In the 1990s the visitor center at Grand Teton National Park was an afterthought crammed into a building it shared with park administrators.
But National Park Service money was tight, and as Superintendent Jack Neckels considered how to build a center in keeping with the grandeur of the park, he first had to think of who might help.
A little more than 20 years later the idea of a new visitor center is still benefiting the park: The group that grew out of the visitor center effort came together last week to celebrate the purchase of the last private acre along Mormon Row, preserving it from development.
“The Grand Teton National Park Foundation was founded in 1997 for the single purpose of building the Craig Thomas Discovery and Visitor Center,” foundation President Leslie Mattson said. “Jack Neckels and Jerry Halpin, who recently died, got it going.”
The Mormon Row acre, the final remnant of private land T.A. Moulton homesteaded in 1906, went on the market last summer. It has been operated for more than four decades as a bed and breakfast, mostly by Moulton’s great-grandson, Hal Blake, and his wife, Iola. The Blakes decided to sell so they could retire and be closer to family in Idaho.
The foundation had to move quickly, Mattson said, because the land was on the market and there was no guarantee about what a buyer might have in mind.
Mattson called the purchase of the acre by the foundation with donated cash and its eventual transfer to the park “really incredibly fortunate.”
The land was advertised for $5 million, and, as usual in recent years, “the park didn’t have any funds for that kind of purchase,” Mattson said.
A donor, identified by Mattson as “Ms. Anonymous,” heard about the land being offered and approached the foundation.
“We were open to working with conservation-minded buyers, and luckily this person heard that and approached us,” Mattson said. “Sometimes an angel arrives at your doorstep.”
That donor isn’t alone: “There are numerous people across the country who love this park,” Mattson said. “We’ve seen this over and over.”
Park Superintendent David Vela said that with tight funding for the Park Service “the foundation is critical in meeting park priorities.”
“They are passionate partners and friends that are actively engaged in the park,” Vela said.
Halpin was a prime example of the kind of private support the park receives through the foundation. Besides being one of the founders of the foundation, the real estate developer and Lost Creek Ranch owner was a longtime supporter and at one point gave the park 50 valuable acres.
The Mormon Row purchase was just the latest example of foundation work.
The Craig Thomas center, named after the U.S. senator from Wyoming who lent support, turned out to be a 22,000-square-foot showpiece that cost more than $21 million, $13.6 million of which came from private donors. It was dedicated in 2007.
Over the past few years the foundation has led A Campaign for Jenny Lake, raising $14 million to complement $4 million in federal funding to renovate paths, buildings and other facilities at Jenny Lake, the center of park tourism.
In December 2016 the foundation completed coordination of the purchase of a 640-acre section of state land on Antelope Flats. It worked with the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund to equally fund the $46 million purchase price for land that’s a center of elk, pronghorn and bison activity.
“The acquisition of the Antelope Flats parcel was historic, and the recent work to acquire the Moulton Ranch Cabins in the Mormon Row Historic District will go a long way in achieving our cultural and historic resource stewardship responsibilities,” Vela said.
The foundation is now raising $2.5 million for boat landings at Jackson Lake Dam, Pacific Creek and Moose Creek.
Since Mattson became president in 2004 the foundation has raised more than $60 million to benefit the park, all of it for projects that the Park Service would otherwise not have been able to afford.
“It’s very clear that the projects we do are enhancements. We’re not providing funds for operational needs,” Mattson said.
She said there are about 150 “friends groups” that support national parks and monuments, but “there are probably only about 10 that are raising significant dollars and impacting their parks.”
The effect of the Mormon Row purchase is big. Though it adds a single acre to a park that already includes more than 310,000, it was in the middle of preserved land that played a big part in the history of Jackson Hole.
Blake, the great-grandson of homesteader T.A. Moulton, said last Friday that he was pleased the park will take over his ancestors’ homestead and preserve it — not just the structures but the history.
“It’s more than just keeping the buildings standing,” he said. “This is the story of homesteaders who were strong, resolute.
“It’s the last of our legacy here ... but it’s the best thing that could happen.”
His mother, Betty Moulton Gardner, was on hand for the announcement. Born in 1937, she grew up on the ranch and said she was sorry to see the end of the Moultons on Mormon Row but pleased the park will inherit the land.
“I’m sad to see this all end, but I’m glad it’s turned out the way it has,” Gardner said. “I didn’t want to see it torn down and a mansion built here.”
That was a possibility.
Under county zoning, up to 10,000 feet of additional space could be built on the parcel. It now accommodates a 2,652-square-foot house where the Blakes live in the summer and six guest cabins, two of them remodeled original ranch buildings.
Realtor Chad Budge said he had “four or five very serious inquiries” about buying the parcel. One looker envisioned a corporate retreat, another “brought his architect out ... he planned to leave it pretty much as it is but expand the house.”
Teton park officials say they’ll use the buildings to house Park Service employees. The housing angle was part of what the foundation’s donor envisioned, Mattson said.
The Moulton family was not only among the first homesteaders on Mormon Row, adjacent to Blacktail Butte, but also the last still working the land there. Clark Moulton, Hal Blake’s grandfather, raised oats, alfalfa and cattle until 1979.
In a Jackson Hole News&Guide article last summer Blake recalled standing on the homestead with his grandfather, surrounded by open land and with the Tetons dominating the western view.
“I can remember distinctly standing here with my granddad, and him saying, ‘This is the biggest acre in the country.’ ”
In a link to the past, Larry Rockefeller was there to mark the occasion. His grandfather, John D. Rockefeller Jr., was a longtime supporter of the national parks who bought thousands of acres of private land in the 1930s and then donated them for the new Grand Teton National Monument, which became Teton park. That included much of Mormon Row.
Rockefeller said he had a sense of “my grandfather, John D. Jr., smiling down on us today, delighted by the success and ongoing commitment to preserve this beautiful park for all future generations.”
A contract for the land has been signed; it’s expected to close this fall, Mattson said, ending a chapter in Jackson Hole history. The Blakes’ bed-and-breakfast is booked up for its final summer in business.