CLASH OF THE TETONS
A slice of national park in Wyoming is being returned to the public. Tony Perrottet reports from Rockefeller country
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.rustyparrot.com. 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.fourseasons.com/jacksonhole. 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: www.gtlc.com.
Hey dudes: View of the Tetons from Jackson Lake Lodge; from top right, Phelps Lake; Million Dollar Cowboy Bar; the park offers superb walks