Travelers often race through Natrona and Carbon counties in south-central Wyoming en route to other destinations, and it’s easy to see why. Sprawling and unpopulated, the region is dominated by oceans of sagebrush, windswept prairies and pronghorn.
But a closer look will yield a trove of historically significant landmarks. Stitch them together and you’ve got a rich tapestry of frontier and railroad history, according to Vernon Lovejoy, a retired BLM employee who lived and worked in Carbon County for a dozen years.
Lovejoy wants to encourage people to slow down, savor the landmarks and view the area as a destination in its own right. Along with his colleague Glenn Haas, he is proposing Wyoming pursue a seldom-used federal heritage designation for the 8.5-million-acre region.
The Pathways National Heritage Area would encompass both counties in a slender quadrant of land from the Colorado state line north to Midwest. It would include the cities of Casper and Rawlins, a leg of Interstate 80 and a stretch of the North Platte River. The area is home to numerous historic curiosities: from rutted two tracks traveled by emigrant wagon trains to a section of the nation’s first coast-to-coast highway and a grand company town built in Spanish Colonial style.
“No question about it, Carbon and Natrona County are an ideal location for national heritage,” Lovejoy said.
A designation would help raise the area’s profile and collate its resources into one attractive pool for history buffs, Lovejoy and Haas say, providing a new economic leg for the energy-dependent communities to lean on. It would not infringe on private property rights or uses of public lands like grazing.
Wyoming has a compelling story to tell and this designation can help it do so, they say. Securing Heritage Area status, however, is a long and multi-step process, and while some local leaders and tourism representatives see promise, others have expressed wariness of any action that involves the federal government.
Lovejoy is a Colorado resident, but spent 12 years in Rawlins, where he met his wife and developed fondness for the region’s history and arid landscapes. He also witnessed two major extraction boom and bust cycles during that time, he said, and realized there weren’t other sufficient pillars to prop up the economy.
“I decided there had to be something else, in addition to agriculture, in addition to minerals,” Lovejoy said. Tourism struck him as the obvious answer. He began exploring opportunities, he said, and “it became really apparent that these two counties have an enormous heritage of pioneers and early 20th century activities going on.”
Among the assets: Independence Rock, where thousands of emigrants etched their names as they traveled westward in wagon trains; Fort Caspar, a U.S. Army post located at a major river crossing for emigrants; Parco, a cluster of Spanish-style buildings in Sinclair built as a company town; and the path of the first transcontinental railroad.
“It has like 100 heritage sites, which we believe forms a cluster, this assemblage which helps to justify a National Heritage Area,” Haas said, adding that the sites complement some 15 heritage pathways including the Oregon, Mormon Pioneer, Chief Washakie and Pony Express trails.
Lovejoy has been chipping away at this idea for more than eight years. Haas, his longtime business partner, has relevant experience. The retired Colorado State University professor of parks, recreation and tourism was involved in the designation of the Cache La Poudre National Heritage Area and the South Park National Heritage Area — both of which he said brought benefits to their communities. (A 2017 study of the economic impact of the Cache La Poudre NHA reported an annual $81-million economic impact to the region.)
“This is obviously very significant,” Haas said of the economic benefit, noting that Wyoming could also experience boosts.
Heritage tourists are generally history buffs who utilize online guides to take self-guided automobile tours.
“Heritage tourists tend to be older,” Haas said. “They tend to be higher income, they tend to be looking for a more learning experience, to enjoy the heritage assets that you have. They tend to stay longer, they tend to stay in hotels.”
Attracting more of them through the Pathways NHA, the men say, would be a boon.
An NHA is a congressionally designated geographic area where “historic, cultural and natural resources combine to form a cohesive, distinct and nationally important landscape.” It is akin to a “museum without walls,” Lovejoy said — a region home to artifacts like homesteads, migration routes and markers. There are 62 NHAs across 36 states. None are in Wyoming.
The National Park Service oversees the NHA program, though the agency does not assume ownership of land inside heritage areas or impose land-use controls. Rather, the park service partners with, provides technical assistance and distributes matching federal funds to NHA entities, which are steered by local groups.
“There’s no influence whatsoever” by the federal agency, Lovejoy said.
A local entity would coordinate the proposed Pathways NHA. That entity could be an existing government department or a nonprofit organization made up of representatives from local governments, private business or interest groups, the men suggest.
The main task of the coordinating entity would be to maintain an app that guides visitors to the various landmarks, Haas said. “We’re not talking about building buildings or buying land or starting a conservation land trust.”
The first step to establishing a NHA is a feasibility study to determine if it meets NPS criteria. If the proposal receives Congressional approval, the NHA is eligible for federal funds of $150,000 annually while a management plan is developed. After that plan is complete, NHAs can receive $300,000-$500,000 annually subject to matching funds. So small local investments “can turn into something of a big return,” Haas said.
The men, both Colorado residents, are willing to compile the
feasibility study at no charge. They initially requested $15,000 to help cover expenses, but have since dropped that. As they have shopped the proposal around to tourism and government groups in the two counties, reception has varied.
“With the federal government doing what they’re doing with different parks and whatnot, it makes me a little nervous as a landowner,” Natrona County Commissioner Jim Milne told Lovejoy and Haas when they presented the idea during a work session in June. Milne brought up recent BLM conservation pushes as an example, and said he worries about implications for private landowners.
“A National Heritage Area has no effect on any public or private landowner,” Lovejoy told him.
Commissioner Peter Nicolaysen is concerned about federal funding coming with mandates, he told the men at that meeting. “So I think you would have to look into that really carefully because I think that’s a huge issue, are the strings that are attached.” He urged them to hold more public meetings to gauge local opinion in Natrona County, and the commission decided to have further discussions before making a decision to back the effort.
Visit Casper CEO Tyler Daugherty said his group supports the feasibility study and hopes to help facilitate meetings to help residents learn about what an NHA entails. He respects the concerns of private property owners, he said, but also acknowledges that his county is home to many valuable historic sites.
“To me, the NHA is an enhancement for them and another resource for some of these assets to get exposure,” Daughtery said.
In Carbon County, many have embraced the idea.
Carbon County Commissioner Travis Moore is one of them. The lifelong Rawlins resident told WyoFile he had initial concerns, but after investigating the proposal and making phone calls to other communities in NHAs, “I don’t see the downside.”
Visitors stream through Carbon County, Moore said, and without knowing about these heritage resources, they have no reason to stop. “People can stop and get gas here on their way to Yellowstone,” he said, “but if we had this designation, they might stay a couple of days.”
Sharing the county’s history with a broader swath of people, he added, wouldn’t infringe on other values or interests, such as keeping its outdoor recreational resources uncrowded. “I think it’s a fantastic opportunity for something that we have anyway,” Moore said. The commissioner has already reached out to Wyoming congressional delegation staffers to inform them of the proposal.
Lovejoy and Haas intend to keep beating the NSA drum. Their goal is to hand the county commissions a feasibility study by January. At that point, “it would be their decision if they want to move forward” and submit it to the National Park Service for review before it’s prepared for the Wyoming delegation, Lovejoy said. A lot of the task entails educating people, they say.
“Probably 99% of the people we’ve talked to get it, like it,” Lovejoy said, but “one of the things we’ve encountered is that people in Wyoming have never heard of national heritage areas.”
The project is a labor of love, they say.
“It’s not about the money,” Lovejoy said. “We’d like to give back … and it will have meaningful results, forever, for Natrona and Carbon County.”
Lovejoy and Haas launched a website to gather public opinion on the proposal. Click here to read about it and submit comments.