The Fight Over Private Homes in the National Parks

Are houses within national parks a dream or a nightmare?
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Are houses within national parks a dream or a nightmare?
private homes

Zion National Park. Photo: flickr/Paul McClay

For sale: A 1,500-square-foot, 45-year-old house on 2.3 acres in Wyoming. Excellent views of the trident peaks of the Grand Tetons—from within the park!

Fiction? Nope. The property sold in May 2015 for $1.8 million. Such islands of private land in the parks are called inholdings and there are thousands of them nationwide. Today, more so than any other time in NPS history, those lands are at risk of going to private developers, rather than to the parks.

Of the 84.6 million acres that lie inside park borders, 2.6 million are private, grandfathered in after park boundaries shifted. In many places, inholdings make the management of surrounding public lands more difficult and costly, and can complicate public access and wildlife movement. Visitors cried foul in 2007 when new mansions began rising on inholdings inside Utah’s Zion National Park.

Conservation groups often seek out these types of land for purchase, then turn them over to the parks. “The priority is to make the land in our national parks contiguous. That’s something we want to fix for the American public,” says Julie Klett, director of donor relations for the Rocky Mountain Conservancy, a nonprofit group that recently purchased a 42-acre tract of private riverfront property inside Rocky Mountain National Park.

And for 50 years, they could count on the government for help from an embattled program called the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which is supported by revenues collected from offshore oil drilling. In October 2015, a House committee led by Utah Republican Rob Bishop allowed the fund to expire. It was brought back with bipartisan support months later, but will expire again in three years.

The limited supply of inholdings, plus their proximity to scenery, make them enormously valuable, says Fred Harness, owner of ReMax Obsidian Real Estate in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. “Only three percent of the land in Teton County is privately owned and 95 percent of that three percent is already developed,” he adds. “An inholding with a quality home would have a 50 percent premium.”

That’s pitting conservation groups against deep-pocketed developers and private citizens in a battle with big implications for how—and who—the parks will serve in the future.