Grand Teton National Park Turns Eighty

February 23, 2009
On February 26, 1929, President Calvin Coolidge signed into law the legislation that created Grand Teton National Park; the 96,000-acre federal reserve included just the Teton Range and six glacial lakes at the base of the rugged peaks — a park that was only one-third of its present-day size. Thursday will mark the 80th anniversary of this world-renowned and beloved national park located in northwestern Wyoming.

The history of Grand Teton’s establishment as a national park involved significant controversy, a bit of intrigue, and skilled political maneuvering. The Teton landscape first received government protection in 1897 when Congress created the Teton Forest Reserve out of land not otherwise included in Yellowstone National Park. Charles Walcott, head of the U.S. Geological Survey, suggested in 1898 that the Teton Range be set aside in what he coined a “Teton National Park.” It took until 1917, however, before members of congress began floating bills to make a larger sanctuary by expanding Yellowstone National Park in order to preserve northern portions of Jackson Hole and the Teton Range. In 1918, Wyoming Congressman Frank Mondell introduced a bill to extend Yellowstone’s southern boundary, but it failed passage by the Senate. Ten years elapsed before Wyoming Senator John Kendrick successfully sponsored a bill to establish a separate area called Grand Teton National Park. When Congress finally approved the 1929 legislation for a national park, the wheels were already in motion to preserve additional lands throughout Jackson Hole.

Beginning in 1928, and for several years following, John D. Rockefeller, Jr. quietly purchased approximately 35,000 acres of valley lands with the intention of donating them to the federal government to expand the boundary of the newly created Grand Teton park. Local and statewide reluctance for park enlargement created a stalemate that prevented Rockefeller from finalizing his philanthropic plan. After holding the land for 15 years, Rockefeller became discouraged and wrote President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, threatening to sell the land to "…any satisfactory buyers" if the federal government would not accept his gift. Rockefeller spent over $1.4 million to purchase Jackson Hole lands in his campaign to donate these holdings to the federal government.

Rockefeller's letter prompted Roosevelt to use presidential proclamation to establish a 221,000-acre Jackson Hole National Monument, effectively overriding Congress’ deadlock on the issue. The March 15, 1943 proclamation combined Rockefeller's acreage with Jackson Lake, Teton National Forest lands and other federal properties. Creation of the monument was so unpopular with Congress that they voted to abolish it — forcing President Roosevelt to counter with a pocket veto. Then the State of Wyoming sued the National Park Service to overturn the proclamation, but that lawsuit failed in the courts. As a last resort to show their disapproval, Congress withheld operational funds for the monument. After World War II, sentiment against the park and its enlargement eased somewhat, and President Harry S. Truman eventually signed a bill on September 14, 1950 that merged the original 1929 park with the 1943 monument.

Establishment of the 1929 Grand Teton National Park proved to be a mere wave in an ocean of controversy that lasted decades. In opposition to the concept, local residents fought and defeated three attempts to federalize land in Jackson Hole. Today, most people agree that creating the national park was an insightful and valuable step toward preserving much of Jackson Hole from development and building a vibrant local and regional economy.