CHEYENNE — Wyoming officials including Gov. Matt Mead are starting to worry that the federal government might renege on a $107 million deal to buy more than two square miles of state land within Grand Teton National Park.
The Interior Department has begun signaling that the $16 million second phase of the four-phase purchase — the first significant installment since Interior paid Wyoming $2,000 for 40 acres of inconsequential mineral rights earlier this year — might not happen in January as planned, said Ryan Lance, director of the Wyoming Office of State Lands and Investments.
“I think it just has a lot to do with just declining federal receipts. And it also has to do, I guess, with other priorities within the Department of Interior,” Lance said Monday.
An Interior spokesman didn’t seize an opportunity to put the concerns to rest.
Last week, the U.S. House passed a six-month federal spending bill that includes funding for the Interior Department. The Senate is expected to take up the legislation this week and send it to President Barack Obama to sign.
The bill doesn’t contain a specific appropriation for the next phase of the Grand Teton land deal: The purchase of 86 acres of state land along the Snake River.
Meanwhile, Interior spokesman Blake Androff wouldn’t say if the federal agency will allocate money from its new appropriations to see through the next phase — or choose to bail out.
“We are not able to provide details on the allocations,” Androff said by email Monday.
Under the deal approved by the Legislature and signed by Mead last year, Wyoming would be free to find some other buyer for the land if Interior reneged at any point. The agreement, sought by state officials for more than a decade and finally reached in late 2010, was among Dave Freudenthal’s last achievements as governor.
He got there by publicly threatening to sell the land at auction to the highest bidder. The option would remain open to Mead and the four other statewide elected officials who oversee state lands as members of the Wyoming Board of Land Commissioners.
“If the federal government reneges on this deal, Gov. Mead feels that all options are on the table,” Mead spokesman Renny MacKay said Tuesday.
Wyoming has owned the land inside Grand Teton since statehood. The parcels are surrounded by park land but never were transferred to the federal government and never formally became part of Grand Teton.
Nearly all of the land is contained within two blocks that measure one square mile each. Those parcels are supposed to be sold for $45 million and $46 million, in 2014 and 2015, for the final two phases of the land deal.
Virtually all of the state land offers sweeping views of the Teton Range and would be a real prize for an audacious home or resort developer to exploit.
Before Interior agreed in 2010 to buy the land, state officials grumbled that the best they could do with the pretty properties was lease them to the handful of ranchers who graze cattle in Grand Teton. The grazing leases brought in peanuts compared to the land’s value on the open market.
Gary Pollock, management assistant for Grand Teton National Park, offered no more certainty about whether the land sale would move ahead. The Interior Department has set aside $8 million for the next phase but still needs to allocate $8 million from this year’s budget, he said.
“We’re just kind of in a wait-and-see pattern at this point,” he said.