The Buzz: Pasture for profit

By on July 21, 2010

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Jackson Hole, Wyo.-The rancher who grazes his cows on one of two land plots in Grand Teton National Park proposed for sale by Governor Dave Freudenthal says he doesn’t care if the government sells the land.

The Gros Ventre Road splits the 640-acre parcel of land on which Glen Taylor has run his cattle for more than 15 years. That land is a “school section” owned by the State of Wyoming, which leases it to generate revenue for schools. It is one of two such sections within the boundaries of GTNP that could be sold in the next several weeks. According to reports, the state receives about $3,000 a year in grazing lease fees for the two school sections.

The most visible piece of the land grazed by Taylor’s cattle sits roughly a mile past Kelly Warm Springs. A few timeworn wooden cabins appear at the base of a hill on the north side of the road as you drive through the aspen alleyway east of the warm springs. The rolling land atop that hill as well as the land on the opposite side of the road is leased for grazing to the Hardemans, a ranching family that has held the lease since 1941.

Taylor sub-leases the Hardeman’s grazing rights in accordance with regulations of the Wyoming Office of State Lands and Investment. While he was unwilling to share the cost of the sub-lease, Taylor said it’s not $3,000. “I don’t know where they came up with that number,” he said in a recent phone interview.
A representative from Lands and Investment said that the grazing lease costs are based on how many animals can be fed on a specific plot of land. Information obtained from the office shows that the state makes $1,625 a year from one 640-acre parcel and takes in nothing from another of the same size.

On the north side of the Gros Ventre Road, the barbed-wire fence is taught and tidy, plumb straight like ranch fencing ought to be. The rolling hills are carpeted with sagebrush, low-lying grasses, wildflowers and spotted by an occasional dry cow turd. Groves of young aspen trees spring up here and there.

Taylor is also guarded about how many cattle he runs on the property, but during a recent walk on the premises no cattle could be found, just their scat.
The south side of the road is a slightly different story. The cross-fencing on that side is in disrepair, the wooden beams are broken and much of the fencing is collapsing.
Taylor said the use of the land has changed dramatically during the Hardeman’s stewardship.

 “The bison dictate what happens there,” he said. “The Hardemans used to have a lot of farm ground. They put up hay and grain crops. That has gone because of the bison. They’d just eat everything. Now it’s just cow pasture. It’s not half as valuable as it used to be.”
Regardless of which side of the road you stand on, the view from the Hardeman pasture of the Teton Range and the surrounding valley is pretty spectacular. The value of that viewshed certainly figures into the state’s estimate that, together, the school sections could fetch $125 million on the open market.

Taylor thinks selling the land is a pragmatic idea. He realizes the benefit to Wyoming schools of investing $125 million far outweighs the paltry revenue the state currently receives for the grazing leases. Should the state sell or swap the land for other federal property of equal value somewhere else in the state, Taylor will undoubtedly be inconvenienced. Finding new grazing land, relocating the cattle and changing his grazing strategy will be time consuming and costly.
 “I don’t really care if they sell it,” he said. “I’ll run my cattle elsewhere. I’m a survivor. I’m gonna be all my life and this isn’t going to get to me.”

Pat Hardeman currently holds the grazing lease for the property, and she has mixed emotions about the potential sale of land that’s been part of her family for almost 70 years. While she’d like to see the land continue to be used for livestock grazing, she understands the state needs money for education.
Neither Taylor nor Hardeman, however, want the land to fall into the hands of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), a high-profile animal rights group that has offered to lease the school sections.

“Their main goal is to get rid of livestock grazing, and when that’s how you’ve made your living, you don’t feel too kindly towards a group like that,” Hardeman said.

Taylor would also hate to see Grand Teton National Park acquire the land.
“They’ll do nothing with it,” he said. His fear is that as national park land, the property would “lose its identity.”
“It’s helping maintain part of the heritage of the valley, its livestock history,” he said of the land. JHW

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