History of Grand Teton National Park

The Long and Winding Road to Parkhood

While its neighbor to the north, world-famous Yellowstone, took only two years to gain its status as a national park, Grand Teton’s road to preservation was bumpy, windy and scenic to say the least. Consolidated via a series of political maneuvers, including legislation, presidential proclamations, and a generous grant of land from the Rockefeller family, the process of establishing the park as it is today took more than 20 years. In fact, local interests in that viewed park establishment as an encroachment on individual freedoms nearly dashed hopes of Grand Teton seeing fruition.

Mormon Row, GTNP

Originally, legislators thought to merely extend Yellowstone’s borders to include Grand Teton. This approach quickly gained opposition among ranchers, businessmen in nearby Jackson Hole, who feared loss of grazing lands and losses to park concessioner monopolies, respectively. Ironically, the measure even alienated area National Forest Service personnel, who thought that the expansion of Yellowstone might deprive them of their jurisdiction. The bill that would have united the parks died on the Senate floor.

Eventually, the prospect of commercial development — particularly proposals to dam the outlets of several important lakes in the region — forced a degree of consensus between park advocates, ranchers and local small businessmen. The latter would rather see some degree of federal protection than have the area’s way of life disrupted by modernization, although they were not explicitly in favor of creating a national park. Instead, these interests sought to find a private buyer for a sizable portion of land in the area that would be set aside as a kind of monument to the Western way of life, with “traditional hunting, grazing and dude-ranching activities.”

In 1929 President Coolidge signed a bill setting aside 96,000 acres of land as Grand Teton National Park. This land included the Teton range and six glacial lakes at the mountains’ bases, but did not constitute an entire ecosystem. The search for a buyer continued, eventually attracting the interest of John D. Rockefeller, Jr., who formed the Snake River Land Company and sought to purchase an additional 35,000 acres. This aggressive acquisition did not sit well with the locals, and caused even more of a furor when it was revealed that Rockefeller intended to gift his new holdings to the United States government.

After holding the land for 15 years — during which his company and the National Parks Service were sued — Rockefeller became impatient with the government’s inaction. In a letter to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Rockefeller threatened to put his land for sale on the open market if a way forward was not found. In response, FDR set aside 221,000 acres (including Rockefeller’s donation) as Jackson Hole National Monument by presidential proclamation. This tactical move allowed the President to plow through congressional obstacles. In 1950, Jackson Hole National Monument and the original 1929 parcel of 96,000 acres were combined to form Grand Teton National Park as we know it today.

Native American History

As with Yellowstone, human inhabitation of the Grand Teton region dates back at least 11,000 years. Tribes that are known to have hunted game and gathered provisions in the area include the Shoshone, Nez Perce, Bannock, Blackfoot, Crow, Flathead and Gros Ventre. These people predominantly camped near the lakes and rivers on the northern edge of the park, where they roasted camas root in underground pits.