Grand Teton National Park – one of the most beautiful spots in Wyoming – turns 93 on February 26. It was originally a Native American hunting ground. British and American fur traders were drawn to the area for its exceptionally bountiful populations of beaver. By the mid 1800s, homesteaders had begun to settle in the valley and surveying parties named many of the area’s mountain peaks and lakes.
An act of Congress established Grand Teton National Park on February 26th, 1929. At the time, the 96,000-acre area included the peaks of the Teton Range as well as six lakes at the base of the mountains, the biggest of which was Jenny Lake.
In the late 1920s, philanthropist John D. Rockefeller visited the area and came away impressed by the breathtaking landscape. He formed the Snake River Land Company, which began to purchase properties in the Jackson Hole area. Rockefeller’s objective was to protect the area from commercial development. He intended to gift his land purchases to the U.S. Government to be managed by the National Park Service. By 1933, the Snake River Land Company had invested $1,500,000 to purchased more than 32,000 acres in Jackson Hole, and cattle ranchers were beginning to raise objections. Wyoming’s two U.S. senators got involved and soon the Senate Committee on Public Lands and Surveys was holding hearings in Jackson to assess whether Rockefeller’s purchases were illegal. The Senate hearings found nothing untoward. Nevertheless, Congress stymied multiple bills that were written to enlarge Grand Teton National Park by incorporating Rockefeller’s holdings into the park.
By 1942, Rockefeller had grown impatient with congressional delays and threatened to sell the Jackson Hole lands he had amassed. He penned a letter expressing his discontent to the Secretary of the Interior, Harold Ickes. Ickes advised President Franklin D. Roosevelt to take action. So, in March of 1943, Roosevelt utilized the Antiquities Act to establish Jackson Hole National Monument. The Antiquities Act had been used since 1906, by seven presidents, both Republican and Democrat, to set aside and preserve land as national monuments.
The new Jackson Hole National Monument was enormous – more than 221,000 acres – and included Rockefeller’s property, Jackson Lake and a substantial swath of what had been known as the Teton National Forest. Many people in Jackson Hole, including members of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association, were vociferously opposed to the monument. They mobilized against what they felt to be overreach of federal government bureaucracy and created the “Committee for the Survival of Teton County”.
The committee published a booklet titled “For What Do We Fight” stating that “the people of Jackson Hole were being deprived of the land on which they had made their livelihood.” Politicians also mobilized. Wyoming Governor Lester Hunt, Senators J.C. O’Mahoney and E.V. Robertson and Congressman Frank Barrett all made statements against the monument. Barrett took the lead in fighting it, introducing a House of Representatives bill to abolish Jackson Hole National Monument in 1943 just four days after the monument had been created.
Back in Jackson Hole, many ranchers took the “fight” against the monument literally. They armed themselves and led a cattle drive across monument lands. Clifford Hansen, who went on to become a Wyoming Governor and U.S. Senator was one of those ranchers. Hansen and his fellow ranchers’ action made the papers across the West, in part because of the participation of Wallace Beery, a notable movie star at the time. (Beery had a vacation home on the east shore of Jackson Lake.) The armed cattle drive was mostly just a grand gesture – no government officials or employees of the National Park Service protested the ranchers’ presence on monument lands. In fact, ranchers’ rights to drive cattle across the monument were expressly included when the monument was designated.
While the ranchers claimed to speak for the majority of Jackson Hole residents, there were those in the area who approved of the new monument. Olaus J. Murie was among the proponents. Murie was a biologist with the Department of the Interior Fish and Wildlife Service and had long lived in Jackson Hole. He and the conservationists of the Izaak Walton League, an organization which fashioned itself as the “defender or woods, waters and wildlife” spoke out in favor of the monument designation. Murie saw value in protecting habitat areas for elk, moose, and the more than 100 species of birds native to the area.
Murie, along with Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes testified before Congress against the Barrett bills to abolish Jackson Hole National Monument. Ranchers testified in favor of the bills. Hyperbole ratcheted up on both sides of the debate. Supporters of the monument warned that “future generations may view the spectacular Teton Mountains from a foreground of billboards, gas stations, beer parlors, hotdog stands and tourist shacks.” In Jackson Hole, tempers flared. The controversy set friend against friend and neighbor against neighbor. Barrett proposed multiple bills to abolish the monument, the last of which was H.R. 1330.
Still, Congress did not act to abolish the monument. Then, in 1949, the stalemate was finally broken. Former Wyoming governor, Leslie A. Miller brokered a compromise between conservationists and ranchers. The new Grand Teton National Park was created on September 14, 1950. It incorporated most of the 1929 park as well as the land designated as Jackson Hole National Monument, which had included Rockefeller’s 32,117-acre gift. The law designating the park included several concessions. First, existing grazing rights and stock driveways were protected. Second, the federal government agreed to reimburse Teton County for lost tax revenues. And last, there was to be put into place a plan for controlled reduction of the herd of 22,000 elk within the boundaries of the new park by allowing hunters in the “fringe” areas of the park.
Today, visitors from across the world flock to Grand Teton National Park to admire the landscape and view wildlife. The conservationists of the 1930s and 40s had correctly forecast that tourism would far outstrip cattle ranching as the predominant industry in Teton County. The Grand Teton National Park ecosystem supports a wide variety of species including bear, elk, moose and many fur bearing animals including weasels, martens, beavers and otters. Jackson Lake is now included within the park boundaries. And many decades after his opposition to expanding the park, former Governor and Senator Cliff Hansen conceded that the expansion of the park had ultimately been in the public’s best interests after all.
The American Heritage Center houses the collected papers of Clifford P. Hansen, the Murie Family, Frank A. Barrett, and Merrill J. Mattes. They all provide interesting perspectives on the history of the Grand Teton National Park and the Jackson Hole National Monument controversy.
Post contributed by AHC Writer Kathryn Billington.