Republican Gov. Jim Geringer.

But the delegation's initial support has waned. Letters to newspapers statewide and feedback received in Wyoming's congressional offices indicate growing antagonism toward the plan.

"Like so many today, these ... ranch families expect someone else to solve their zoning, land development and tax problems," wrote Bernard Berger of Lander to state newspapers.

Spring Gulch efforts to meet with local officials in Sweetwater and Sublette counties, both of which are being considered for the proposed land swap, have produced little but scorn for the idea.

Sublette County residents told former Gov. Mike Sullivan, a two-term Democrat who left office in January and who is now providing legal counsel to the Spring Gulch board, that they would just as soon see 1,100 new homes sprout up in Spring Gulch as in their county. That's the number of new houses that would be allowed in conformance with the Teton County land-use plan.

The backlash has sent Spring Gulch board members scrambling for resolutions of support from traditional conservative institutions - the Wyoming State Legislature, the Wyoming Stock Growers Association, the Wyoming Farm Bureau and the statewide county commissioners' association.

Historic ironies

Hansen, 83, and Lucas are now at the table with the Spring Gulch Preserve board, helping to push the land swap through.

That's a big turnaround for the two men. In 1943 they took up arms with other militant ranchers to protest the formation of the 220,000-acre federal Jackson Hole Monument - the back-door way by which the federal government expanded Teton National Park.

The Spring Gulch proposal is not the first time that federal help has been sought to make it financially attractive for the Hansens and Lucases to agree to protect their land from development. A federal bill introduced by former Wyoming U.S. Sen. Malcolm Wallop in 1977 would have provided up to $200 million in federal funds to purchase scenic easements on ranchlands in the Jackson Hole area.

Efforts over the years by land trusts to persuade the Hansens and Lucases to donate easements have gone nowhere. The families say they are cash-poor and land-wealthy, and that enormous income tax write-offs available under an easement scenario mean little without offsetting income.

Hopes pinned on Interior

Marshall Gingery, former Grand Teton National Park superintendent and a Spring Gulch board member, recently accompanied other board members to a high-level meeting in Washington. He reported afterwards that Robert Armstrong, assistant secretary of the Interior, and top BLM officials asked detailed questions about the proposed swap and promised to give it serious attention.

The federal officials will review possible trades, and consider whether the proposed swap is in the national interest.

By the end of the summer, "they'll tell us it's a go or ask us what part of "no" don't we understand," Gingery told board members at a recent meeting.

Gingery also said that BLM officials within Wyoming are now looking at a number of possible land holdings that could be exchanged for the ranchland.

The writer reports for the Casper Star-Tribune out of Rock Springs, Wyoming.