The county is eyeing a change in its nearly two-decade quest to acquire federal lands along the Snake River, and it looks like some federal firepower has gotten on board.
U.S. Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyoming, wrote a supportive letter to the Teton County Board of County Commissioners in July offering to work with them throughout the process.
“That is really an indication that there is a will from the senator and a likelihood that this could happen as a lump sum package,” said Jared Baecker, director of the Snake River Fund, which advocates for public access throughout the river corridor and has been a party to transfer conversations for over a decade.
Teton County and other valley agencies have been working since 2004 to take possession of a slate of parcels owned and managed by the Bureau of Land Management. The county has emerged as the primary body poised to take over and manage most of the riparian lands, and in April the county commissioners hired the Western Land Group to advise on the best way to get it done.
Project Manager Todd Robertson gave commissioners an answer on July 13.
“We believe legislation is really the only way to address a majority of the parcels,” he said. It could also address all of the land if parcels 13, 14 and 26 were included.
Those three parcels contain the parking lot at Emily Stevens Park and the Wilson and South Park boat ramps — lots currently going through a separate land transfer process outlined in the Recreation and Public Purposes Act.
That legislation allows governments and certain nonprofits to purchase or lease federal lands for uses such as schools, hospitals, historic monuments, campgrounds, fairgrounds and, in Teton County’s case, parks and boat ramps.
Commissioners in October 2019 authorized an application to formally transfer the boat ramps and Emily Stevens parcels through the RPPA.
But Robertson told the Jackson Hole Daily there could still be an advantage to including that land in a legislative transfer, which would require including local language in a federal lands bill, federal hearings, passage by the U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate, and the president’s signature.
Robertson said the advantage of a legislative process is it could be cleaner.
Acreage transferred under the RPPA carries the risk of reversion. If lands are conveyed out of local ownership or their use changes from what was identified in the initial application, the BLM could take them back, Robertson said.
Also, gaining control over the land’s mineral estate — the leasable (geothermal, oil, gas) and saleable (sand, gravel) minerals on the property — through the RPPA is difficult.
“It’s a real high bar to jump over to get the mineral estate through RPPA,” Robertson said.
A legislative process could see the lands and their mineral rights transferred without the chance of reversion.
Baecker said he wasn’t concerned about either method.
“These are riparian parcels,” he said. “The likelihood of them being threatened through mineral estate development is pretty low.”
But he didn’t want the RPPA process paused. He advocates for pursuing both paths in parallel.
“We don’t think there needs to be a pause on that RPPA application,” he said. “If we get there with RPPA first, that’s great. It’s a win for the county.”
When a transfer of parcels 13, 14 and 26 will go through is unclear. Baecker said that’s just one of a few unknowns: “We don’t know if legislation will be successful. There’s no guarantee there.”