In 1990, over forty years after the final expansion of Grand Teton National Park, it was estimated that over 70% of the buildings acquired by the Park had been removed. In 1996, the historic buildings in the park were nominated for the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s “Most Endangered Historic Places” list. Despite decades of Park oversight, deferred maintenance, and neglect, the local community did not forget the historic resources in Jackson Hole. Turmoil between the locals, those in the historic preservation field, Wyoming state offices, and Grand Teton National Park administration worsened with each call to save the dilapidated structures. It wouldn’t be until the early 2000s, when a compromise was finally met.
The Organic Act of 1916 established the National Park Service, and offered formal protection for National Parks and National Monuments. In 1935, the Historic Sites Act of 1935 further outlined the mission of the NPS to preserve and protect our historic resources along with the natural, “…to preserve for public use historic sites, buildings and objects of national significance for the inspiration and benefit of the people of the United States.” Grand Teton administration, plagued with little funding and a backlog of maintenance across all park infrastructure, felt their hands were tied with a mission to protect and preserve the natural, scenic resources. The cultural resources could not take priority over visitor support and safety.
In 1966 the National Historic Preservation Act was signed, and formal designation for historic resources was finally recognized. The National Register of Historic Places, National Historic Landmarks, and state historic preservation offices (SHPO) were created as a result. The federal government now had a mission to preserve and maintain historic resources as a direct benefit to the entire country. The National Park Service was now recognized as the official gatekeepers of this mission, although it would take several decades for the new legislation to take a foothold in the mission of the National Parks themselves.
In the early 2000s, with the installment of a new superintendent at Grand Teton National Park, historic preservation became part of the conversation at the administrative level. Although resources were still low, the historic structures had been formally recognized on the National Register of Historic Places, and a management plan had been adopted. Several studies had been undertaken to document and tell the history of Jackson Hole, and a precedent was set for the protection of the buildings, structures and sites that illustrated these stories on the landscape. Volunteer groups were allowed to perform maintenance on the old barns at Mormon Row, now one of the most popular visitor destinations in the park.
With the realization that the Park was interested in preserving all remaining historic buildings, it was clear the decades of deferred maintenance had taken a toll. With over 260 individual buildings spread across 28 historic districts, nearly every building needed some work. The financial means to pursue such projects were few at best, and Park administration began conversations to create innovative solutions to this long-standing problem.
In 2002, prominent members of Grand Teton National Park administration, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and the NPS Intermountain Region toured some of the historic sites in Grand Teton. They stopped at Mormon Row, Lucas-Fabian, the Murie Ranch, Bar BC and the White Grass Ranch. All parties were shocked at the condition of the buildings. Their last stop was White Grass, and an informal decision was made to try to save these places, to give them a new role in the future of the park. A year later in 2003, the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the National Park Service signed an agreement to create a historic preservation training program and facility. Because the Historic Preservation Training Center existed in Maryland, and western rustic architecture was so unique from the architect-designed styles of the east coast, a separate training facility was created.
The Western Center for Historic Preservation (WCHP) was created to train NPS staff in the appropriate methods for performing maintenance on rustic architecture common throughout the west. The idea being if the NPS could train its own staff, much of the work could be in-house and keep costs low. Developing an understanding and appreciation for the architecture also augmented the interpretation programs to discuss the lifestyles of the early residents who constructed these structures.
Grand Teton National Park was chosen as the home base for WCHP, due to its fairly central location in the Intermountian Region, which quickly expanded to include the Pacific West. Located along a maintained road, the White Grass Ranch was selected to become the WCHP training facility. The old dude ranch provided ample opportunity for volunteer groups to hone their preservation skills. As the old cabins were rehabilitated, they provided housing. The WCHP headquarters was officially located in Moose, near the GTNP headquarters building in 2006. A large log building from the JY Ranch was moved to the location to serve as WCHP offices and carpentry shop.
At White Grass, the National Trust for Historic Preservation began a large campaign to accrue funds for a proposed 10-year preservation project for the ranch. It was set for a 2016 completion in connection with the National Park Service centennial celebrations. Today, the work at White Grass is largely finished. The ranch has been transformed into a successful preservation training facility, and new life was given to each of the buildings. Once again groups of people gather on the Main Cabin porch after a long day of work to relax and listen to the elk bugle across the large meadow.
Text by Samantha Ford, Research Historian