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Land swap in Grand Teton park unfinished

Land swap in Grand Teton park unfinished

Jul 11, 2013 - By Mead Gruver, The Associated Press

CHEYENNE -- State and federal officials in Wyoming are talking about negotiating a land swap to add more than two square miles of state land to Grand Teton National Park amid tighter federal spending and growing doubt the federal government will see through a commitment to buy the land.

A land swap may not yet have approval from top U.S. Department of the Interior officials, however.

Park Superintendent Mary Gibson Scott and Ryan Lance, director of the Wyoming Office of State Lands and Investments, broached the land swap idea to Interior officials during a visit to Washington, D.C., in late April. Both said they're still waiting to hear if the idea has high-level buy-in.

"Until Interior says this is a priority and we are going to do it, it's sort of a pointless venture," Lance said Wednesday.

Interior spokeswoman Jessica Kershaw in Washington, D.C., said by email the agency is "developing next steps to move the process forward." She did not say if Interior endorsed the swap idea.

Details of a potentially complicated land swap would need to be resolved soon. The third installment on the four-phase land deal is due in January and Congress would need to pass legislation before then that would expedite a swap on a timeframe short enough for state officials to accept.

Along with the state land in Grand Teton, the proposed swap would involve state land near Fortification Creek west of Gillette, an area targeted for gas drilling, and in the Wind River foothills west and south of Lander, an area targeted for phosphate mining. Both locations are valuable wildlife habitat.

In exchange, Wyoming would get as-yet undisclosed BLM lands with underlying mineral rights.

Wyoming has owned the state land located inside Grand Teton's boundaries since statehood. The land never formally became part of Grand Teton after the park's current boundaries were set in 1950.

For years, Wyoming has complained about getting only $1,600 a year for the scenic and pristine land by leasing it to ranchers that run cattle in Grand Teton, far less than the potential value on the open market.

Gov. Dave Freudenthal and other state officials in 2010 threatened to sell the land to the highest bidder. Soon after, federal officials ended years of on-and-off talks with state officials by agreeing to the four-phase, $107 million purchase.

The first phase was the purchase of minor state mineral rights in early 2012, followed late last year by the purchase of 86 acres of state land for $16 million.

By no later than Jan. 5, 2014, the Interior Department owes Wyoming $45 million for one of two remaining, square-mile sections of state land in the park. Lance and Scott both said they doubt the money will be available.

Obtaining $16 million from the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund, during last year's partisan brinksmanship over federal budget cuts, was difficult enough, Scott said.

Gov. Matt Mead said Wednesday he's open to other ideas besides an outright federal purchase of the land but not at any cost.

"We've got to make sure we're getting equal value," he said.

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