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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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After World War II, an invasion of newly affluent tourists demonstrated just how profitable a national park could be, and both sides agreed to concessions. Rockefeller deeded 33,562 acres to the government and, on September 14, 1950, the enlarged Grand Teton National Park was signed into law.

Today, those concessions have led to some anomalies. Grand Teton is America's only national park, for example, with a commercial jet airport and a working dude ranch (the Triangle X). Elk hunting is still permitted (park officials admit that some culling is necessary), and cattle ranchers still enjoy grazing rights, which leads to an occasional sighting of park rangers helping herds across roads. A number of parcels of private land survive—including Dornan's in Moose, a resort on the Snake River, which today has one of the most spectacular bars in the United States. And there are 318 historic structures scattered across the valley. ( Click here to read about the Bar BC Ranch.)

The Rockefellers' 3,300-acre JY Ranch was one of the parcels left in private hands. According to Righter, John D. might have happily donated it in 1949 to create the park, except that his son Laurance, who shared his father's passion for the outdoors, was so fond of it. Laurance began donating pieces of the JY in the 1980s; the 1,106 acres to be handed over this September make up the final piece of the jigsaw.

One hope for the new acreage, Rockefeller overseer Clay James told me, is that it will lure visitors out of their SUVs and into the wilderness. Since so much of the park can be seen from roadside lookouts, not everyone ventures into it. Admittedly, the mountain scenery can be a little intimidating: the Teton range rises so precipitously from the valley that it looks impenetrable to all but trained climbers. But all you have to do is hike down any of the trail heads—along the shady String Lakes, for example, where shallow, crystalline waters create a stunning, if frigid, sand-floored swimming pool—to enter a landscape untouched since the days of the fur trappers.

One morning I made a more ambitious hike, into the high-altitude Paintbrush Canyon. As I climbed the trail above the tree line, sunlight ricocheted off the canyon's multicolored rock walls. After about three hours, I reached Holly Lake, a near-frozen tarn surrounded by moss and gnarled shrubs. Here, I ran into the only soul I'd seen—an elderly New Englander who told me he'd visited the park each year since 1948. He lamented how global warming had made the glaciers recede and all but disappear. "But the experience hasn't changed," he told me. "You can still come up here in the middle of summer and there'll be just two people, you and me." Gazing across the valley below—a landscape unmarred by motels, gas stations, souvenir stores or strip malls—I recalled the words of William Baillie-Grohman, that lone camper of 1880. He had found the Grand Teton "the boldest-shaped mountain I am acquainted with," and Jackson Hole "the most striking landscape the eye of a painter ever dreamt of."

It turns out that John D. was right—now that "primitive areas" are less abundant, it's hard to believe there ever was a time when national park employees may have been afraid to wear their uniforms in town. The parade of travelers heading to the Tetons every summer has brought great prosperity to Jackson, where cowboys, bikers, white-water rafting instructors and Hollywood stars rub shoulders in former gambling palaces like the Silver Dollar Bar. Clifford Hansen, a Wyoming senator who rode in the armed protest against the park in 1943, has admitted publicly that the expanded park has been a godsend for the state, and even the news that the Rockefellers have purchased a new ranch outside the park, opposite Teton Village, has been greeted warmly. "We're all now thankful that the Rockefellers are keeping up their association with the park," says Righter. "Philanthropy on that scale is hard to find these days."

Tony Perrottet is the author of Pagan Holiday and The Naked Olympics: The True Story of the Ancient Games.

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