Teton County residents push for land exchange along Snake River

JACKSON — Teton County has given a proverbial can a modest kick down the road, opting to wait a week on community requests to fully fund work to transfer 20 or so federally-owned parcels along the Snake River to county ownership.

Some community members aren’t pleased with the delay.

“I’m frustrated,” Wilson attorney and self-described “river rat” Len Carlman told the Jackson Hole News&Guide after a 

Aug. 25 meeting of the Teton County Board of County Commissioners. “This project needs to move forward.”

How to transfer ownership of Bureau of Land Management property along the Snake River corridor to other entities in Teton County has been a question since at least 2004, when the federal agency recorded a decision allowing the transfer of the 20 or so properties to other government agencies, whether federal or local. The parcels’ location — scattered through riparian habitat roughly 80 miles northwest of the BLM’s Pinedale field office — make them difficult and expensive for the agency to manage.

A 2008 ownership transfer plan laid out guidelines for the exchanges, which would include the Wilson and South Park boat ramps, land north of Emily Stevens Park, and popular BLM sites on Fall Creek Road.

“That parcel is getting more use than it’s ever seen before,” said Jared Baecker, executive director of the Snake River Fund, which advocates public access throughout the river corridor and has been a party to transfer conversations for over a decade. “A few weekends ago, there were over 50 cars parked on Fall Creek Road. It just shows how important these pieces of public land are for recreation and, then the times that we’re not on them, for open space and wildlife habitat.”

Getting lands like the Fall Creek parcel to change hands has been slow — only a few, like one housing the county’s Trash Transfer Station, have been transferred. So county commissioners decided earlier this year to revisit the issue. The board enlisted a consultant, Western Land Group, which recommended pursuing the transfers through federal legislation, which U.S. Sen. John Barrasso supports.

On Aug. 25, as commissioners considered approving a contract with Western Lands Groups for two of six tasks in the project’s second phase intended to nail down terms for preparing legislation, citizens, nonprofits and representatives of landowning families adjacent to the parcels all showed up to comment. The two tasks in question would be $20,000 worth of work intended to compile data on the parcels and address any legal and policy issues that could affect legislation.

The full second phase, at a cost of $60,000, would include that scoping work, as well as a public process, and result in agreements between the county, adjacent landowners and the Jackson Hole Land Trust, which has conservation easements on some of the land. It would end with a term sheet for Barrasso’s office outlining what the county would like to see in legislation. Under the Western Lands Group proposal, a bill would be drafted and proposed by Wyoming’s congressional delegation in a subsequent tranche of the process.

Some members of the public asked for the county to fund the full $60,000 second phase, while others pointed to a memo from former Barrasso staffer Travis McNiven that suggested some of the work Western Land Group was proposing could be or already had been done by Barrasso’s office and other federal agencies involved in the transfers.

Katherine Dowson, the executive director of Friends of Pathways, urged commissioners not “to fall down on a relatively small amount of money” when there is momentum for the transfers.

“If there’s anything else we can do to just get this to Senator Barrasso’s office, get it on his desk in a very timely manner, like this fall or early 2021 — that is the end game,” Dowson said. “To slice and dice when we’re so close to the finish just feels frustrating.”

Commissioners had only put $30,000 for the project in their budget for fiscal year 2021, which ends in June 2021, so achieving what the community was asking for funding-wise would require finding an additional $30,000. Friends of Pathways and the Snake River Fund pledged $5,000 each toward the cause.

Stefan Fodor, an attorney for the Walton Ranch, which abuts parcels north of Emily Steven’s Park and has an agricultural lease on the land, also called for moving ahead while exercising restraint in light of McNiven’s memo.

“It seems like the proposal has on one side too much and on one side too little,” he said, “and by that I mean too many issues seem to be under the purview of the senator’s office, legislative services and BLM and, at the same time, this next phase of work doesn’t get us to a bill to transfer these parcels, which is what I believe is the ultimate objective.

“I encourage you to look at the bigger picture,” Fodor continued, “scale down the work that other entities can do at their expense, and engage the consultant to push this through to the end and get the transfers that the county seeks.”

Todd Robertson, a project manager for Western Land Group, told commissioners that he thought there was “middle ground” between his employer’s approach and McNiven’s.

Though commissioners seemed to agree that the county could come up with $60,000, whether by itself or through some combination of public and private funds, the board agreed to approve the two-task contract, and to schedule a workshop to hammer out what completing the remaining four tasks would look like.