By Mike Koshmri
Jackson Hole News&Guide
Via- Wyoming News Exchange
A half square mile of sagebrush flats and rolling Gros Ventre Range foothills with remarkable Teton views is being considered for a sale to raise funds for a state agency that’s been bit by Jackson Hole’s housing crisis.
The undeveloped swath of land, known as the Teton Wildlife Habitat Management Area, is owned by the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission, an appointed board whose members directed the department to explore conveying the land to the federal government.
“That WHMA, right now, really serves very little use,” Commissioner Peter Dube, of Buffalo, said at a meeting earlier this month
The parcel in question, listed at between 321 and 323.8 acres, is a state-owned inholding within the Bridger-Teton National Forest. Its west boundary runs along the edge of the National Elk Refuge.
Game and Fish ought to explore a sale or a swap of the prime parcel, Dube said, “regardless” of what becomes of efforts to secure affordable housing for the agency’s Jackson staff. The possibility of disposing of the land first came up in the context of securing land where Game and Fish could build workforce housing. The discussion has morphed into a more general discussion about selling the land.
Commissioner Patrick Crank, of Cheyenne, also spoke favorably about a prospective sale and seemed motivated by recent deals between Wyoming and the National Park Service. The Wyoming Office of State Lands and investments sold Grand Teton National Park an 86-acre parcel near the Snake River for $16 million in 2012 and a 640-acre tract in Antelope Flats for $45 million in 2016. Real estate values in the valley have only climbed since then.
“Faced with this incredible dilemma, we need to explore either the sale — and yes, I’m saying sale — of that property, or trade,” Crank said at the commission meeting. “That 320 acres likely has a market value of … $25 to $30 to $40 million.”
“That’s an option,” he said, “that I don’t think we can afford to ignore any longer.”
Game and Fish’s deputy director of internal operations, John Kennedy, walked away from the conversation committed to pursuing the disposal of the Teton habitat area.
Kennedy said Tuesday that he has since directed Game and Fish’s two staff licensed appraisers to come up with a valuation for the land. The second week of August he will visit Jackson Hole and intends to talk to staff at the National Elk Refuge and Bridger-Teton National Forest.
Reached Monday, the leadership at both the Elk Refuge and Bridger-Teton had not yet been approached by Game and Fish about acquiring the land. The most direct access to the property is from the refuge, at a trailhead just shy of the parking area along Flat Creek Road that’s a popular launching off spot for shed antler hunting and ascents of Sheep Mountain. A no-motorized trail leads through the refuge’s Dry Hollow area on the way to the Teton habitat area, crossing onto corners of the Bridger-Teton twice before reaching the state-owned land.
The refuge’s acting manager, Cris Dippel, called the land a “cool little chunk of ground.”
“It’s been a couple years since I’ve looked at it,” Dippel said. “Obviously it would be nice to have it somewhat protected, as opposed to not.”
Of a potential sale, he said he’s never heard about it.
“We’ve never talked about it,” Dippel said. “There’s nothing I can really say.”
Bridger-Teton Supervisor Tricia O’Connor similarly hadn’t heard that Game and Fish was looking into off-loading the land.
“We haven’t had a chance to actually think this through,” O’Connor said. “What does it mean? It’s not good or bad; it’s just reality.”
O’Connor appreciated the state agency’s position of being cash-strapped and in need of housing for employees. A few years ago the Bridger-Teton sold the backside of its North Cache Street property to raise funds for its now-completed supervisor’s office. The goal, O’Connor said, was to use some of the proceeds for workforce housing, but the $12 million the 10 acres fetched wasn’t enough to build both the new office and homes for staff.
“We’re all dealing with this housing situation,” O’Connor said, “and everybody that I know is really looking hard to find big solutions to what’s a big dilemma for us.”
Game and Fish employees have had enough difficulty affording Jackson Hole housing that the commission directed the agency this spring to look into leaving the valley and being based out of Pinedale or Star Valley instead. The two Jackson game wardens, Kyle Lash and Jon Stephens, live in provided agency housing. Even the highest-paid local employee, Supervisor Brad Hovinga, was unable to afford to buy when he took the job in 2015. Instead the state rents a house for the regional boss at an expense of $3,600 a month.
The department leadership came back to their commissioners with the recommendation to stay, and they’re now exploring options such as working with the Jackson Hole Community Housing Trust or building workforce homes on the state’s South Park Wildlife Habitat Management Area.
As an agency, Game and Fish has used the approach of selling its land to raise funds for housing or other purposes, Kennedy said. There’s a deal taking place right now, he said, that involves selling property near Afton to afford to buy a warden home.
Sale of the Teton Wildlife Habitat Management Area would be of a different scope, given the land values in Jackson Hole. The state’s goal, however, is not to compromise the property’s wildlife values in order to maximize its monetary value, but rather to keep the land open and preserved.
“This is good property,” Kennedy said. “It’s undisturbed. It’s surrounded by the forest and Elk Refuge, and it’s habitat that’s there in perpetuity. It’s a value to wildlife.”
Kennedy’s original suggestion was to swap the Teton habit area with the National Elk Refuge in exchange for property along the refuge’s East Broadway headquarters, where Game and Fish would look to build housing.
“Now, I think it’s turned into a bigger discussion,” he said. “The commission realizes now that we own this 320 acres and we really don’t use it for anything.”
The Game and Fish staff has not decided whether to recommend the commission sell or exchange the Teton Wildlife Habitat Management Area property, or do nothing with it, but will come up with a proposal ahead of the commission’s Sept. 16-17 meeting in Pinedale. Kennedy’s inclination is to recommend taking action.
“I think that to put it in the hands of the Department of Ag or Department of Interior would be best for wildlife,” Kennedy said, “and best for the [Game and Fish] department to secure some properties to build [housing].”