Jewel of the Tetons- page 2 | Travel | Smithsonian

Jewel of the Tetons

They were the prime movers behind the great Wyoming park. This summer, the Rockefellers are donating a final 1,106 acres, a spectacular parcel to be open to the public for the first time in 75 years

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But as the group, led by Albright, continued south into the valley, they were dismayed by the first clumsy incursions of modern development. Telephone lines marred the view from the road. Around Jenny Lake, perhaps the most picturesque and accessible part of the range, touristy Elbo Ranch—"the home of the Hollywood cowboy"—had set up a rodeo grandstand, complete with concession stands, a parking lot, cafés, a gas station and cabins for the first "tin can tourists" (automobile travelers). Nearby were a honky-tonk dance hall and even, Abby Rockefeller was particularly appalled to note, a bootleg whiskey joint. It was the beginning of the kind of devastation that many Easterners had already witnessed in places like Niagara Falls.

Later in the trip, Albright confided to Rockefeller that three years earlier, in 1923, he had met with six local residents, including a dude rancher, a businessman and a newspaperman, in settler Maud Noble's cabin near Moose Junction, about 12 miles north of Jackson. The residents could already see that Jackson Hole's future lay with tourism, not cattle, and that a conservation strategy was essential. Maybe they could convince a rich Easterner to buy the ranches of the valley and turn them over to the government. That way Jackson Hole could survive as a natural history "museum on the hoof," in the words of one member, author Struthers Burt.

The idea of protecting the Tetons germinated in 1882, when Union general Philip Sheridan toured Yellowstone and the surrounding area; concerned that settlement was threatening wildlife, he proposed extending Yellowstone's borders to Jackson Lake, north of Jackson Hole. The proposal languished, but 15 years later, in 1897, Col. S.B.M. Young, Yellowstone's acting superintendent, revived it in a more ambitious form. He believed that the only way to protect the park's migrating elk herd was to include all of Jackson Hole, where the animals wintered, under his jurisdiction. For the next two decades, the possibility of protecting the valley was regularly raised—Charles D. Walcott, director of the U.S. Geological Survey, suggested in 1898 that Jackson Hole could form a separate "Teton National Park"—but the idea found little support in Congress.

The prospect was greeted no more warmly in Jackson Hole. The fiercely independent ranchers who had moved there felt that any government interference would lead only to the valley becoming overcivilized. (In 1919, at a public meeting in Jackson, residents shouted down even Albright when he proposed an expanded road system in the valley.) Most felt that a national park would reduce their personal freedoms, limit cattle-grazing rights and sap Teton County's tax base. However, as the 1920s progressed, many grudgingly accepted that the remote mountain areas and glacial lakes, useless for grazing or farming, could be protected. In 1929, a rump Grand Teton National Park was created—"a stingy, skimpy, niggardly park," as one historian called it.

But there was no agreement, grudging or otherwise, about the valley floor, including the land next to the lakes, the Snake River and the sagebrush flats, which was already dotted with cattle ranches and landholdings. Albright and his allies feared they could be purchased by unscrupulous developers and turned into a Western version of Coney Island.

Unless, of course, someone else purchased them first.

Jackson residents first learned that somebody was buying up property in the valley in 1927. Although some ranchers were near bankrupt and eager to sell, they were also concerned that someone might try to gain control of Jackson Hole by stealth. Finally, in April 1930, the Snake River Company, as the purchasing entity was called, released a statement acknowledging that one of America's richest men was buying valley land and that he intended to donate it to the National Park Service.

Though Rockefeller's secrecy had made good business sense—he had sought to avoid sending land prices skyrocketing—word of his involvement set off shock waves. The news evoked a recurring Western nightmare: an Eastern millionaire in cahoots with the federal government to muscle out the "little man." And as historian Robert Righter notes, the secrecy established a "foundation of mistrust" in future dealings between Jackson residents and the Rockefellers.

Wild stories about the Snake River Land Company's tactics began to circulate—of poor ranchers coerced, of mortgages foreclosed early, of homes being torched by Snake River thugs. Opposition hardened. Jackson Hole residents even founded a newspaper, The Grand Teton, whose aim was to denigrate "the Rockefeller crowd" and the park service. Relying on gossip—much of it malicious—the paper attacked, as traitors, locals who supported the park, impugned Albright's honesty and denounced Rockefeller. Wyoming senator Robert D. Carey took the sensational accusations to Congress which, in 1933, dispatched a U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Public Lands and Surveys to Wyoming to investigate. A small army of reporters followed, eager to cover a scandal in this feisty Western town. But after four days of hearings, it was clear that the allegations were largely untrue; in only one case had national park officials exerted undue pressure. For his part, Rockefeller took the long view of the project. A year earlier he had told the Jackson Hole Courier that "his thanks must come from posterity when wildlife and primitive areas will be less abundant."

His stoicism would be sorely tested. For the next 17 years, the park extension would be mired in a mind-boggling array of proposals, counterproposals, histrionic debates and legal challenges. When President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered that much of the valley be made a national monument in 1943, a group of Jackson ranchers, rifles slung conspicuously across their saddles, staged a protest, driving a herd of cattle across the land. Hollywood actor Wallace Beery led the posse.

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