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. 

This undated image from the Carbon County Museum collection is labeled as “Train comming (sic) through the cut west of town.” (Carbon County Museum/1947.002.0037001)

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. 

This map highlights the historic assets proposed for a National Heritage Area designation in Wyoming. (Vernon Lovejoy)

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. 

“I think it’s a fantastic opportunity for something that we have anyway.”

Carbon county commissioner travis moore

“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. 

Reservations, hopes

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. 

An angler on the North Platte River near Casper. (BLM Wyoming/FlickrCC)

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. 

Lasting legacy

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.”

Parco Hotel after the refinery explosion, 1927. Parco, which was built as a company town, is now Sinclair. (Carbon County Museum/1959.321.0009001)

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.

Katie Klingsporn reports on outdoor recreation, public lands, education and general news for WyoFile. She’s been a journalist and editor covering the American West for 20 years. Her freelance work has...

Join the Conversation


Want to join the discussion? Fantastic, here are the ground rules: * Provide your full name — no pseudonyms. WyoFile stands behind everything we publish and expects commenters to do the same. * No personal attacks, profanity, discriminatory language or threats. Keep it clean, civil and on topic. *WyoFile does not fact check every comment but, when noticed, submissions containing clear misinformation, demonstrably false statements of fact or links to sites trafficking in such will not be posted. *Individual commenters are limited to three comments per story, including replies.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. My maternal relatives all have connections to Carbon County, and I think this feasibility study is a good idea. I am especially interested in Parco, as one of my grand uncles was employed there. When traveling through this past summer, I could see lots of possibilities. I wish the researchers luck, and look forward to seeing what they come up with.

  2. I would add Fremont County, just a short jaunt up the classic wide open Rt 287. Home of the Northern Arapaho – Eastern Shoshones and the historic gold / iron / uranium mining ghost towns of South Pass, Atlantic City and Jeffrey City.

    Not to mention, Riverton, setting of the Annie Proulx story about two gay cowboys. The movie, “Brokeback Mountain”, won seven Acadamy Awards,

  3. Here are some facts that all Wyoming citizens should consider about this project:
    Why are Colorado people so interested in tourism in this state? I’ve thought about that and can only come up with the fact that there is some financial gain for this company (a Colorado company).
    Here are some interesting facts:
    Carbon and Natrona county make up 13.6% of the land area of Wyoming and they make up 16.4% of the population. Why would we (the people of Wyoming) want the federal government to have their finger in that block of land. As was said by the Board of County Commissioners in Natrona Co. they (the feds) always have strings attached to money they dole out.
    READ THIS ACT CAREFULLY and watch for certain trigger words that would let the feds into more active management under the terms. One should look at the governments provisions of this grant and check out the program. It says no one will be afected by this disignation. Better looks out because when did the Feds ever leave a program alone once they got their fingers in it?
    If one looks at the historic areas that are listed on this companies map, almost all of them are signed or shown on signs on the highway between Casper and
    This company says that they would develope and “App” for travelers to use. Well, just drive that area an see how well your phone works. There are serious gaps in cell phone coverage in that area ie. the app won’t work there. I searched the web for “Historic Places” in Wyoming. For Natrona County the search took .81 seconds and returned 720,000 results, for Carbon it took 1.04 seconds and returned 10,000,000 results. Do we need an app in addition to that? I doubt it.
    One comment that was brought up at the Natrona County Historical Conservation Committee meeting (which by the way, these people tried to go around for approval of the project in Natrona County) was that there are several areas of historic value that need special care and not have a bunch of tourists wandering around in and destroying that specific site.
    I wonder how many of the land owners in the area proposed by this designaton have been notified of this project being considered.
    I believe that this matter need much more attention than is being given it and having a group from Colorado drive this matter.

  4. Come on Wyoming be smart, Lovejoy and Haas have discovered a gift to Wyoming, *don’t kick a gift horse in the mouth”.

  5. Good news! Thanks Lovejoy and Haas. Many Wyomingites favor NHA and other conservation federal tags. Might the Red Desert protections fit in as well?

    Beware, Lovejoy and Haas. Old-time Wyomingites fear the tourism route and all the “turkeys” who strut in to “develop” with disregard for long-held values.

    Is there any old-time Wyomingite who wants to become the Colorado front-range debacle?

  6. “Cash in…”? It’s always about money here in freedomlandia, and the scenery be damned.

  7. It sounds like a great idea. Another great idea would be to move the State’s Capitol from Cheyenne to Casper, and change the name of the capitol city to “Wyoming City”, and Natrona County to “Wyoming” County. It’s unseemly to have the state’s capitol located so far east and so far south, and located so close to Denver that it almost appears to be a far-away suburb of that city. The State of Wyoming would feel a renewed sense of pride in having it’s capitol in a more central location, and having the state’s name on it.

  8. When I read about something like this I applaud the concept and effort so far I guess, but at the same time, rather than a criticism, it opens in my mind a “strategic question”. This sort of designation could be literally State-wide. I’m generally anti motor sport but it looks like dirt bike motorcyclists are pioneering routes across the State that provide a certain new access and security for access to vast regions of Wyoming for back country walkers and mountain bikers simply by making these routes known and promoting use such that emergency rescue is much more feasible by virtue of more regular visitation by mechanized (quick access) travelers. 20 miles is a long distance on foot or bike, these routes can be 40 to 80 miles or more, so the distances are long and the scenic area is vast. We have to keep reminding ourselves that Wyoming does not have to look at Colorado’s Front Range community growth pattern as the inevitable future, nor should we continue with the unattached suburb model for our small towns. The population is aging and global human population is trending toward a peak in the next generation and then headed down. We don’t need a lot of new infrastructure in Wyoming, in fact we should not be encouraging it, but what we do need is strategic planning and some shared vision on how to develop public access to more areas of the State, a concept that will be like growing the State in area. At the same time we can start to eliminate invasive camping areas in our recognized most beautiful mountain areas and create space for motorized live-in tourism in lower, prairie lands adjacent to our small towns. We don’t need more mega-RVs of season-long residents crowding all our woodland lakes and high county byways. We need to plan now for the absolute godsend of self regulating human population, the declining population trending globally in the next half century, this is the most optimistic phenomenon in our contemporary age.

  9. My only comment would be: I would hope the indigenous people who spent time in those areas were not once again forgotten/erased.

  10. Thank you for this story!

    Although many good projects have been developed over the years, Cultural Heritage Tourism in Wyoming is still mostly untapped gold and could be a great boon for economic diversification and sustainable tourism revenue.

    An important aspect that this particular story doesn’t touch on is that these sites are going to need some serious investment if we want them to be ready for “prime time.” The interpretation at many of these sites is antiquated or non-existent and some, like Independence Rock have become kind of an interpretive litter ground with a hodge lodge of different eras of signage that are in many cases dilapidated and tell an uncoordinated story.

    Fortunately, there are sources of grants and other kinds of funding, including, hopefully, lodging tax revenue that can be directed towards providing the visitor experience cultural heritage travelers expect.

    I applaud and support this effort!