Lander-area recreation stakeholders have identified a new site for a controversial cable-and-rung via ferrata project originally proposed on a cliff where peregrine falcons sometimes nest.

The new site is still in Sinks Canyon State Park, but is no longer on wildlife habitat management area land owned by the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission. 

It sits across Highway 131 from the originally proposed site — identified in the 2020 Sinks Canyon State Park Master Plan. The new location is on a sandstone buttress accessible via existing trails and a parking area. Climbers and outdoor educators regularly use the sandstone, and peregrine falcons are not known to nest on the cliffs. 

Stakeholders will meet again on Dec. 14 to hash out details of the new plan. Sinks Canyon Wild, a citizens group that has emerged in opposition of the original plan, said while it’s “elated” the project has come off the wall used by peregrines, it still expects a transparent and rigorous review that includes a no-build option. Proponents say they believe the parties have arrived at a workable compromise. 

“It’s not our first choice,” said Sam Lightner, a climber and leading project proponent. But, he noted, it’s the result of “the give and take that’s supposed to take place.”

Peregrine protection 

Located roughly 10 miles southwest of Lander, Sinks Canyon State Park is popular for camping, mountain biking, climbing and other recreational pursuits. The 585-acre park sees several hundred thousand  visitations each year. 

Wyoming State Parks initiated a master plan process in 2019; until then park improvements were guided by a 1975 document. 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 new amenities.

Among those was the via ferrata — a cable and rung system that allows users to climb steep faces with relative ease and safety. A group of Lander recreation advocates submitted the idea as a way to draw visitors and boost the town’s economy. The group has raised roughly $35,000 to build the project.

This map shows the original proposed location of a via ferrata in Sinks Canyon State Park. (Sinks Canyon Master Plan)

In the months since the plan was released, opposition to the via ferrata has mounted. Much of the concern stems from the fact that a pair of peregrine falcons use the cliff some years — including spring of 2021 — as a nesting site. Peregrine falcon populations once plummeted but have rebounded in Wyoming and elsewhere.  

Many also expressed dismay that they were unaware of the via ferrata until after the plan was finalized, and questioned whether tribes were adequately consulted. State Parks maintains it invited tribal representatives to the process. 

A peregrine falcon perches on a rock outcropping. The raptors nest in rocky cliffs. (National Park Service)

The cliff in question was also on land owned by Wyoming Game and Fish Commission, obligating the wildlife agency to evaluate new facilities. The agency had OK’d the via ferrata proposal subject to mandatory seasonal closures for nesting peregrines and other measures. 

State Parks held an open house to discuss the master plan in August. Roughly 300 people attended, with discussion and comments focused on the proposed man-made climbing route.

As a result of that feedback, State Parks initiated talks with stakeholders in an attempt to identify an alternative project site. Over the course of two lengthy meetings, representatives from Wyoming Catholic College, Sinks Canyon Wild, climbers and others ultimately arrived at the new site. 

Details to come 

The new cliff is commonly known as “the Sandstone Buttress” and “the Gunky Buttress” — a reference to a classic climbing route that snakes up the rock. 

Via ferrata advocates favored the original cliff site due to its north-facing aspect and sheer rock. If a via ferrata were erected on the sandstone alternative, the season of use would be adjusted to spring and fall and miss the summer crowds, Lightner said, but could be more favorable for student groups. The new cliff is also more feature-rich. That could also be a boon for children or others for whom a via ferrata could serve as a “gateway” to climbing, Lightner said. 

A portion of the alternative cliff identified for a via ferrata project in Sinks Canyon State Park. A rope roughly traces the new route for the cable-and-rung structure. (Katie Klingsporn/WyoFile)

Rock art is located on the large rock formation, around the corner from the proposed via ferrata site.

Bob Oakleaf, a retired Game and Fish wildlife biologist who was instrumental in the West’s peregrine recovery effort, was one of the most prominent opposing voices to the original cliff site. He has drafted criteria for the alternative site review process, which include furnishing a detailed written plan for what it will entail. 

“And certainly, in the end, if there’s going to be a true evaluation of alternatives, there needs to be an evaluation of the no-action alternative,” Oakleaf said. 

In a statement, Sinks Canyon Wild emphasized that the process is not over. “Sinks Canyon Wild will determine how to proceed after evaluating the new proposal,” the statement said. 

Lingering wariness 

The conversation has tapped into deeper concerns for the future of the park and has exposed a rift between recreation desires. Though many support the via ferrata as a different recreation option, others say they want to preserve the wild qualities that still exist in the park and avoid overdevelopment. 

Those divisions were on display during a Nov. 16 Game and Fish Commission meeting in Riverton. 

“I’m up here opposing the via ferrata entirely,” said Jenny Reeves-Johnson, who said she’s witnessed tourism grow as a small business owner. “Let’s be different than Colorado, and not [do] this hyper-development of recreation.” 

Signs like this one have popped up in yards around Lander, the nearest town to Sinks Canyon State Park. The park’s 2020 master plan included a proposal to build a via ferrata on a cliff where peregrine falcons sometimes nest. (Katie Klingsporn/WyoFile)

Oakleaf stressed the importance of adequate outreach. 

“I think there needs to be some trust rebuilt,” Oakleaf said. “A lot of people just were caught dumbfounded at the plan for development … and the giveaway of a wildlife management area.”  

Michial Garvin, an Eastern Shoshone tribal member, said Sinks Canyon is “very sacred to the Shoshone people.” He warned of a slippery slope of recreation. “Human beings need to live with nature, not try to regulate and manage nature,” he said. 

Jordan Dresser, chairman of the Northern Arapaho Business Council, emphasized that tribal consultation goes beyond a simple invitation to the table. 

“Earlier a comment was made about if tribes want to participate, they’re allowed to,” Dresser said. “But wants or needs are two very different things. A want implies a luxury, while at the end of the day, tribal constitution needs to happen.”

Chris Floyd, manager of the Wyoming Office of Outdoor Recreation, said State Parks is committed to involving both the Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone tribes. 

“We’re going to continue to engage with both tribal historic preservation officers again, regardless of the location of this, and if they want consultation we will work with them through that,” Floyd said. 

Sen. Cale Case (R-Lander) speaks to the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission Nov. 16, 2021 about the via ferrata project proposed for Sinks Canyon State Park. He cited a proliferation of yard signs in Lander as proof that the Lander community is opposed to a via ferrata project. (Katie Klingsporn/WyoFile)

Others, like Rep. Lloyd Larsen (R-Lander), defended the process as open and thorough. The agency went above and beyond to be transparent, State Parks and Cultural Resources Commissioner Aaron Bannon said. He advocated for smart management. 

“We have the option to either try to develop [growth] and carefully manage that growth, or let it continue on its own accord,” Bannon said. 

Sen. Cale Case (R-Lander) brought up the proliferation of yard signs that read “No via ferrata on peregrine cliffs” in Lander.

“There’s no way,” he said, “that the Lander community supports the via ferrata.”

Necessary conversations

The thrust of the proposal has always been to offer an alternative form of recreation that could help draw summer tourists who drive through Lander, Lightner said. Even though the process has been bumpy, he said, he still believes it holds benefits for the community. 

“All of our lives have been changed by outdoor recreation, for the better,” he said of himself and other proponents. “We’ve seen other people’s lives get changed by outdoor recreation … I really do believe it’s good for us.”

The goal is to have the via ferrata be free or inexpensive, Floyd said. He told the Game and Fish Commission that State Parks will continue to engage the wildlife agency. “We want to manage wildlife in the canyon, regardless of who the landowner is.”

Ultimately, Floyd said, “a lot of conversations needed to happen about the future of that park, and that’s why we went through that process.” 

Katie Klingsporn

Katie Klingsporn is WyoFile's managing editor. She is a journalist and word geek who has been writing about life in the West for 15 years. Her pieces have appeared in Adventure Journal, National Geographic...

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  1. We don’t need an amusement park in the Sinks. How about a zip line, bungie jumping off the cliffs, a water slide from Bruce’s Bridge? The second siting has traditional climbing routes up it. How would the traditional climbers be affected by this? We don’t need more consumerist abuse of the natural world. Go for a walk and sit quietly and take in the beauty and nature of Sinks Canyon.

  2. By opening up areas like this to the public for recreation, the problems of traffic, trash, graffiti and damage to the landscape begin. Even though the agency in charge vows to enforce control on the visiting tourists, the area won’t ever be the same. A large percentage of people today dont respect the land and feel they can do whatever they want once they arrive in a park or public land. Let’s leave areas like this as they are and not invite more tourists to disturb the wildlife and damage the landscape.

  3. Looks like Barrasso is pushing the Feds to expand climbing, etc, on federal lands.

    Manchin and Barrasso’s new Outdoor Recreation Act aims to push industrial tourism as a major focus of the BLM and FS. Assisting local communities directly.

    “Feds….consider ways to improve recreation when developing and revising land management plans.
    Support rural communities adjacent to recreations areas by providing technical and financial assistance to local businesses, including hotels, campgrounds, and restaurants, to support visitation.

    Direct the Forest Service to issue guidance for recreational climbing in designated Wilderness Areas and requires the Forest Service and BLM to designate many new shooting ranges on National Forests and BLM land.

    Aim to modernize recreation sites by directing agencies to work with the Rural Utilities Service to construct broadband internet infrastructure at certain recreation sites.

    Direct the Federal land management agencies to identify opportunities to extend the period of time recreation areas on Federal land are open to the public during shoulder seasons.”

    Read more here:

    https://www.manchin.senate.gov/newsroom/press-releases/manchin-barrasso-introduce-bipartisan-outdoor-recreation-bill

  4. Katie,
    Excellent piece on Via Ferrata: comprehensive, extensively interviewed & quoted, balanced. Thanks. Many years ago I made it up backside of El Capitan in Yosemite Valley thanks to a via.
    Thanks
    Charlie Thomson

  5. the gateway to climbing has become climbing gyms. the cliff proposed for via ferrata is short, and to me does not seem a very pleasant or instructive intro to climbing. build an excellent gym facility, to be used by locals (including the desperate jacksonites who still don’t have a climbing gym), visitors and youth, year round. new climbers learning in a gym can then move onto real climbing, in sinks and other places.

  6. No, industrial level outdoor recreation has not made our lives better. It has made our lives worse, much worse. The crowds, the pollution, the traffic, the noise, the sheer destructive press of humanity upon the land is no longer the stuff of nightmares, but the stuff of reality. Especially here in the Wind River Country.

    Some of us are dealing with the Shoshone National Forest’s proposed Travel Management Plan. One of the documents I examined in preparing my comments on that plan is entitled Shoshone National Forest Visitor Capacity Analysis and Guidebook (2017, available on the SNF website). One finding of that document is that most of the areas of the Forest were either at or near visitor capacity or over capacity. Over capacity areas were explicitly described as “saturated.” One of those saturated areas is Lander’s Washakie Ranger District. The same area that via ferrata proponents want to bring more tourists into. Just where are those tourists going to go when there is no longer any place for them to go? As it is, right now they’re piling up like cordwood.

    Four years later, one could also say the Dubois area (Wind River Ranger District) is now saturated. Our problem is more ATVs rather than rock climbers (although the Glacier trailhead above Three Lakes is consistently saturated all summer with the vehicles of climbers headed for Gannet Peak), but the problem is the same. Too many people, too many vehicles. People who think that being here means they can do whatever they want, no matter the damage they do. They are arrogant, ignorant, and selfish. Tourism has become a plague, not worth the money it brings. The costs are much more.

    God save us from boosters.

    Robert Hoskins
    Dubois WY

    1. Thanks Robert.

      Industrial Tourism has very few winners; however, those winners include taxing authorities. More sales taxes, more fees, more fines, more property taxes = a great beautiful revenue stream for towns, counties, and the state. And the business community. It is all about the money.

      It is far from clear that 100 yard signs in Lander represents a consensus on anything but one look at Jackson surrounding areas and all the places locals used to be able to go camping, fishing, boating, etc are now overwhelmed with people doing real damage to the ecosystem and pushing locals out.

    2. Amen to that! Thanks Robert.
      These days an often-unrecognized factor that has become dominant in this age of self-entitlement and social media is what I call “social gravity”. At a certain point the see-and-be-seen aspect becomes the point. When that critical mass is reached growth of use becomes exponential. Beware “improvements”.