Monday, 16 August 2010

Disappointment Peak

It seems appropriate to name this post after one of the peaks in the Teton Range. Following my post just over a week ago, I e-mailed the Governor of Wyoming's press officer to attempt to get some straightforward responses:

I am a British lecturer and science blogger. My connection to the state of Wyoming is an emotional one - my husband and I spent most of our honeymoon there. In particular, we found Grand Teton National Park to be one of the most breathtakingly beautiful unspoilt wildernesses we have ever seen. It is an understated, underrated gem.

So I am distressed to read in the British newspaper The Guardian, and also via NPR that there are plans to sell off two packets of school trust land, potentially to developers. These two news sources have stated that the state of Wyoming is "financially beleaguered", and said that the funds generated from this sale would be used for the educational budget.

However, this appears to be a later version of a story I have seen on Stateline's website, where Governor Freudenthal is quoted as saying:
"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 are running with the idea that this proposed sale is a means of standing up to a federal government who have simply assumed that because the land all around these school trust lands is National Park, that the state-owned lands can be used as National Park for free.

I can see that, although this news is not overly public, the community of geoscience bloggers of which I am part is likely to pick up on this. Since there are some conflicting reports on the proposed sale, I hope you, one of your policy advisers, or even Governor Freudenthal himself, would be willing to answer some questions for me, with the intention that I put these up on my blog.
  1. Where exactly are these two packets of land? Do you have a map that I could use, or GPS or lat/long coordinates for me to plot a map myself?
  2. All three sources say the land could be sold for $125 million privately. Is this the figure you hope to obtain from the federal government?
  3. Which budgetary areas would receive this money? Is it to be earmarked for education, and if so, can you give me an idea of what the current educational budget is like, and whether there is any shortfall?
  4. Does the state own any other land within Grand Teton National Park, and if so, where are these areas?
  5. Are there any plans to sell this land in the future, if it is held?
  6. This is rather poorly timed to hit the news with the upcoming 60th Anniversary of Grand Teton National Park. Are there any state plans for the celebration of the National Park?
I would be very grateful for any information you can give on this rather worrying development.

Yours sincerely,
Julia Heathcote

I have not received any response. I imagine that, given that I am neither a journalist nor an American, the press office have decided not to dignify my letter with a reply. I don't know, maybe I was too polite? I'm pretty pissed off that the Governor's office hasn't even bothered to e-mail me to tell me that it's none of my business. I don't like being ignored.

I'm also a bit pissed off that I seem to be the only person pissed off!! And this is where it's a shitter being a teeny tiny blogger, because you can betcha that if this story got on Pharyngula that it would be a massive story. Maybe I have to wait for the land to be sold off and a massive CHURCH to be built on it before anyone else gets upset.

Am I being too precious about Grand Teton? Maybe. Do I have as much right to be precious about Grand Teton as the rest of the geoblogosphere has been about serpentinite? Probably. So why is it just me here? At the moment all that's in the public domain on this is a statement given at some point in the past couple of months by Gov. Freudenthal, where he has said something to the effect of planning to sell off the school trust lands.

But is this not the best time to query this, and if it is found to be true, to campaign against it? BEFORE it becomes a big unwieldy juggernaut of legislation? You know, before we need press releases and petitions, and letters to congressmen and representatives and POTUS himself? I've put up a poll to gauge reader interest (since no one has commented on the previous post on here). It's open for the next week, over on the sidebar.

Or should the crappy whiny English blogger go back to complaining about scientific literacy and forget about things that shouldn't concern her?


  1. I don't think you're wasting your effort in highlighting this. Perhaps part of the problem is that there are no Wyoming-native geobloggers, although surely many of us have visited Grand Tetons and loved it - as I have.

    I can see problems getting traction under either the 'we're fighting for our kids' education' or 'we're standing up to the feds!' angles. The thing we really need to find out is where this land is (surely something available under a FOI request).

  2. This sounds like the kind of game that I've seen played by private landowners in scenic places in the West. (Some own land within the boundaries of federal land; others own land with historic/scenic value, like 19th century mine buildings.) The landowner publicly threatens to sell the property (for large amounts of money), but offers to sell the property to the government instead of developing it. (In the case of some old mine buildings in the mountains near me, the landowner started bulldozing the scenic buildings when he didn't get the money he wanted.)

    It's sleezy. It's holding the land hostage - threatening permanent damage for money. And... well, knowing the state of Wyoming, it doesn't at all surprise me that a state is now doing the same thing to the federal government that private landowners do to states.

    As for the history of land ownership, and why the state owns parcels: a historian would know better than I do, but here's what I understand. In the 1800's, the US government wanted people to settle the West. The land was divided into parcels available for homesteading, but evenly spaced parcels were set aside as state property, officially to allow the state to pay for schools. In many parts of the West, the land wasn't suitable for agriculture (and definitely not for the humid-climate agriculture that's possible on small parcels of land), so many of those parcels ended up back in US government hands. Those government-owned lands mostly became National Forest and Bureau of Land Management land (still run by the Department of Agriculture, so you can see what was considered appropriate land use at the time). The National Park system came later. I'm guessing that the Grand Teton park started as National Forest (or maybe partly BLM) land. And every so many parcels, there's a state-owned piece of land.

    I don't know if the land would really be sold off or not, at least immediately - I don't know whether Jackson has bounced back from the real estate crash or not. (Resort areas close to me haven't.) On the other hand, there may be private landowners who would buy the parcels and then use them in a land swap later (where they trade private inholdings for Forest Service or BLM land that's easier to develop).

    In any case, I suspect that attention might help Wyoming more in this case. Wyoming wants public outcry, so the US government feels pressured to give them money for the land. It's a common enough tactic that I'm going to ignore them.

  3. I've heard, from the #CAserpentine thing, that paper letters ultimately have more effect (and are more likely to get a response) than emails.

    I think one of the problems with the current state of the Tetons affair is that the thing is in negotiations and nothing has really happened yet. And that Wyoming has threatened before with no results from the Feds. IMO, there should be a land exchange, hopefully one satisfactory to the state of Wyoming. It's possible that people in Congress or in the Interior Department should be contacted to urge them to get some money or land released for the state of Wyoming or not, depending on your opinion, in addition to the Governor of Wyoming. I guess Wyoming could be exceptionally gracious and donate land to the Feds, but that isn't how things usually work here in the west. In fact, although I thought I read somewhere that all private in-holdings of the park were bought by the Feds, it doesn't look like that's the case when comparing this park map to this land map.

    It was the Land Act of 1785 that reserved section 16 in each township for schools, originally so schools could be sited in that section, later so that states could use the land to get money for schools, especially in the west, where so much land belongs to the Federal Government. These are called school sections or state sections. Some townships also have an additional school section, section 36.

    The news reports I've seen must have been based on this July 15 press release by the Gov of WY. No new press release has been issued. I really think it's all still in process, hopefully progressing. I really think the state should be compensated or given other land, and I think the same thing for all private in-holdings.

    One of the reasons I felt comfortable getting as involved as I did in the #CAserpentine thing is that I own land there, and was a resident until quite recently. I also find it much easier, personally, to report about factual things, which is why I'm maintaining the blogger and news links. I've let others with closer ties to CA and more access to state representatives and news sources carry the rest of it.

    From the only map I've found so far, it appears that the state land in or near the park is a section or two, in blue, just below the "A" in the Jackson of Jackson Lake, south of the Snake River. It appears that there is a lot of private land in the area, also apparently within the park boundaries.

  4. Thanks to the three of you for your comments - I'm especially grateful for the added background from Kim and Silver Fox.

    I'm going to have a think about it all over the next week or two - you've given me a lot to think about (and some links to check out). In the meantime I imagine the gratuitous lizard pictures will continue.

  5. Julia, the NPCA (National Parks Conservation Association) now has a page to submit a letter to Ken Salazar, head of the Department of Interior: click on "Take Action." They think Congress and the DOI need to respond to Wyoming by coming up with a deal.

  6. As a native Coloradoan who's worked as a seasonal park ranger, I can tell you that this is a typical U.S. national parks phenomenon. Gettysburg National Park is frequently threatened by nearby developments. At Mesa Verde National Park, the Utes discovered that the park boundaries were wrong, so part of Ruins Road goes through the reservation. Consequently, they set up a miniature store on the pull-off that goes through Ute land. At Great Sand Dunes, when I worked there in the 1980s, we had a list of land parcel inholdings that we wanted. So far as I know, the park didn't get them all until it became a national park in 2000 (and maybe they still don't have them all). If you visit Rocky Mountain National Park, you'll see private residences within the park. The explanation is that deals have been struck that will cause those residences to become park property upon the owner's deaths. The money to purchase the inholdings has to be appropriated by Congress. In the current political climate, I cannot imagine this issue achieving a level of importance that would persuade anyone at the moment to put up the funds, but you never know. Maybe the NPCA, Nature Conservancy, or another group will find the funds to purchase the land and donate it to the park. This really does happen all the time.


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