Neighbors of the Walton Ranch are at odds with the ranch and the Jackson Hole Land Trust over whether a newly built “road” or “bench” is a violation of the ranch’s 1,840-acre conservation easement.
On one side is Andy Salter, a West Gros Ventre Butte resident and attorney with the Teton Law Group. He argues that the dirt byway built this summer to help the ranch construct a new fence along its eastern boundary was not allowed. The fence and road abut Salter’s property to the west. He can see them, and most of the ranch, from his office window.
On the other side is the Land Trust and the Walton Ranch. Liz Long, the trust’s director of conservation, said the nonprofit goes through an established process when concerns are raised about a potential violation. In this case the trust’s board saw no violation.
“It was an action necessary to support the infrastructure necessary for ongoing agriculture on the Walton ranch,” Long said in an interview.
“In my mind it sounds like they are ignoring their obligations under the easement,” Salter told the News&Guide. “They’re allowing a new road that’s simply not authorized.”
Long said the Land Trust’s easements are written to provide landowners like the Walton Ranch flexibility to keep their agricultural operations productive. That, she said, is necessary to maintain the lands’ benefit to the public and wildlife.
“We, the Land Trust, greatly value our partnership with our conservation landowners,” Long said. “They are the ones that are on the ground, and they are the ones that are tasked with stewardship of the property and the maintenance of the property.”
Walton Ranch attorney Stefan Fodor said the road was necessary because of changing operations. One came with the sale of parts of a ranch on Spring Gulch Road, where the Walton Ranch grazed cattle in the summer. That, in part, led the more southerly ranch to begin grazing cattle on the slopes of West Gros Ventre Butte. And while Wyoming is a fence-out state, meaning those who want to keep cattle off their property are responsible for fencing them out, Fodor said the ranch decided to upgrade an eastern fence anyway.
“It was a better idea and probably more neighborly to build that fence to hold in stock,” Fodor said. “They get a little tired of running through subdivisions trying to catch cows and bulls.”
The Land Trust’s conservation easement allows the ranch “to build, maintain and repair fences necessary or desirable for agricultural, ranching or wildlife protection purposes.”
Salter’s argument — that the so-called “road” is in violation — hinges on another portion of the easement, which allows the ranch to “construct, maintain, own, and use” roads and trails that did not exist when the easement was signed, “subject to the prior approval in writing of their construction by the Land Trust.” Salter said he believes the ranch did “not provide notice to the Land Trust and the Land Trust is looking the other way” based on the Land Trust’s and Walton Ranch’s responses to his complaints.
Fodor disputed a central part of Salter’s argument: The new construction is not a “road.” He instead called it a “bench cut.”
Asked whether notice was provided to the Land Trust, Fodor’s said, “Mr. Salter does not have any third-party enforcement rights under the conservation easement.”
“I’m surprised that he’s continuing to press the sensationalist allegations that this is a violation of the conservation easement when the Land Trust, which is a venerable, venerated reputable nonprofit corporation, has determined there is no violation,” Fodor said.
Long said there had been dialogue about the road: “Conversations were had with representatives of the Walton Ranch regarding this access and the purpose of it and the scope of it, yes.”
Salter has called for restoration, as did Sanjay Jain in a September letter. Jain, president of the Gros Ventre North Association, a homeowners association representing neighbors in the Gros Ventre North Subdivision, did not respond to request for comment.
“We expect to see it passively restored,” Long said. Fodor said the new construction would “be used. It’s going to be allowed to naturally revegetate, and maybe we’ll even do some revegetation.”
The county’s code compliance officer, Joshua Butteris, is also talking with the ranch after sending it a notice of complaint in October. The ranch did not get a permit for grading work, which is necessary for the property when grading happens on slopes north of 30%.
Whether that permit is required is being disputed, Butteris and Fodor said. The Walton Ranch was expected to apply for a pre-application conference by the end of the week so the county can “hear out both sides and figure out what exactly is needed for what they’re doing.” It did so on Nov. 16.
There is a chance that the issue may reach the Teton County Board of County Commissioners in a public hearing if abatement or a variance to the land development regulations is pursued. If the county decides an administrative adjustment — a decision intended to give landowners relief from the regulations — is appropriate, or goes with a retroactive grading permit, future action will stay with staff.
Salter remains disappointed by the Land Trust’s verdict.
“Based on the 40 years of the Land Trust telling the community, ‘Hey, we’re good stewards, and we’re protective of the environment,’ I expected that they would take this seriously, and they seem not to be,” he said.
The Land Trust pushed back on that.
“We respectfully disagree with the interpretation or the concern that this access was cut in contradiction to the terms of the conservation easement,” Long said. “We take our obligation to uphold the terms of our conservation easements extremely seriously. And we recognize the obligation not only to the original conservation easement donors, but to all of our conservation easement landowners and the public at large to uphold those terms.”
This article has been updated with new information. The Walton Ranch submitted an application for a pre-application conference with Teton County on Monday. — Eds.