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Park History: Grand Teton National Park

Grand Teton sunrise. Kurt Repanshek photo.

Sunrise in Grand Teton National Park. Kurt Repanshek photo.

Grand Teton National Park not only is one of America’s most photogenic national parks but, oddly enough, it's one of our most controversial.

After much political wrangling about preserving the Jackson Hole area – and I do mean much; it took from 1897-1929 to get the first, fledgling step taken – the federal government essentially decided that the gorgeous slab of Wyoming just south of Yellowstone National Park would make a lovely national park.

The only problem, though, was that the locals were not so keen on the idea. Indeed, it took some quiet -- some would say "shady" -- negotiations by the John Rockefeller, Jr.-financed Snake River Land Company to create the park much as it stands today.

In 1897, Col. S.B.M. Young, at the time Yellowstone's acting superintendent, suggested that Yellowstone be expanded to the south to take in the northern tip of the Jackson Hole Valley. A year later the head of the U.S. Geological Survey recommended that the Teton Range be included in the package, and in 1917 a fledgling federal agency known as the National Park Service called on the Tetons to be merged into Yellowstone.

The "original" Grand Teton National Park was set aside by Congress on this date in 1929, but its borders only surrounded the Tetons and their six glacial lakes, leaving out much of the pastoral landscape that today wraps U.S. 191/89/26.

While Mr. Rockefeller, at the prodding of Horace Albright, then Yellowstone's superintendent, funded the land company in the 1920s with an eye toward acquiring 35,000 more acres for the park, it took more than 20 years before the land was transferred to the park.

Much of the problem involved Jackson Hole land owners, who initially didn't want to see their private land turned into a park. They became so perturbed with Mr. Rockefeller and the NPS that in 1933 both were hauled before the U.S. Senate to answer questions about predatory land purchases and conspiracy with each other to ‘backdoor’ the park into existence.

Well, eventually Mr. Rockefeller and the Park Service were exonerated, and as the Great Depression wore on in the 1930s, most people in the Jackson Hole area sold their land in order to put food on the table.

In 1943 (after roughly $1.4 million was spent to acquire 35,000 acres, and after massive protests in Jackson Hole and an attempt by Congress to forever abolish the park), President Franklin Delano Roosevelt created the Jackson Hole National Monument, in part with Mr. Rockefeller's land donation, rather than risk having Mr. Rockefeller sell the land to others.

Even with that deal done, though, hard feelings and animosity existed between the state of Wyoming and the National Park Service. It wasn't until the fall of 1950 that Congress finally agreed to merge the "original" park with the Jackson Hole Monument to create today's Grand Teton.

As tourism increased dramatically after World War II, locals soon began to appreciate the value of the park. Now, it is one of our most well-known and most-visited parks. Jackson Hole locals, at least the old timers, benefited handsomely from real estate values that skyrocketed thanks to the picturesque and well-preserved park scenery.

Visitors to Grand Teton today can immerse themselves in all manner of outdoor activities, from scaling "the Grand" itself to a placid kayak across Jenny Lake. Hiking, biking, river running, and mountain climbing are all popular activities in the summertime, with cross-country skiing and snowshoeing being most prevalent come winter.

In the fall, the annual elk rut is always an entertaining spectacle, and the ‘Old West’ feel of Jackson Hole delights visitors year-round. Accommodations run the gamut from upscale lodges in the park and in town to a host of campgrounds.

Located a leisurely drive south of Yellowstone, who can resist a vacation in the heart of Wyoming, especially one filled with alpine vistas and dramatic valleys?


Hats off to Rockefeller and Albright for having the foresight to create this park! A great story and nicely written piece.

I love Grand Teton and consider it Yellowstone itself, but how is it hat's off to Rockefeller? He scammed people using a front group (that hid his identity so that he could get the land for lower prices and who didn't want a national park in Jackson Hole) to collude with Albright to acquire land in Jackson Hole. Then, when the land finally was ceded to the government, his family held onto the JY Ranch for decades as their own personal ranch. This land was only ceded to the national park this past year after many, many decades as private land.

Just because Rockefeller's predatory instincts in this case was a boon to Grand Teton National Park doesn't mean that what he did wasn't despicable. In other contexts, the same use of front groups have been used to destroy land. In each case, the process is wrong, and the same process can be used just as well to destroy places like Grand Teton as help them. In the case of Grand Teton, it was a case of a bigger fish swallowing up the little fish who were ultimately doing little else than what Rockefeller did in other places and other times.

Rockefeller was an oil magnate who probably ultimately did more to destroy the environment than help it - but regardless - the process stinks. I'm happy that the valley isn't being abused the way that it was, but that should not lead us to embrace the causes as good. If we went that far, a murderer in prison might be thankful for his murder because he was able to find peace and new friendships in the prison environment.

Jim Macdonald
The Magic of Yellowstone
Yellowstone Newspaper
Jim's Eclectic World

One other interesting bit of trivia related to the creation of Grand Teton National Park & Jackson Hole National Monument is that because Jackson Hole residents were so upset with the land purchases by Rockefeller, his donation of the purchased land to the federal government, and President Franklin Roosevelt's use of the authority in the American Antiquities Act to create Jackson Hole National Monument, Congress subsequently revoked the President's unilateral ability to create new national monuments out of existing federal lands in the state of Wyoming. That prohibition still stands today and the only way the President can establish a national monument from existing federal lands in Wyoming is with the prior approval of the Wyoming delegation to the U.S. Congress.

Jim, no offense, but to me, you're coming off as quite the hypocrite.

Comparing Rockefeller and his supposed "scamming" which eventually gave us Grand Teton National Park with your defense of hanging a black puppet of Yellowstone National Park in effigy, are you saying the ends justify the means or not?

And I have no problem with the Rockefellers, after GIFTING this country with thousands of acres, withholding a few for their personal use.


Mack P. Bray
My opinions are my own

[email protected]

I don't believe that ends justify means.

I believe that Rockefeller had no business scamming people out of land to reach his ends, using his overwhelming power and capital to foist a new reality on people. I have the same problem with the National Park Service playing God by playing with the fate of Yellowstone's buffalo, whether in partnership or on their own. And, I have no problem with grassroots activists, who are trying to rectify this situation, from pointing it out. There is nothing despicable about the means and ends; they are appropriate and illustrative. What Rockefeller did was abusive and paternalistic, even if we happen to benefit from some of the results.

Jim Macdonald
The Magic of Yellowstone
Yellowstone Newspaper
Jim's Eclectic World


I think Rockefeller and Albright both deserve recognition and thanks for Grand Teton Park. If you cannot feel good about it then there is something else wrong.

Great Story. Who ever thought it would be controversial?


The ends did justify the means-without it this area would now be filled with even more mcmansions and you and I would not be allowed behind the gates. And it's not Yellowstone it's the park with big mountains!

In some cases the ends DO justify the means.

prairiegirl is right; in this case the ends do justify the means. Otherwise, Jackson Hole would be filled with subdivisons, strip centers, malls and the rest of the crap that comes with "progress." Currently, some 97% of the valley is public land, held in trust for the American people by the National Park Service, the National Forest Service and the National Elk Refuge, administered by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. That leaves some 3% available for private ownership and development. We're talking about some of the most expensive real estate in the country. Why? Huge demand and short supply = high prices.

Jim wrote: "I believe that Rockefeller had no business scamming people out of land to reach his ends..."

Scam? Describe the scam. In addition, if any *laws* were broken by Rockefeller and/or his companies, describe the crimes committed.

There's two parts to real estate transactions: a willing buyer and a willing seller.

I doubt any of those sellers had guns to their head and were forced to sell. They were made an offer by Rockefeller's front companies and they accepted and sold. Had they known they were selling to the very wealthy Mr. Rockefeller, I'm sure they would have held out for a higher price. Who wouldn't?

Jim, how about a little friendly ammendment/disclaimer to one of your statements above: "***In my opinion***, what Rockefeller did was abusive and paternalistic..."

Much of what you state you present as fact when it's actually your opinion.


Mack P. Bray
My opinions are my own

[email protected]

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