Cementing Grand Teton National Park

  • Nature, Animals & Parks
  • 1949

Almost from the time that Yellowstone was established as our first national park, there was interest in extending its boundaries south to include the toothy Grand Teton peaks and the lovely valley and lakes that lay at their feet. But the valley had economic uses that made it harder to set aside than the surrounding mountain regions. So when Congress designated a Grand Teton National Park in 1929, the boundary stopped at the foot of the peaks. John Rockefeller Jr. had visited the Teton valley several times, including in 1924 with three of his sons and in 1926 with his wife. He noted not only that the mountains “are seen at their best from the Jackson Hole valley,” but that the valley “is the natural and necessary feeding place for the game which inhabits Yellowstone Park and the surrounding regions.” Rockefeller was disappointed to find power lines and ramshackle buildings springing up in the beautiful area along the foot of the mountains, so he empowered local agents to begin buying up property (anonymously) from willing sellers in the valley. He spent $18 million to purchase and maintain tens of thousands of acres which he finally donated to the Park Service in 1949. A newly expanded 310,000 acre Grand Teton National Park was signed into law in 1950, encompassing all the large alpine lakes and crucial parts of the Snake River valley.

In 2008, a final 1,100 acres of Rockefeller-owned land bordering Phelps Lake was opened to the public. The pristine Laurance Rockefeller Preserve includes an impressive visitor center and hiking-trail network funded by more than $20 million of donations from this third generation of the philanthropic family. Park officials estimate the Phelps Lake land alone to be worth $160 million, making this one of the most valuable gifts in the history of our park system.