JACKSON — “Pure gold” is how Natrona County Rep. Steve Harshman described state lands in Teton County while explaining a proposal that doomed a potential sale of 640 acres near Kelly to the National Park Service.
A Harshman amendment to House Bill 164, which authorized that sale, would have set the floor price for the square-mile Grand Teton National Park inholding at $3.2 billion, which is about 82 times the most recent assessed value of $39 million.
“Our coal revenues have been taken away, and we’ve got to replace it,” Harshman, R-Casper, said on the floor of the Wyoming House on Monday morning.
The previous basement price imposed by a bill the Wyoming Legislature was considering — $500,000 an acre — would be a “giveaway,” he said.
Fellow legislators liked the Harshman amendment, agreeing to a minimum value of $5 million an acre for the chunk of Wyoming school trust property split by the Gros Ventre Road. But moments later, HB164 died in a 24-to-36 vote, killing any chance for the state of Wyoming and National Park Service to strike a deal over the last remaining inholding in Grand Teton National Park this calendar year.
Advocates of the land sale said it was the “perfect time” for the federal government to complete the long-delayed transaction, because a funding mechanism, the Land and Water Conservation Fund, now has $900 million available as a result of the Great American Outdoors Act.
Rep. Andy Schwartz, D-Jackson, the bill’s primary sponsor, tried to talk his counterparts out of the amendment.
Before the legislation cleared the House Appropriations Committee, Schwartz voted against a prior amendment that imposed the $500,000-per-acre floor price, meaning the sale would have been for no less than $320 million. While that price point — still over eight times the last appraised value — was “slightly unreasonable,” he said it was a legitimate place to start a negotiation. But $3.2 billion was “unreasonable.”
“That’s merely a statement of, the state of Wyoming is putting an unreasonable value on a property and we’re not interested in having a conversation,” Schwartz said.
“There’s this notion that the value of property in Teton County is infinite,” he said, “and I would fundamentally disagree with that.”
Rep. Bob Nicholas, a Cheyenne Republican, said Harshman’s amendment was “off-the-charts unreasonable.”
Mike Yin, D-Jackson, hinted at the lunacy of the asking price by pointing out how Occidental Petroleum recently sold 1 million southwestern Wyoming surface acres and 4.5 million mineral acres for $1.3 billion.
“Is the Kelly parcel in Grand Teton National Park worth three times as much as Southwest Wyoming?” Yin asked.
But other state representatives saw merit in the steep demands to the federal government, or they favored sitting on the fallow land and watching it appreciate. The square-shaped section of land is bordered on the east side by the Bridger-Teton National Forest and borders the national park on the other three sides. A scenic easement along the road corridor limits development potential and cuts into its value.
“I appreciate the good bringer of the bill’s intent, but you know the old adage, they ain’t growing any more land,” Rep. Jamie Flitner, R-Greybull, said.
School trust lands were deeded to Wyoming at statehood, and are supposed to be managed in a way that maximizes revenue for public education. A $320 million price tag for the land would have generated about $16 million a year in dividends and capital gains, Harshman said.
The bill’s demise was an unfortunate “revenue bill casualty,” as two Wyoming Outdoor Council staffers put it in a newsletter.
“This would have been a win-win solution with great conservation value, potentially bringing hundreds of millions of dollars to the state,” Kristen Gunther and Steff Kessler wrote. “However, arguments on the floor of the House over whether we could hold out for more funding versus take advantage of expanded federal conservation funds tangled up the bill in unrealistic amendments requiring $3.2 billion from the federal government, and it ultimately failed.”