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Wyoming holds off on auctioning huge piece of pristine land inside Grand Teton

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CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) — Wyoming's governor and other top leaders decided Thursday to hold off on auctioning a big chunk of state-owned land within Grand Teton National Park, choosing instead to continue negotiations with the U.S. government on a purchase or land swap for the pristine and valuable property.

Depending on how those talks go, the state Board of Land Commissioners made up of Gov. Mark Gordon and the state’s other four statewide elected officials, all of whom are Republicans, might revisit the unpopular proposal next fall.

“Thank you very much,” Grand Teton Superintendent Palmer “Chip” Jenkins Jr., told the board members after their 5-0 vote against auction for now.

Park employees understand that revenue from such state lands funds education — they too have kids in Wyoming's public schools — but are concerned about development in “inappropriate places,” Jenkins added.

An auction, recommended by State Lands Director Jenifer Scoggin to comply with a legal mandate to raise as much money for schools as possible, would have happened as soon as January. The land appraised for $62.4 million.

Scoggin had suggested a minimum $80 million bid, investment of which would yield millions of dollars a year compared with the $2,800 a year now realized from grazing leases and recreation permits.

State lands staff speculated in a report for the board that a luxury home developer who subdivided the property into lots no smaller than 35 acres (14 hectares) would pay the most at auction.

Even compared with Wyoming officials' previous threats to auction state-owned parcels within the park to prod the U.S. government to step in and pay millions to conserve the properties, the reaction was noteworthy for the lack of support for the proposal. In public hearings and letters since October, thousands of people opposed an auction.

“This area should not be destroyed by the construction of luxury houses and other development,” read a form statement for submission to the state on the National Wildlife Federation Action Fund website. “Too much development has already encroached on critical winter habitat near the park.”

As of Thursday, a counter showed more than 12,500 submissions of the form.

Located on the park's eastern edge, the square-mile (2.6-square-kilometer) Kelly Parcel is undeveloped except for a road through it and offers an unobstructed, head-on view of the famously spectacular Teton Range. The land is prime habitat for moose, elk, deer and other wildlife typical of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

Wyoming has owned the land since statehood and it has existed within — but technically not part of — Grand Teton since a park expansion in 1950.

Previous sales of state mineral rights and 86 acres (34.8 hectares) of state land in the park in 2012, followed by the sale of a different square-mile (2.6-square-kilometer) parcel in 2016, have netted Wyoming over $62 million. State officials and the Interior Department originally agreed the federal government would buy the Kelly Parcel for $46 million no later than early 2015.

But while an extension and 50-50 mix of federal funds and private donations saw through the sale of the last and biggest sale seven years ago, negotiations over the Kelly Parcel broke down — and have dragged on ever since.

Gordon raised the issue with Interior officials in a meeting of the Western Governors Association in Jackson Hole last month, according to spokesman Michael Pearlman.

By now it’s practically a tradition spanning three governors. In 2010, Democratic Gov. Dave Freudenthal fumed sarcastically that Wyoming officials weren’t “as bright as those boys on the Potomac” negotiating over the lands but “it’s not our first county fair.”

A four-phase deal eventually resulted in Wyoming selling three of its four Grand Teton inholdings to make them now part of the park, transactions that were completed under Republican Gov. Matt Mead.

State Superintendent Megan Degenfelder, a member of the state land board, made Thursday's motion to delay a possible auction, saying that $2,800 a year is “not an acceptable rate of return” but lands like the Kelly Parcel are essential to Wyoming's character. Other options, such as a land swap, should be attainable through negotiations, she said.

“However, I do not think the answer is a sweetheart deal with the federal government,” Degenfelder said. "Our land and our education are worth more than that.”

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