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Grand Teton land talks go on; sale deadline passes

January 10, 2014 Updated: January 10, 2014 at 6:15 pm

CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) — The Interior Department has missed a deadline to buy state land located within the boundaries of Grand Teton National Park, but state and federal officials say they're still optimistic about reaching a deal in which the land instead would be swapped for federal land and mineral rights.

A land swap could be a much broader transaction than a simple purchase by the federal government. In addition to the Grand Teton land, a swap could involve state land outside Lander and Gillette, as well as various U.S. Bureau of Land Management lands and federal mineral rights.

State and federal officials have been discussing a land swap for several months now. Exactly what might be traded, however, remains undecided.

"We're considering all options at this point. We haven't pinned one down," Bridget Hill, director of the Office of State Lands and Investments, said Friday.

Two state lawmakers are sponsoring a bill to facilitate a land swap. The bill would need a favorable vote from two-thirds of the House or Senate to be introduced during the Legislature's budget session that begins Feb. 10.

Wyoming has owned a small portion of land within Grand Teton since statehood. Grand Teton became a national park without the federal government assuming ownership of the state parcels, which comprise more than 2 square miles of terrain mostly covered by sagebrush, wildflowers and aspen clusters.

State officials long have wanted to be rid of the land. The state brings in hardly any revenue from leasing the properties for grazing — about $1,600 a year — compared with the millions of dollars the parcels might be worth if ever sold on the open market. Virtually every part of the state lands in pricey Jackson Hole offer stunning views of the Teton Range.

In 2010, Gov. Dave Freudenthal and other state officials threatened to auction the land if the federal government didn't reach an agreement with Wyoming to acquire the properties.

By the end of that year, the Interior Department had agreed to buy the state parcels and minor state mineral rights in Grand Teton for $107 million. The purchase was to be completed over four annual transactions.

The third transaction was supposed to take place no later than Sunday. Interior missed the deadline to buy one of two remaining square-mile pieces of state land for $45 million.

The blown deadline wasn't surprising. State and federal officials began talking about a land swap amid last year's federal belt-tightening. There was also uncertainty over the second-phase purchase of 86 acres of state land for $16 million right up until that deal closed on Dec. 28, 2012.

Last month, Hill and other state officials met with Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and other officials in Washington, D.C. Hill said the Grand Teton land deal was a main topic of discussion and the Interior officials reassured her that completing the land transactions remained a federal priority.

Hill said Wyoming is looking for any deal to go through sooner rather than later.

"If additional transactions complicate that, that's something we'll have to consider," she said.

Grand Teton spokeswoman Jackie Skaggs said she didn't have many details to share while state and federal officials remained in "deep conversation" about a land swap.

Land-swap discussions that began last year involved state land near Fortification Creek west of Gillette, an area targeted for gas drilling, and in the Wind River foothills west and south of Lander, an area targeted for phosphate mining. Both locations are valuable wildlife habitat.

Two of the main officials involved in those negotiations have since moved on. Hill has replaced Ryan Lance as state lands director, and Mary Gibson Scott has retired from her job as Grand Teton's superintendent.

The square mile of state land that was supposed to be sold this week is located in the middle of the park. The final-phase purchase of a separate square-mile parcel of state land along Grand Teton's eastern border is due to take place no later than Jan. 5, 2015.

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