(See below for an update of this story — Ed)
Senators are expected today to debate about an existing 130-acre scenic easement on state land in Grand Teton National Park that has complicated a popular effort to preserve the sensitive property.
Senators are to consider SF-88 today, allowing the state to sell 1,280 acres of school trust land in the park to the federal government. But a scenic easement — one that Wyoming gave away in 1965 — might affect the state’s revenue from the sale. Legislators’ scrutiny, and amendments to the bill, could focus on the easement on what’s known as the 640-acre Kelly parcel.
The Senate had been scheduled to pass an amended SF-88 on third reading Monday, but president Phil Nicholas (R-Laramie) set it back for consideration to today. “We are clearing up the issues of easements on the Kelly parcel,” Nicholas said in an email.
Wyoming would sell the Kelly parcel, and another school-trust section to the federal government for at least $92 million under the pending legislation. The lands were appraised for $91 million in 2009.
A more recent appraisal, however, values one 640-acre parcel at Antelope Flats at $46 million and the second, near the town of Kelly, at $39 million. Jeremy Barnum, a Park Service spokesman in Washington, D.C., provided those figures Monday. That puts the latest appraisal $7 million below the state’s minimum.
At issue is how the two environmentally sensitive school-trust parcels in the park could be preserved while maximizing financial returns to the state’s education funds. The property could be subdivided and developed into as many as 35 home sites, Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell has said, if Wyoming sold the land to private interests.
SF-88 emerged after plans in 2015 to exchange the state school sections for federal land elsewhere in Wyoming grew too complex. That led conservationists and the federal government to pursue an outright purchase. Boosted by a $22.5 million item in President Obama’s proposed Land and Water Conservation Fund budget, the purchase would have to include private funds.
However, Wyoming encumbered the property by giving Grand Teton National Park and the Department of the Interior a scenic easement in 1965. The easement is part of a document that also establishes the Gros Ventre Road. That road crosses the state land in Grand Teton to reach Forest Service and private property in the Gros Ventre River drainage east of the park.
If the scenic easement prevents development, it could cloud valuation and appraisal of the 640-acre Kelly state school-trust section. Proceeds from the state’s sale of the land go, by law, to Wyoming education and the state is required by statute to get as much as it can from the property.
Gov. Hansen signed scenic easement in 1965
Gov. Cliff Hansen, as president of the Wyoming Board of Land Commissioners, signed the document giving the road and scenic easements. County land records say no money changed hands.
The road easement grants a 200-foot-wide strip across the mile-by-mile Kelly section. It covers 26.12 acres, according to records.
The “scenic right of way,” also granted to Grand Teton National Park and the Department of the Interior, extends 500 feet farther than each side of the 200-foot wide road. It covers another 130.62 acres. Together, the road and scenic easements cover 156.74 acres, records say.
The “grant of easement” is “for continuous use,” associated with the road, the document says. The scenic easement contains conditions, however. One prohibits the easement from curtailing coal, oil or gas development. Another protects grazing and agriculture uses.
Another condition says the scenic easement “shall not be used to the detriment or injury of the grazing or agricultural lessees or purchasers of said land from the State of Wyoming.”
Senators have passed one amendment to the original SF-88 bill that addresses the scenic easement. Its impact was not immediately clear.
“The board [of land commissioners] shall sell both parcels in a single transaction unless the board determines that titles to both parcels are free from any and all easements or other encumbrances held by the United States department of the interior and that all necessary releases of any previously existing easement or encumbrance have been properly recorded,” the amendment reads.
The successful amendment also ties the sale to the effects of the Obama administration’s January coal lease moratorium.
As the bill now stands, Wyoming’s Board of Land Commissioners would have to account for the loss of coal-lease bonus payments resulting from the moratorium. That accounting would occur before the state would sell the land to the federal government.
The board, “shall include in its consideration … the impact of any federal moratorium on coal lease bonus payments which otherwise would be distributed … to the school capital construction account,” the legislation says. Coal operators make the bonus payment to the federal Bureau of Land Management when that agency sells a coal lease under competitive bid. Rental and production payments follow.
All federal impacts to schools under review
The successful amendment also would require the Wyoming Board of Land Commissioners, which oversees school trust land, to consider the financial impact of other federal decisions before it sells the sections in Grand Teton to the government.
Commissioners must consider “any pending environmental impact statement affecting the value of the [Grand Teton] parcels or any other state school trust lands,” the amendment reads.
Senators also agreed to reduce an earnest-money fee the legislation had contained. They cut it from $10 million to $500,000. The federal government must pay the half a million dollars if it can’t buy the property outright by the end of this year and wants to try to complete the deal within another two years after that.
Senators also have rejected an amendment proposed by Sen. Larry Hicks (R-Baggs) that would have put the land on the market in 2019 if the federal government hasn’t yet bought it. State land commissioners “may accept sealed bids from private parties … with conditions to be specified by the legislature,” the failed amendment said.
Update Feb. 23 2:30 p.m.
The Senate amended the “State lands within Grand Teton National Park” bill Tuesday in an effort to maximize returns to state education funds.
Wyoming wants to sell the two 640 acre school trust sections in the park to the federal government for a minimum of $92 million. The senators’ amendment Tuesday would set conditions for the sale should the parcels be purchased one at a time. It passed unanimously.
A two-step sale might be a logical outcome of the years’-long effort to conserve the property; the Obama administration has proposed $22.5 million that would pay for half of one parcel and private fundraising is expected to make up the rest.
Wyoming is wary of a dividing the deal. “We want to sell both parcels in one transaction,” Sen. Eli Bebout, sponsor of the bill, told senators Tuesday. That outcome is uncertain, however.
Should the government move to buy the 640-acre Antelope Flats parcel first, the amendment seeks to maximize the value of the second parcel and maintain access across it. The amendment would require the federal government to extinguish a scenic easement on the second parcel — 640 acres near Kelly. It also would make the Department of the Interior turn over a road right-of-way there. Each of the conditions would have to be met before the first, Antelope Flats, parcel is sold.
Wyoming gave a 130-acre scenic easement to Grand Teton and the Department of the Interior in 1965. The most recent appraisal of the Kelly parcel put its value at $39 million and the Antelope Flats parcel at $46 million.
The scenic easement that the Wyoming Board of Land Commissioners gave to the federal government in 1965 is now under scrutiny. It extends 500 feet beyond each side of the 200-foot wide Gros Ventre Road easement.
“We think that is what has taken down the value of the Kelly parcel,” Bebout said of the scenic easement.
Under the amendment, “they [feds] will release that easement,” Bebout said. “That will enhance the value.”
Wyoming is bound by the state Constitution to maximize its return from school trust land. “We have a fiduciary responsibility,” Bebout said.
The amendment also would require the federal government to turn over another easement that allows the Gros Ventre Road to traverse the property. That easement would be transferred to the state of Wyoming, also before the Antelope Flats parcel is sold.
The road provides access to the Gros Ventre River drainage and thousands of acres of National Forest and some private property. Bebout said it’s possible the government could some day close that road. “We want to make sure that road is maintained,” he said.
Bebout acknowledged the complexity of the transaction and that efforts to complete the deal have gone on for years.
“I’m not sure this will be the final way we do this,” he said. However, the bill is “the best option we see at this time.”
Senate File 88 now goes to the Wyoming House for consideration.