JACKSON — Fall Creek Road residents are sounding the alarm over the possibility that dozens of high-end commercial campsites, roads and related infrastructure could be carved into the lower flanks of Munger Mountain.
A Wyoming-owned 640-acre section of land that raises money for the state’s school trust account, and which is exempted from local zoning regulations, could host the development. At the direction of state lawmakers seeking to wring more money out of state lands in exorbitantly priced Jackson Hole, the Office of State Lands and Investments has identified the site as a potential money-maker and plans to issue an open-ended request for proposals, according to Jason Crowder, the office’s deputy director.
“That would give the Board of Land Commissioners the ability to accept or reject any proposal,” Crowder told the News&Guide.
That board, which has the final say, consists of five state officials: Gov. Mark Gordon, Secretary of State Ed Buchanan, Auditor Kristi Racines, Treasurer Curt Meier and State Superintendent Jillian Balow. It remains to be seen which types of formal propositions the board will consider.
Although a request for proposals was once expected out by September, Crowder is now assigning no timeframe for its release.
But a luxury “glamour camping” (glamping) company, Under Canvas, has already expressed an interest in building another of its safari-inspired glamping compounds on the Munger parcel. Back in fall 2020 the Bozeman, Montana-based business submitted a glossy proposal that called for erecting upwards of 90 seasonal tents on 30 to 40 acres of the Munger Mountain parcel. It proposed entering into a 25-year lease. That pitch was preliminary and preceded the upcoming request for proposals. Still, the concept is being met with firm resistance.
“This parcel is extraordinary,” Wilson attorney Mark Sullivan told the News&Guide. “There’s great recreational opportunities there, and we certainly want to see it preserved. We support and understand the state’s need to generate revenue from these parcels, and we’re trying to meet that need. We’re trying to be competitive with Under Canvas and whomever else comes along.”
A loose-knit coalition of neighbors Sullivan helped convene, the Friends of Munger Mountain, have espoused the idea of submitting a competing “conservation lease” proposal to the state lands office when the time comes. That concept, novel within Wyoming, is being pursued by the Jackson Hole Land Trust, which in turn approached Teton County commissioners and asked for their support. Meeting Monday, commissioners agreed to work with the trust in pursuit of the idea.
“It’s a great opportunity for us to provide funds for schoolchildren and to avoid some negative impacts from a significant development in the wrong place,” Commissioner Luther Propst told his fellow elected officials.
Under Canvas declined an interview for this story. A public relations firm that represents the Bozeman business, J/PR, emailed the News&Guide a short statement.
“The state has not released an RFP for the state land parcel referenced,” J/PR Vice President Chelsey Lutz Kirby wrote in an email. “Under Canvas has not submitted a proposal.”
But Fall Creek Road and Red Top Meadows residents are still taking the prospect of a new luxury tent compound on their neighborhood mountain as a very real possibility. Sullivan was told that Under Canvas has hired two Cheyenne lobbyists, a Jackson Hole land-use attorney and a former Teton County planner.
“The fact that they have Chris Hawks and Susan Johnson on board tells me that they’re very serious and we have to take them very seriously,” Sullivan said, referring to the attorney and planner. “So, we plan to compete with them.”
Ahead of the state’s formal solicitation, it’s not clear what a conservation lease proposal would look like. Friends of Munger Mountain is trying to “raise every penny we can,” Sullivan said, to fund such an offer.
Paying the state a fee to keep the land open temporarily would be a departure from the Jackson Hole Land Trust’s go-to mechanism: conservation easements, which typically preserve open spaces in perpetuity. The first and only school trust parcel protected by such an easement is a 20-acre chunk adjacent to the southern boundary of Grand Teton National Park and bisected by a braid of the Snake River.
“Obviously, we’d prefer permanent protection,” Land Trust President Max Ludington told the News&Guide. “But the state right now has expressed that they’re not willing to consider that.”
But he added: “The state has said many times that they’re looking for ways to consider conservation-based leases. So we’re trying to work with them.”
Another state entity, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, has shared its own worries about the prospect of developing the Munger parcel, along with others the state has been eyeing.
“This parcel provides crucial winter habitat for both elk and moose and is adjacent to an elk calving area,” Game and Fish Habitat Protection Supervisor Amanda Losch wrote to Crowder last year. “Commercial development that is incompatible with existing uses may negatively impact wildlife and wildlife-oriented recreation within this parcel.”
As is, the Munger Mountain parcel returns small annual fees to the school trust. About $1,900 a year is generated, the bulk of which comes from a grazing lease.
An Office of State Lands study completed in fall 2020 described the Under Canvas proposal as “feasible.”
“Under Canvas’s proposal will allow the state to retain control of their land by increasing the lease income and allowing a low impact and sustainable development that will encourage and promote best land management, wildlife habitat practices, and the opportunity to maintain other leases in place on the subject land,” a project summary stated.
This past summer Crowder and state office colleagues visited the Munger parcel as part of a tour of state lands in Teton County. They hiked around the square-mile chunk, concluding that the topography, in areas, was “friendly” for development, Crowder said.
But he also said that the glamping proposal is not running on any kind of inside track to win a lease agreement through his office.
“I haven’t been in contact with this group,” Crowder said. “I know about them, and that’s it. I don’t know what their purpose is. They haven’t really approached us to look for anything.”
While there’s no timeline for releasing a request for proposals for the Munger parcel, the state is actively soliciting commercial development proposals for another section of school trust land in Jackson Hole. That state-owned parcel, just south of Teton Village, has been broken into nine individual tracts that can be bid on, ranging from 0.91 acres to 5.73 acres. The request for proposals went out Tuesday, with pitches due Feb. 1.