A slice of na­tional park in Wy­oming is be­ing re­turned to the pub­lic. Tony Per­rot­tet re­ports from Rock­e­feller coun­try

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel -

EV­ERY­BODY loves a taste of for­bid­den fruit. Slip­ping through a shady pine for­est high in the Rocky Moun­tains of Wy­oming, I feel as if I have a back­stage pass to a se­cret world. This slice of the West, called the JY Ranch, has been off lim­its since the De­pres­sion as the private sum­mer re­treat of the Rock­e­feller fam­ily. On two ear­lier vis­its to the Grand Te­ton Na­tional Park, I’ve driven past the ranch’s wooden fences and dis­creet en­trance on the lonely gravel road to Moose Junc­tion, with­out re­al­is­ing what lies be­hind.

But this month, the land will be opened to the pub­lic as a new Rock­e­feller do­na­tion to the na­tional park.

I am be­ing given a pre­lim­i­nary glimpse by Clay James, the long-time Rock­e­feller em­ployee who is over­see­ing the his­toric trans­fer.

Even by the ex­treme scenic stan­dards of Jack­son Hole — the 80km long, high-al­ti­tude val­ley dom­i­nated by the 4197m Grand Te­ton moun­tain — the trail is su­perb.

‘‘ There are seven dif­fer­ent nat­u­ral en­vi­ron­ments on the ranch,’’ James en­thuses, ‘‘ from open mead­ows to lake­front to wood­land. It’s rich with huck­le­ber­ries and hawthorns. Elk mi­grate through here. You can see moose, ea­gles, coy­otes, black bears. There are griz­zlies in the area.’’

In fact, na­ture seems to have or­ches­trated my visit for max­i­mum ef­fect. It is a clas­sic sum­mer’s morn­ing in this part of Wy­oming, crisp and clear and, as the trail rises, the trees sud­denly part to re­veal Phelps Lake, glassy green and framed by sheer gran­ite cliffs. Crys­tal wa­ter rip­ples over peb­bles as smooth and pale as eggs; an osprey cruises high over­head. We pause at an over­look where lurid pur­ple wild­flow­ers are burst­ing be­tween bare rocks. ‘‘ This is where the main lodge build­ing once stood,’’ ex­plains James. ‘‘ The Rock­e­fellers’ guests would gather here be­fore din­ner to en­joy the view.’’

The do­na­tion of the JY Ranch is a poignant coda to the fam­ily’s in­volve­ment in Jack­son Hole since the mil­lion­aire John D. Rock­e­feller Jr, then Amer­ica’s rich­est man, first vis­ited in 1926. It’s a largely forgotten saga that is in­sep­a­ra­ble from the cre­ation of the present­day Grand Te­ton Na­tional Park in 1950. (John Jr was the son of the ‘‘ rob­ber baron’’ John Rock­e­feller, a Bap­tist from Cleve­land who rose from poverty to found Stan­dard Oil.) The JY Ranch was the only land the mag­nate held on to when he do­nated more than 13,350ha to the US gov­ern­ment, end­ing decades of lo­cal wran­gling and es­tab­lish­ing the park as we know it to­day. Just over 50 years later, in 2001, the mag­nate’s son, Lau­rance, then aged 90, an­nounced that this last piece of land would also be given to the park. This fi­nal gift in­cludes a state-of-the-art, 605 sq m vis­i­tors’ cen­tre crafted from re­cy­cled douglas fir and a 7km loop trail to Phelps Lake.

What vis­i­tors won’t see are the 30 log build­ings that once made up the JY. Even be­fore the Rock­e­fellers bought it, the prop­erty had op­er­ated as a work­ing ranch. The build­ings were care­fully re­moved in 2005, along with 11km of as­phalt roads and 1500 tonnes of build­ing ma­te­ri­als, to re­turn the lake to its pris­tine nat­u­ral state.

To this idyllic relic of the fron­tier era, the Rock­e­feller fam­ily mem­bers re­paired ev­ery sum­mer from the east coast to en­joy the rus­tic plea­sures of ca­noe­ing, hunt­ing, hik­ing, swim­ming and fly-fish­ing: out­door pur­suits not so very dif­fer­ent from those en­joyed by the Shoshone In­di­ans, who first camped in Jack­son Hole dur­ing the warmer months. Two of John D’s sons, in­clud­ing Lau­rance, even hon­ey­mooned here.

But to­day, a visit to the ranch of­fers more than a voyeuris­tic glimpse into a bil­lion­aire fam­ily’s private play­ground. It is the latest chap­ter in the cen­tury-long strug­gle to pro­tect the val­ley of Jack­son Hole, which is ‘‘ one of the great con­ser­va­tion sto­ries of Amer­i­can his­tory’’, says Joan Anzelmo, the park’s chief of com­mu­ni­ca­tions and ex­ter­nal af­fairs.

The Te­ton sky­line, ris­ing like a tidal wave of gran­ite from sage­brush plains, is now familiar in­ter­na­tion­ally, thanks to Hol­ly­wood movies and Ansel Adams pho­to­graphs, that vis­i­tors as­sume its pro­tected sta­tus has al­ways been guar­an­teed. But be­hind that awe-in­spir­ing land­scape is an epic in­volv­ing a cast of larg­erthan-life char­ac­ters, volatile scenes of cow­boy de­fi­ance, heated pas­sions and wild ac­cu­sa­tions about med­dling east­ern­ers and fed­eral agents. You could call it a clas­sic west­ern. JACK­SON Hole’s fate has long been shaped by its iso­la­tion. For most of the 19th cen­tury, the only white vis­i­tors to this lush val­ley thick with wildlife were fur trap­pers, who used the Te­tons as a land­mark. Th­ese wan­der­ers coined the term ‘‘ hole’’ to de­scribe the un­usual high plateau sur­rounded by moun­tains. Fa­mously, a group of lovelorn French­men dubbed the val­ley’s dom­i­nant peaks les trois te­tons (the three breasts), now called the South, Mid­dle and Grand Te­ton. The first set­tlers — a trickle of cat­tle ranch­ers and home­stead­ers — scratched a liv­ing from the land in the 1890s, barely sur­viv­ing the bru­tal win­ters.

Soon, a few ranch­ers be­gan of­fer­ing sum- mer stays at dude ranches to rich east­ern­ers, with horse­back-rid­ing and west­ern meals of elk, salted bear meat, canned toma­toes and break­fast flap­jacks gar­nished with dead flies caught in the mix.

It was into this aus­tere Shangri-La that the re­served, square-jawed, 52-year-old heir to the Rock­e­feller for­tune ar­rived in the sum­mer of 1926, on a west­ern road tour with his wife, Abby, and their sons. Sit­ting down for a boxed lunch 30km north of Phelps Lake, he was thun­der­struck by his first glimpse of the jagged, snow-capped Te­tons loom­ing over the emer­ald-green marshes around Jack­son Lake. But as the group con­tin­ued south into the val­ley, they were dis­mayed to see the first signs of crass tourist de­vel­op­ment, in­clud­ing a rodeo grandstand, con­ces­sion stands, a honky­tonk dance hall and even a boot­leg whiskey joint. It was the be­gin­ning of the kind of dev­as­ta­tion that many east­ern­ers had al­ready wit­nessed in places such as Ni­a­gara Falls.

The only way this en­croach­ing com­mer­cial­ism could be stopped, Rock­e­feller learned, was if a rich east­ern phi­lan­thropist bought up the dozens of ranches in the sage­brush flats around the Snake River and do­nated them to the na­tional park ser­vice.

The next year, Rock­e­feller be­gan se­cretly se­cur­ing prop­er­ties, us­ing a front called the Snake River Land Com­pany. Though this made good busi­ness sense and avoided land prices sky­rock­et­ing, when word leaked out of his in­volve­ment in 1930, it set off shock waves around Wy­oming. The news evoked a re­cur­ring west­ern night­mare: a New York mil­lion­aire was in ca­hoots with the fed­eral gov­ern­ment to mus­cle out the ‘‘ lit­tle man’’ in the depths of the Great De­pres­sion.

Wild sto­ries be­gan to cir­cu­late about the Snake River Land Com­pany’s tac­tics: of poor ranch­ers co­erced, of mort­gages fore­closed early, of barns be­ing torched by Snake River thugs. In 1933, US Congress was alarmed enough by the ac­cu­sa­tions to dis­patch a se­nate sub­com­mit­tee to Wy­oming to in­ves­ti­gate, with an army of re­porters fol­low­ing to cover the scan­dal. But af­ter four days of hear­ings, it was clear that the al­le­ga­tions were largely un­true. For his part, Rock­e­feller took the long view of the scuf­fle in Wy­oming, telling one re­porter 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 would be mired in a mind-bog­gling ar­ray of pro­pos­als, coun­ter­pro­pos­als, histri­onic de­bates and le­gal chal­lenges. When pres­i­dent Franklin D. Roo- sevelt 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, re­port­edly threat­en­ing to shoot any­one who crossed him. No­body did. 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 13,350ha to the gov­ern­ment and, on Septem­ber 14, 1950, the en­larged Grand Te­ton Na­tional Park was signed into law. The only piece of land the Rock­e­fellers held on to was their 1200ha JY Ranch. Ac­cord­ing to Jack­son his­to­rian Robert Righter, John D. would have hap­pily do­nated it to the park in 1950, ex­cept that his out­doorslov­ing son Lau­rance was so fond of it. But Lau­rance did be­gin do­nat­ing pieces of the JY to the park in the 1980s; the last 450ha be­ing handed over this month make up the fi­nal piece of the jig­saw.

One hope for the new pre­serve, over­seer James tells me, is that it will lure vis­i­tors out of their 4WDs and into the wilder­ness. Since so much of the park can be seen from road­side look­outs, only about 3 per cent of tourists ac­tu­ally ven­ture 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 trail­heads (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 in high sum­mer, I make a more am­bi­tious hike, into the high-al­ti­tude Paint­brush Canyon. Above the tree line, sun­light ric­o­chets off the canyon’s mul­ti­col­ored rock walls. Af­ter about three hours, I reach Holly Lake, a near-frozen tarn sur­rounded by moss and gnarled shrubs. Here, I run into the only soul I see, an el­derly New Eng­lan­der who tells me he’s vis­ited the park each year since 1948. He laments how global warm­ing has made the glaciers re­cede and all but dis­ap­pear. ‘‘ But the ex­pe­ri­ence hasn’t changed,’’ he says. ‘‘ 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, petrol sta­tions, sou­venir stores or malls — I re­call the words of a Vic­to­rian Bri­tish vis­i­tor named William Bail­lie-Grohman, an out­doors­man and alpin­ist who ar­rived here on a horse­back camp­ing trip in 1880 and found him­self the only tourist in the val­ley. ‘‘ The whole pic­ture,’’ he wrote pre­sciently in his travelogue CampsintheRock­ies , ‘‘ had the air of a splen­did, trimly kept old park’’.

It’s hard to be­lieve there was ever a time when na­tional park em­ploy­ees were afraid to wear their uni­forms in the town of Jack­son. The pa­rade of trav­ellers head­ing to the Te­tons ev­ery sum­mer has brought great pros­per­ity to the once-re­mote out­post, where cow­boys, bik­ers, white­wa­ter raft­ing in­struc­tors and Hol­ly­wood stars rub shoul­ders in for­mer gam­bling palaces such as the Sil­ver Dol­lar Bar.

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.’’


The town of Jack­son is the main ur­ban cen­tre in the val­ley of Jack­son Hole, about four hours by road from Salt Lake City, Utah. Jack­son has the widest range of ac­com­mo­da­tion in the Rock­ies. In town, the Rusty Par­rot Lodge and Spa is one of the most ap­peal­ing small ho­tels in the US; it’s worth eat­ing at its restau­rant even if you don’t stay. More: www.rusty­par­ The most sump­tu­ous re­sort is the Four Sea­sons Jack­son Hole, which has vast lux­ury suites, spa and a spec­tac­u­lar, mul­ti­level heated out­door pool (great for un­wind­ing af­ter long hikes). More: www.foursea­­sonhole. Within the park, the best op­tion is the Jack­son Lake Lodge, a 1950s-era sprawl with views of the Te­tons from the ter­race and bars; the retro am­bi­ence is so pow­er­ful you half ex­pect JFK and Jackie to stroll past. More:

Pic­tures: Tony Per­rot­tet

Hey dudes: View of the Te­tons from Jack­son Lake Lodge; from top right, Phelps Lake; Mil­lion Dol­lar Cow­boy Bar; the park of­fers su­perb walks

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