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Rockefeller and the secret land deals that created Grand Teton National Park

Famous photographer Ansel Adams shot this picture of Grand Teton National Park and the Snake River in 1941. (U.S. National Archives and Records)
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The audacious plan was hatched in secret. In the 1920s, John D. Rockefeller Jr. — son of the Standard Oil founder, ardent conservationist and one of America’s richest men —  agreed to  surreptitiously acquire thousands of acres of breathtaking scenery around Jackson Hole, Wyo., and donate them to the federal government for a national park.

At the behest of Horace Albright, the future director of the National Park Service, Rockefeller formed a company called the Snake River Land Co. to buy up property around the Snake River. Rockefeller knew that if word got out that he was interested in acreage there, the price would skyrocket.

“He was willing to pay fair-market prices for the land, but not Rockefeller prices,” said Park Service spokesman Andrew White. The federal government had created several national parks in the early 20th century, White said, and the philanthropist “didn’t want the optics that this was the federal government coming in and taking more land.”

The agents Rockefeller hired to do the buying told landowners only that they were representing someone who wanted the land for conservation purposes. It left locals thinking that perhaps the buyer was interested in expanding an elk preserve that had been created in 1913, said Robert Righter, a professor emeritus at the University of Texas at El Paso and the author of “Crucible for Conservation: The Struggle for Grand Teton National Park.”

But by 1930, a year after Congress had established Grand Teton National Park, word had gotten out about the purchases, and Wyoming residents were furious.

On Monday, President Trump traveled to another conservation battle zone — this one in Utah — to announce his plans to shrink two national monuments, Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante, by almost 2 million acres. If it survives court challenges by Native Americans and environmental groups, it will be the largest reduction in federally protected land in U.S. history.

Trump shrinks two huge national monuments in Utah, drawing praise and protests

The controversy surrounding Trump’s decision shows that the fight over the size of national parks and monuments, which reached its apex in the fight over Jackson Hole, continues to this day.

Rockefeller came up with the idea of the purchases after visiting Jackson Hole and the Teton range in 1926. Albright, then the superintendent of Yellowstone National Park, personally escorted Rockefeller on that trip, and he had an agenda: In 1923, Albright and a group of preservation-minded dude-ranch operators in Jackson Hole, concerned by the creeping commercialism of the area, had met to discuss how to protect the Tetons and Jackson Hole. They cooked up the idea of persuading a rich investor to buy up land around the Snake River and donate it to the government for a national park. Albright outlined the idea to Rockefeller as they toured Jackson Hole.

Rockefeller, stunned by the splendor of the area, was captivated by Albright’s pitch. When he returned home to New York, he asked Albright to send him maps of the area that showed all the privately held land, and the men created the Snake River land-buying scheme.

After residents in 1930 discovered what Rockefeller was up to, a few founded a weekly newspaper, the Grand Teton, to oppose the expansion. Landowners said they had been manipulated into selling. According to the Wyoming State Historical Society, Jackson Hole naturalist Olaus Murie said the park was a “burning topic. … Card parties, dinner parties had their embarrassments if certain ones prominent on ‘the other side’ were present. … There was no such thing as getting together and talking it over.”

Sen. Robert Carey, a Wyoming Republican, told Rockefeller’s lawyer that “we are not willing to see this section of Wyoming exploited or its citizens driven out to gratify Mr. Albright’s ambition or to establish a monopoly for the benefit if Mr. Rockefeller’s agents.”

The purchases eventually totaled 33,000 acres and cost $1.5 million — a huge sum at the time. After they were completed, nothing happened. Wyoming’s congressional delegation blocked attempts to expand Grand Teton National Park to include the Jackson Hole area, and the philanthropist grew increasingly irritated. After all, he had acquired the land to donate to a good cause, and the government wouldn’t take it.

Finally, in 1942, Rockefeller wrote Interior Secretary Harold Ickes with a veiled threat to sell his holdings to the highest bidder if the federal government didn’t act. That got the attention of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who in 1943 used the Antiquities Act of 1906 to create the Jackson Hole National Monument.

A massive protest followed. At the height of World War II, Sen. Edward Robertson, a Wyoming Republican, declared it a “foul, sneaking Pearl Harbor blow.” A newspaper columnist compared Roosevelt’s action to Hitler’s annexation of Austria, according to the Wyoming Historical Society.

In May 1943, local ranchers — led by Academy Award-winning actor Wallace Beery, a summer resident of the area — drove 550 cattle across the monument, challenging the National Park Service to stop them. They were allowed to proceed, but the incident got national attention. Congress passed a law abolishing the monument, but Roosevelt vetoed it. The state of Wyoming filed a lawsuit challenging the president’s use of the Antiquities Act, but it was dismissed.

In 1950, officials in Wyoming and Washington reached a compromise: Grand Teton National Park would be expanded to include the Jackson Hole National Monument. President Harry S. Truman made it official that September. But in exchange, Wyoming would no longer be subject to the Antiquities Act — meaning no future U.S. president could create a national monument in Wyoming without the approval of Congress.
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