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Wyoming Legislature’s two chambers OK ‘Kelly Parcel’ sale to feds for $100M

The budget bill stipulation authorizing a transaction between Wyoming and the National Park Service survived a midnight House run. The Senate followed suit the next day.

The lighted spire of the Wyoming Capitol building pierces the night sky late on the evening of February 21, 2024. (Mike Koshmrl/WyoFile)

CHEYENNE, Wyo. — Art Washut reminded his fellow representatives of the stakes of their historic vote: 

The fate of perhaps Wyoming’s single most valuable section of land was in their hands. The vote would decide whether to sell the parcel to the federal government for inclusion in Grand Teton National Park. 

And the hour was getting late.

It was nearing 11:20 p.m. on Wednesday. Some 16 hours into their day assessing dozens of bills and budget amendments, the 62 lawmakers of the Wyoming Legislature’s lower chamber were clearly getting a little loopy. Earlier in the late evening, a J.T. Larson accidental vote, although routine and easily fixable, provoked laughing legislators, prodding the young representative. 

Washut, a Republican from Casper, didn’t advocate for what should become of the prized 640 acres. 

“To be frank I don’t know what the right thing to do is with the Kelly Parcel, but I can tell you how this looks to the people of the state probably isn’t very great,” Washut said. “Middle of the night. Bunch of tired people who have been at it all day. And we’re going to be asked to make one of the most important decisions of this entire session.” 

That decision: whether to authorize Wyoming to sell the square mile of school trust property for no less than $100 million. If they voted to erase a provision (Section 324) from the House’s budget bill, it would kill the sale. The survival of the sale authorization was pivotal, especially following the death of a standalone bill earlier in the session that set the sale price at $750 million — an amount that’s a dozen times the Kelly Parcel’s appraised value and so high it was intended to stymy a sale, the Jackson Hole News&Guide reported.

Rep. John Bear (R-Gillette) argues for Wyoming to keep the 640 acres known as the Kelly Parcel during the Wyoming Legislature’s 2024 budget session. (Mike Koshmrl/WyoFile)

Rep. John Bear (R-Gillette), a leader of the chamber’s growing far-right Wyoming Freedom Caucus, brought the amendment to block the sale and spoke in favor of hanging onto the Kelly Parcel, which is likely to continue appreciating. 

“What’s it going to be worth?” Bear asked. “This thing is growing leaps and bounds, and it is a precious thing that we will not be able to generate again. It’s a one-time deal.” 

A roll call vote later, Bear’s amendment failed. The Kelly Parcel sale clause survived, 34-28. Some 17 hours later, the Wyoming Senate followed suit. Sen. Dan Laursen (R-Powell) made a run at erasing the parcel’s sale language from the Senate’s version of the budget bill, but after a lengthy and impassioned debate, his amendment failed.

After the votes in both chambers, lobbyists and advocates for the National Park Service celebrated their victories in the entranceway to the galleries on the third floor of the Wyoming Capitol.

Happy tears touched the cheeks of Jessi Johnson, a government affairs director for the Wyoming Wildlife Federation who advocated for the Kelly Parcel sale for over half a decade. 

“A lot of lobbying and a lot of time went into this,” Johnson told WyoFile. “There’s a long history of sportsmen asking for this to go to the park. To have [our advocacy] recognized on the floor, finally being heard, that was powerful.” 

Rep. Steve Harshman (R-Casper) has long advocated for the state of Wyoming to retain the 640-acre inholding in Grand Teton National Park known as the Kelly Parcel. On February 21, 2024, Harshman voted in favor of selling the property for $100 million. (Mike Koshmrl/WyoFile)

The votes weren’t assured. But even in the House, Rep. Steve Harshman (R-Casper), a longtime critic of the transaction who torpedoed a Kelly Parcel bill in 2021, voted to keep the authorization language in the budget bill. So did Rep. Tom Walters (Casper), who was the chief sponsor of the now-dead sale-killing bill from the current session.

Wyoming’s potential sale to the U.S. Department of the Interior emerged from the Legislature’s two chambers with new provisions that could complicate a transaction. 

late amendment brought by Rep. Bob Nicholas (R-Cheyenne) and Speaker of the House Albert Sommers (R-Pinedale) will require the federal government to lease the land for livestock grazing and allow public hunting for perpetuity. Neither activity is typically allowed on National Park Service land. Shouting “aye!” in a voice vote, the lawmakers of the chamber approved the idea with almost no opposition. 

In the Senate, a similar amendment that would guarantee hunting and grazing remain in place for perpetuity from Sen. Larry Hicks also survived, 18-13.  

Another adopted amendment brought by Nicholas and Rep. Clark Stith (R-Rock Springs) ties the Kelly Parcel transaction to the Bureau of Land Management’s draft Rock Springs Resource Management Plan, widely unpopular in Wyoming. The added language creates a new sale condition, prohibiting the federal agency from adopting the rights-of-way restrictions proposed in the “preferred alternative” of its draft environmental impact statement. In essence, Stith said, that’s a money-making trade for Wyoming. 

“There are estimates in the oil-and-gas sector [of] lost economic output … over $1 billion. That’s what this area has to lose,” he said of the Rock Springs plan. “What this amendment says, effectively, to the federal government is, ‘If you want us to play nice in the sandbox with respect to the Kelly Parcel, then you have to play nice in the sandbox with us in southwest Wyoming.’” 

The body went for it. 

Rep. Ryan Berger (R-Evanston) reviews maps of rights-of-ways in southwest Wyoming that the Wyoming Legislature may demand the federal government keep open as a condition of selling the so-called Kelly Parcel. (Mike Koshmrl/WyoFile)

The Kelly Parcel is the last remaining Wyoming-owned inholding within the borders of Grand Teton National Park. Under the Wyoming Constitution, land sales not put out to public auction must be approved by the Legislature, which is also constitutionally encouraged to maximize proceeds from trust lands — like the Kelly Parcel — in support of the state’s public schools. 

Back in 2010, the federal government agreed to buy four pieces of Wyoming land and mineral rights to expand holdings in Grand Teton National Park. The Wyoming Legislature authorized the direct sale, and three of those pieces  — including an 86-acre school trust parcel near the Snake River in 2012 and a 640-acre parcel in the Antelope Flats area in 2016 — were sold.

The Kelly Parcel is all that remains. Last year, the Office of State Lands and Investments entertained an auction (which doesn’t require legislative approval) but the idea fell flat — at least for now — after vociferous opposition from the public, which worried about private development. Auction opponents instead advocated for a direct sale to the Park Service, ensuring public access to the protected land continued forever. 

Sale advocates include the Grand Teton National Park Foundation, which sent out a press release last week declaring that “the time is now” to do the deal. Some $62.4 million in federal funds are available for the transaction, and the nonprofit park partner has pledged to fundraise to make up the difference. 

The last rays of sunshine cast down on a state school trust property known as the Kelly Parcel in October 2023. (Mike Koshmrl/WyoFile)

“This is a heavy lift for us, but we have agreed to put every resource we have into raising the nearly $38 million by year-end, which will be combined with federal funds to provide $100 million to the state,” Grand Teton National Park Foundation President Leslie Mattson said. “We recognize this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to serve the interests of Wyoming kids, Wyoming taxpayers, and Wyoming wildlife. We want to be on the right side of history.”

Some wrinkles remain before the $100 million Kelly Parcel sale authorization will be completely through the legislative process. The two chambers will need to reconcile differences, like the Rock Springs RMP-related clause adopted in the House. 

But for now, lobbyists and public land advocates who’ve long championed folding the 640 acres into Grand Teton National Park are taking a breath. 

“I don’t think any of us know what to do now, other than celebrate and say thank you,” Johnson said. 

This article was originally published by WyoFile and is republished here with permission. WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.