Protest and passion continue to mount around a proposal to build a via ferrata in Sinks Canyon State Park, dividing the central Wyoming outdoor recreation community.
Roughly 300 people attended an open house Aug. 30 at the Lander Community Center. The stated purpose of the gathering was to collect public feedback on the newly updated Sinks Canyon Master Plan. But comments indicated the majority of attendees were there to discuss one aspect in particular: the via ferrata and its proposed location on a cliff where peregrine falcons nest.
Though comments ran the gamut — touching on issues of overuse, economic development and wildlife impacts — many underscored a desire for compromise.
“The via ferrata is not the problem,” Lander resident Ron Smith said. “The issue for those of us concerned with keeping the canyon wild is simply the location of the proposed via ferrata and the lack of collaboration and transparency in the process by which the via ferrata was approved … I hope we can all agree that these issues can easily be solved if we can only come together in the spirit of cooperation and collaboration.”
After the meeting, Liz Lightner — who attended decked out in a harness and helmet to demonstrate the gear involved with the pastime — said proponents are certainly open to discussing and exploring different locations. Lightner has been disappointed by the divisive way the issue has played out, she said, and hopes stakeholders can sit down for a constructive conversation.
“It would be nice to be able to have discussions,” she said.
Wyoming State Parks planned to collect the oral and written comments, officials said, and will review them as it establishes a next step.
A master plan vision and recovered raptors
Sinks Canyon State Park is a relatively small but heavily used park in central Wyoming that draws several hundred thousand visitations annually. Though operated by Wyoming State Parks, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department owns the vast majority of the park’s 585 acres, obligating the wildlife agency to evaluate all new facilities. The land is classified as a wildlife habitat management area.
Wyoming State Parks initiated a master plan process in 2019; until then park improvements were guided by a 1975 plan. When the approved plan was released in October 2020 following more than a year of meetings, surveys, small group interviews and more, it laid out a vision of a park with better parking and more trails, a larger visitor’s center, more educational opportunities and augmented recreation opportunities.
Among those was a via ferrata — a cable and rung system that allows users to climb steep faces — proposed for a north-facing cliff near the mouth of the canyon. That proposal was introduced by a group of Lander locals as a way to draw visitors and boost the town’s tourist economy. The group has raised roughly $35,000 to build the project.
In the months since the plan was released, however, opposition to the via ferrata has grown. Much of the concern stems from the fact that a pair of peregrine falcons use the cliff some years — including this spring — as a nesting site.
Peregrine populations plummeted across the U.S. in the 20th century, including in Wyoming. It was listed as endangered in 1970 under the Endangered Species Act predecessor, and experienced a comeback in the 1980s and 1990s thanks to reintroduction efforts and the banning of DDT, a pesticide that poisoned adult birds and hampered successful development of the young.
At least one pair has been nesting in the canyon since 1994, according to Bob Oakleaf, a retired Game and Fish biologist who was involved with peregrine reintroduction. It is one of four pairs he has observed in the greater Lander region.
Oakleaf and others argue that erecting a via ferrata in the vicinity of known nesting sites will negatively impact the birds. Other opponents say Sinks Canyon is already overrun and doesn’t need more infrastructure and traffic.
Game and Fish officials reviewed the proposal, they said, and have established management requirements they believe will protect the bird and natural resources. These include mandatory closures during nesting season, the option for targeted closures if deemed necessary, monitoring and annual evaluation.
A canyon-sized divide
Sinks Canyon “is certainly a huge driver as far as quality of life and why people love Lander,” Matt Ashby, a planner with Ayers Associates, a firm that helped develop the master plan, told the crowd on Aug. 30.
A protectiveness over the park was evident at the meeting, where a large crowd came to give pitches both for and against the via ferrata proposal.
“I have supported and continue to support the via ferrata as an opportunity to grow our outdoor recreational assets as well as economic development to Lander,” Fremont County Commissioner Mike Jones said.
In the past 10 years, Jones said, Fremont County “has lost half of its tax base. We’ve dropped from $1.1 billion to $560 million currently in our property tax base.” At the same time, voters have passed a lodging tax and an asset tax, he said. “This community recognizes the need for growth of our economy and tourism to replace lost revenue.”
Jones also noted that Sinks Canyon is already heavily impacted by recreation. He feels that impacts to the peregrines will be properly mitigated by Game and Fish requirements, he said. Fellow proponents said it’s an opportunity to introduce people to wild places and leverage tourism as a way to buoy Wyoming’s economy.
Others argued that Sinks is too special to risk impacts to wildlife and pristine places, and that their requests for consideration of those risks have fallen on deaf ears.
“In our wildest imagination we could not believe Wyoming Game and Fish Department would approve of the proposal and give away fish and wildlife habitat,” Oakleaf said. He urged a pause on the project and a more rigorous public and environmental review.
Jenny Reeves-Johnson said the project seems to be “all about the money it’ll bring in” and not about the impacts it could cause.
“Lander’s busyness is picking up without any deliberate attempt to manifest it. There is accelerated activity in the canyon as it is,” she said.
“I’m not opposed to change, that is inevitable,” Reeves-Johnson said. “I am alert for the need for wise decisions. The special and now-limited wildness in our world should be protected.”
Lander City Council member Julia Stuble emphasized the need for well-vetted planning and evidenced-based decisions. As a place developed for recreation, she said, “I want to say that I’m in support of the via ferrata in Sinks Canyon … That being said, I think like many of you, I want to do this with good biological analysis, cultural analysis and public comments.”
Up the chain
Opponents have even taken their complaints to the state’s highest office.
On a hot afternoon in August, about 40 people gathered at the front gate of Lander’s Hunt Field Airport armed with signs. They were there to greet Gov. Mark Gordon, who was in Fremont County to speak at the dedication of a veterans memorial in Fort Washakie.
Rep. Lloyd Larsen (R-Lander) escorted Gordon to the gate, where the governor approached the crowd to hear what they had to say. Protesters told him Game and Fish should prioritize peregrine well-being over recreation and that the park cannot handle the crowds. They also complained about a process they said was not transparent or rigorous enough. Protesters from the Wind River Indian Reservation warned that the via ferrata will have impacts on the wildlife, water and the future of the park.
“I hope you noticed how many people feel so strongly about this,” one protester told Larsen, who supports the proposal.
Both elected officials listened and thanked the crowd. Gordon’s spokesperson Michael Pearlman told WyoFile in July that the governor “is a strong proponent of adding value to our outdoor recreation economy.” On Friday, Pearlman wrote in an email that Gordon is “aware of the concerns that have been raised” around the proposal, “but also recognizes there’s been a robust planning and public engagement process to reach this point.”
Game and Fish is not currently proposing any changes to the plan, Jason Hunter, Lander region wildlife supervisor, said Friday. The agency will mandate its management requirements if the project is on Game and Fish land and will recommend the requirements if the project is not — regardless of whether State Parks changes the location, he said.