After John D. Rockefeller, Jr.'s visit to the Jackson Hole valley in 1926, he and Yellowstone Superintendent Horace Albright moved quickly to put their conservation plan into action. The strategy involved buying large areas of land in the Jackson Hole valley.
In February 1927, Albright wrote Rockefeller a letter outlining a "definite plan of action" regarding the Jackson Hole land purchases. In the letter, he advised:
"Should you feel that this is a matter that you would like to proceed with, I am sure it can be handled with excellent results along the following lines:
1. Say nothing, at the present time, about the larger or ultimate plan of acquiring all of the private holdings in the Jackson Hole.
2. Confine all activities to acquisition of holdings west of the Snake River…
3. Buy in this area, through an agency or agencies, under a plan to organize a recreation and hunting club… A cattle company to operate on the east side later would be an ideal agency."
This advice, although it may have seemed prudent at the time, also set them up for future struggles.
To conceal the fact that Rockefeller was buying the land, therefore guarding against inflating prices, a shell company was established. The Snake River Land Company was set up in 1927. It presented itself to the Jackson Hole community as a recreation company, never mentioning its involvement with the Rockefeller family or the National Park Service.
Harold Fabian ran legal matters for the Snake River Land Company and Robert E. Miller, considered to be the most influential man in the valley at the time, purchased the land directly. Neither man knew the identity of the "anonymous donors" who held the purse strings. It was even widely known that Miller strongly disagreed with Albright and the Park Service's ideas for conserving the Jackson Hole valley.
Starting with lands north of the Gros Ventre River, from west to east, the Snake River Land Company eventually purchased in excess of 35,000 acres for $1.4 million, or $39.61 per acre; translated to the 2009 equivalent that is about $436 per acre. Although it was a bargain for Rockefeller, this was a fair price for the depressed agricultural area of Jackson Hole at the time.
Eventually the secret of who was behind the Snake River Land Company had to come out, and in 1930 Rockefeller, Albright, and the Park Service came clean with their plan and their intensions for the valley. A feeling of betrayal and distrust spread throughout the area, and even led to several investigations. The most well-known was a Senate investigation in 1932 brought by the senators of Wyoming itself.
The conclusion of this and of the other investigations is well summed up by South Dakota Senator Peter Norbeck's statement: "… it would appear from all that has occurred here that Mr. Rockefeller is having a mighty hard time of it trying to do nothing more than give away a couple of million dollars of his money."
Even though the Snake River Land Company was eventually exonerated, the well-meant deception built a foundation of mistrust in the Jackson Hole valley that would delay the donation of the purchased lands for decades. But that's a story for another day…
-KG & DL
1. McKinney, Mary. The View That Inspired a Vision: The History of the Grand Teton Lodge Company and the Rockefeller Involvement. Grand Teton Lodge Company. 1991 2. Ernst, Joseph W. Worthwhile Places: Correspondence of John D. Rockefeller, Jr. and Horace M. Albright. Fordham University Press. 1991.
3. Righter, Robert W. Crucible for Conservation: The Creation of Grand Teton National Park. Colorado Associated Press. 1982