High ranch prices show interest in conserved land no longer limited to stewards

A roughly 233-acre ranch in Wyoming is asking $35 million. Latham Jenkins photo.

JACKSON — To its former owners, Wyoming’s priciest listing was far more than a cash gem.

“It was our home,” said Julie Givens, describing a 233-acre plot on the banks of the Snake River that has been in her family for almost 40 years. Earlier this summer, Jackson Hole Ranch was listed for $35 million — the highest priced offering in the state when it was listed in July.

When Givens’ parents saw a Wall Street Journal article calling their 233-acre ranch “Wyoming’s Priciest Listing,” they cried.

“That’s not what this was about for them,” Givens said. “It was about this very special piece of land and protecting it.”

The ranch came under contract in two days and sold a month later.

With 96 percent of the 233 acres barred from development under a conservation easement through the Jackson Hole Land Trust, the listing represents one of the highest valuations of protected land ever seen in Jackson, according to listing agency Live Water Properties.

It could also be one of the highest prices for non-developable land in the nation, though Live Water’s founding partner Alex Maher said it’s difficult to differentiate the value of the protected acres from the opportunities to build.

“I think people have become more tolerant or more willing to buy property under easement than they were 10 years ago, or 15 or 20 years ago, absolutely,” he said.

Many naturalists view conservation easements as a win for ecology. Jackson Hole Ranch, for instance, abuts Grand Teton National Park and serves as a migratory corridor for 600 elk.

Buyers often see the protection as a limitation.

“People are used to placing structures wherever they would like within the confines of the property. And that’s not the case in these conservation easements,” said listing agent Latham Jenkins, who tries to educate and inform buyers about the less-obvious virtues of protected land.

“You think you’re buying a property that has restrictions on it that, in essence, distract from the value,” he said. “I would argue no, it actually increases the value. Because it will never change.”

Jenkins said people interested in Jackson Hole Ranch asked about installing a dirt bike track and helicopter pad. Another potential buyer wanted to hunt.

There was some interest from so-called “conservation buyers” looking to carry on a stewardship legacy. But most people had no idea what a conservation easement meant.

Givens said that when her father first bought land next to the Snake River several interested buyers, including the Anheuser-Busch family, which offered him $10 million, approached him. Instead they chose to work with the Land Trust to put a conservation easement on the ranch to benefit wildlife.

Bill Givens ran a tech company in the printing industry and came to the Tetons to climb and backpack. Until recently he held the record for being the oldest person to ever complete the Grand Traverse, his daughter said.

She hoped Jenkins would find a similarly outdoor-loving steward to take over the ranch, rather than someone looking to add a “jewel” to their crown.

“My parents saw it as an honor to protect it. And I feel the same way,” Givens said. “You’re doing something good for the world by maintaining this land that has restrictions on it.

“Really, we should all think like that. You’re the steward of your own little backyard,” she said.

Jenkins wouldn’t disclose the buyers out of respect for their privacy.

“It’s raising what people are willing to pay per acre for protected land,” he said of the sale. “But in my opinion the mindset has turned to seeing the value of it being protected versus historically thinking of it having been stripped of its development entitlements, and someone else already got the tax benefits.”

One third of Teton County’s limited private lands are already conserved in some way. When landowners choose to put their property under voluntary easement, they receive a tax break.

Those purchasing land already under easement — like the buyer of Jackson Hole Ranch — don’t receive the tax incentive of the donation, but they are generally able to buy acreage at a cheaper price.

A similar deal also applies to ranching land on the market.

The Mead family is currently asking $40 million for 257 acres of the ranch that has been in the family for more than a century. Of those acres, 193 are protected by an easement through the Jackson Hole Land Trust.

The easement was originally secured in the early 2000s by Brad Mead’s grandfather, Cliff Hansen, a Wyoming governor from 1963 to 1967 and the state’s two-time U.S. senator, from 1967 to 1978.

Mead previously told the News&Guide easements have helped protect the remaining ranches in the area from the pressure of subdivision.

“A lot of the credit goes to the Land Trust, and the community which supported it,” he said.

The national Land Trust Alliance defines a conservation buyer as “a real-estate purchaser whose interest in the natural, agricultural, scenic, or historic attributes of a property steers them toward working with a land trust to protect these values in perpetuity.”

In mountain towns like Bend, Oregon, local land trusts are working with Realtors to attract conservation buyers and explicitly promote conservation easements. At a national level, The Nature Conservancy is working to leverage “increasing interest of the private sector to take part in conservation.”

And with a third of Teton County’s limited private land already shielded from development, buyers have become more willing to purchase protected land — not because of stewardship interest, but just because it’s the only plot available.

The limited supply has effectively meant “people are willing to pay the same price for an encumbered piece of ground as they are for an unencumbered piece of ground,” said Max Ludington, president of Jackson Hole Land Trust since 2020.

The nonprofit is continuing to pursue easements, and Ludington said there will probably come a time when every parcel in the valley that can be developed will have a plan for development and “every piece of ground that can be conserved will be conserved.”

The Land Trust secured three new conservation easements in Teton County last year.

At the same time, Maher, of Live Water Properties, said high prices are merely a reflection of Jackson’s overall popularity.

“It’s a function of property values in general,” he said. “It’s not that land under conservation easement is appreciating faster than land not under conservation easement.

“There’s just a high demand for a very small supply, and then you’ve got all of these scenic and wildlife characteristics and airport accessibility, etc. That’s the reason our land is worth more than other places.”

Last year the median home value was $850,800 in Teton County, according to the Wyoming Economic Analysis Division. Median household income was $87,053.

Ludington said one of the most common complaints the Land Trust hears is actually a misconception.

People assume that conservation easements limit the possibility of affordable housing developments, he said, when in reality that restriction comes from local land development regulations, or LDRs.

“The focus of our work is not the amount of development, it’s the location,” he said.

Taking the location concept a step further, listing agent Jenkins said it doesn’t make sense to build affordable housing on a place like Jackson Hole Ranch. Instead, he said, a community-housing fund should look at “downtown” properties that are in the transportation network.

He pointed to a $38.5 million, 50-acre parcel on Highway 22, right next to the Stilson parking area where skiers park to catch shuttles to Teton Village, which is now on the market.

“I think its highest and best use is to partner with Stilson and the metro center and build community housing there,” Maher said.

Asked if the Stilson lot could be a candidate for workforce housing, listing agent Ted Dawson said, “1000 percent but the county doesn’t want anything to do with that.”

Current single-family and rural zoning allows only one home per 35 acres.