Owner’s goal is to preserve agriculture and wildlife habitat
With the acquisition of Horseshoe Meadows, a vacant subdivision outside of Horseshoe Canyon, lifelong conservationist Nancy Hamill Winter has established a corridor of protected land between the Teton River and the Big Hole Range.
Growing up in the dairy farmlands 50 miles west of Chicago, Nancy watched as suburban sprawl inexorably devoured the agricultural land, causing wildlife habitat fragmentation and covering the rich Midwestern soil with concrete. That experience set her life’s trajectory as a farm manager, natural area restoration expert, and philanthropic conservationist.
As a child she resorted to mischief like removing surveyor’s stakes to halt encroaching development, but said now her methods have become a bit more sophisticated. She has extensive experience with land in Illinois, restoring tallgrass prairie ecosystems, establishing a bird sanctuary, supporting equine advocacy, and working with different land trusts.
The Winter family has a long history of making pilgrimages to the Tetons to ski and enjoy the mountains. In the mid-2000s, Nancy’s son Ethan, who had been working at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort and the Jackson Hole Land Trust, moved away to attend graduate school. Her family wanted to maintain a toehold in the Tetons, which inspired their first land purchase, 160 acres along the Teton River called Three Forks, which was valuable cutthroat, moose, and elk habitat. The property included a small remnant of the vast sagebrush bench ecosystem that once covered the river valley. Since then Nancy has bought up more properties to maintain contiguous undeveloped land from the wetlands west of the Teton River to the foothills of the Big Holes.
Carlos Ordoñez, a broker at Live Water Properties who has worked with the Winter family on every purchase and considers them close friends, says the tally of parcels is up to 20 since 2005. Nancy said Ordoñez has been an integral part of the process, keeping an eye on property owners in the valley who might consider parting with land.
“It was a lot of off-market stuff,” Ordoñez said. “But we’ve been fortunate that everyone we’ve bought from has appreciated Nancy’s vision.”
Thanks to rampant rezones, there were a growing number of small A-2.5 zoned residential lots around Three Forks. That’s when Nancy’s vision grew to encompass more of the corridor.
“She wanted to create a buffer around that sweetheart parcel on the river,” Ordoñez said. “She realized what a special place that land was for the moose and the deer and the sharp-tailed grouse.”
The Winter family’s mission in protecting the corridor between Big Eddy and the mouth of Horseshoe Canyon was twofold: to enable agriculture to continue in the valley, and to ensure that the valley’s population of migrating sandhill cranes will always have staging grounds in the valley.
Aside from one farming family, everyone Nancy has bought land from has been a non-resident, often developers who had tried to cash in on the real estate boom of the previous decade but now want out of their stalled subdivisions. The most recent purchase, Horseshoe Meadows, was just vacated by Teton County, erasing the 25 lots that were platted on the 162-acre property in 2006.
Working with various organizations, the Teton Regional Land Trust first and foremost but also Friends of the Teton River, Rocky Mountain Environmental, Intermountain Aquatics, and Double Diamond Pest and Weed Management, Nancy has been able to find the land with the most intrinsic value, maintain it in order to control invasive weeds, and learn the basics of water rights, an alien concept to someone from the water-rich Midwest.
“I have a kindergarten level understanding of water rights,” she said with a laugh. “Rocky Mountain Environmental and Friends of the Teton River have been great tutors.”
She was recognized in 2012 with the TRLT’s Ed Hill Award, a fitting endorsement because she maintains a working relationship with the Hill family, which leases much of her acreage for crop production.
“The Hills are wonderful to work with and to have as neighbors,” she said.
The TRLT holds conservation easements on around half of the 1,400-acre corridor, and Nancy and her family plans to put it all in an easement to restrict future development. Now that she has filled in the holes on the map, her next goal is to establish a cohesive management plan for the land. She intends for it to stay in agriculture, planted or grazed as it has been for over a century.
“We’re proud to partner with people who clearly love this place,” said TRLT executive director Joselin Matkins. “There are not many opportunities left on the west side of the valley to have a fully intact corridor for migration. Nancy has made a profound impact on the landscape.”
Nancy enjoys seeing the land used not only for agriculture but also for recreation. From a family of dedicated fly fisherman, she knows the economic benefit of recreation to an area, and appreciates that the public and local agencies have taken on collaborative projects like the Buxton River Park with its ample parking, beautifully painted vault toilet, and ADA accessible pathway.
“The natural resources here are marvelous,” Nancy said.