Planned NER Visitor Center footprint

The National Elk Refuge is planning an overhaul of its 10-acre Murie Family Park that includes a new $21 million visitor center.

The 300,000-plus people who pass through the interagency visitor center on North Cache Street every year are likely to be greeted by an all new building sometime in the second half of this decade.

The National Elk Refuge, which owns the land along the northern entrance to the town of Jackson, has now formally started the planning process. The public is invited to two open house-style meetings dedicated to the project, both happening outdoors this week at Murie Family Park. The first gathering takes place from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. today; the second open house will be from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. Thursday.

Last week refuge officials released a draft assessment of the benefits and impacts of the project. That planning paperwork aside, a good chunk of the effort to make the new visitor center a reality will be fundraising because there’s a major gap between the estimated cost of the project, $21 million, and the chunk of change the refuge has secured.

“According to [the U.S.] Fish and Wildlife Service, we have received Great American Outdoors Act funding for $7 million for 2025,” refuge spokeswoman Raena Parsons told the News&Guide. “We’re trying [to get more], but the funding sources are very limited.”

To make up the $14 million difference, a steering committee spearheaded by the Grand Teton Association is looking to assemble a new organization, the Friends of the National Elk Refuge. It’s not yet decided, Parsons said, if that group would persist beyond the reconstruction project and raise funds for other refuge needs.

Wholesale changes are planned for the southwestern corner of the National Elk Refuge, where the federal property borders North Cache Street. That includes a complete overhaul of the 10-acre Murie Family Park.

“We’re really looking at taking it from a city park and creating an actual refuge experience,” Parsons said.

Habitat restoration is part of that, she said. There will also be an update to the Bert’s Bench area, which commemorates the late naturalist Bert Raynes, who started the Jackson Hole Bird Club in 1976.

The building itself has only been 30% designed, Parsons said. But it’s tentatively set to roughly double the size of the existing facility, covering some 15,000 square feet.

Schematics showing the proposed layout of the federal property have the new building located in what’s now the lawn, just to the north of the existing, 47-year-old visitor center. The parking lot would also be enlarged, to include some of the current building’s footprint. The overall footprint of buildings would be approximately 2 acres, with restored habitat and landscaping occupying the other 8 acres of the property.

Before getting to this point the refuge looked at other locations for its new visitor center: the Miller House, refuge headquarters on East Broadway Avenue, the sleigh ride boarding area along Highway 89 and the Jackson National Fish Hatchery.

“We found from that [analysis] that Murie Family Park site is the best location for the replacement,” Parsons said.

The current visitor center is considered to be past its useful lifetime and has racked up a $7 million deferred maintenance backlog. Unavoidable maintenance costs have exceeded $100,000 a year over the past decade, according to the environmental assessment.

The draft environmental assessment outlining the refuge’s plans is attached to this story at JHNewsAndGuide.com and is available on the National Elk Refuge’s website. Comments are due by Oct. 20 and can be emailed to NationalElkRefugeVisitorCenter@fws.gov.

Contact Mike Koshmrl at 732-7067 or env@jhnewsandguide.com.

Mike has reported on the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem's wildlife, wildlands and the agencies that manage them since 2012. A native Minnesotan, he arrived in the West to study environmental journalism at the University of Colorado.

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