Buffalo Bill State Park west of Cody is getting a management planning makeover.
The park, which encircles an 8,000-acre reservoir of the same name is dotted with campgrounds and boat ramps. A visitor center perches atop a concrete dam that has impounded the Shoshone River for more than a century. The park tallied 142,276 visits in 2022, 13% above its five-year average.
“There’s an old plan, and I can’t even tell you how old it is,” Nick Neylon, deputy director of the Division of State Parks & Outdoor Recreation Office, said of Buffalo Bill. “It’s overdue.”
News that the agency is initiating the tedious process of long-term planning may cause eyes to glaze over. In the wake of the kerfuffle surrounding the Sinks Canyon State Park master plan, however, State Parks is doubling down in its effort to involve the public early and often, Neylon said.
That same kerfuffle, meanwhile, has one lawmaker sounding the alarm that State Parks’ planning process is flawed and needs an overhaul.
Sen. Cale Case (R-Lander) recommended the Legislature review the process in the interim. State Parks needs more sideboards and thoughtful consideration to ensure plans reflect the desires of local communities and protect Wyoming’s resources, he said.
“I think there could be more rigor,” Case said.
Growing users and future amenities
The process is being undertaken in partnership with the Bureau of Reclamation, which owns the dam and reservoir, and is part of State Parks’ ongoing efforts to update the guiding documents for its properties. The agency has updated master plans at places like Boysen and Hot Springs over the last decade, and tries to complete them on an ongoing basis, Neylon said.
A combination of factors prompted the Buffalo Bill update, among them federal timeline pressures, age of existing plans and growing use of the park, but also local resistance to proposed expansion.
Amid a pandemic-fueled visitation spike, the department used federal stimulus money to expand camping facilities at Buffalo Bill. Part of its plan proposed adding 40 campsites to an area abuting a residential neighborhood — which residents strongly opposed.
“We got some pushback … which caused us to withdraw from that part of the plan and say ‘you know, this is probably a good time to engage with the local folks up there and do the master plan,’” Neylon said. “We want to do some more things with Buffalo Bill and before we go too far, let’s talk to the local folks and do a master plan and see what people really want us to do.”
Buffalo Bill offers fishing, camping and water sports. Along with three boat ramps, it features nine day-use areas, two group shelters, 11 picnic shelters and 100 campsites in two campgrounds. Users can also rent Shreve Lodge, which holds up to 200 people.
It’s a popular spot for visitors on their way to Yellowstone, Neylon said.
State Parks and the Bureau of Reclamation hope to collect public input over the next year on “ways to both enhance the visitor experience … and preserve its resources for future generations to enjoy.” Ayres Associates, which facilitated the Sinks Canyon plan, has been selected to guide the Buffalo Bill planning process.
The public can complete a survey about the park and process. State Parks held an open house and plans to hold more. Because BOR is involved, the final plan will be subject to a federal environmental assessment.
Lessons from Lander
About 180 miles south of Buffalo Bill near Lander, Sinks Canyon State Park and its adjacent national forestland are popular for camping, mountain biking, climbing and other recreational pursuits.
Wyoming State Parks initiated a master plan process there in 2019. 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 an updated visitors center and other new amenities. Among those was a via ferrata — a cable and rung system that allows users to climb steep faces with relative ease and safety.
State Parks held another open house in response, drawing a large and divided crowd. Along with urging State Parks to avoid the peregrine sight, opponents worried the project might result in the canyon being overrun and criticized State Parks for lack of transparency and tribal consultation. Supporters, meanwhile, defended the process and said a via ferrata could bolster the local economy and help introduce people to outdoor recreation.
State Parks later facilitated talks with stakeholders in order to identify an alternative via ferrata project site. The agency is looking for an engineering group to analyze the new buttress, Neylon said.
It appears the issue has not been put to bed. The group Sinks Canyon Wild is preparing another campaign to defeat a via ferrata, according to a February newsletter.
“Sinks Canyon State Park is already being loved to death,” it read. “The Park is simply not the right place for a commercial venture such as this!”
Though it’s been controversial, Neylon defends the process.
“We have a robust and thorough planning process,” Neylon said. “The master plan that we did with Ayres Associates at Sinks Canyon is an award-winning plan that we’re really proud of. We got a lot of community involvement. A lot of community feedback. And we stand by that plan 100%.”
But, he said, “one of the things that we learned, I think it’s fair to say, from the Sinks experience was no matter how much public engagement you do, it’s probably not enough.” That’s why the agency is going above and beyond to engage folks with Buffalo Bill, he said.
Rethinking Park planning?
As a via ferrata opponent, Sen. Cale Case (R-Lander) was in the thick of the Sinks Canyon controversy. The experience, he said, taught him that State Parks’ process “isn’t very good.”
Part of that is due to the agency’s nature, he said. The Department of State Parks and Cultural Resources manages a hodgepodge of properties that encompass everything from historic sights to marinas and more commercially developed places like Hot Springs State Park in Thermopolis.
“This agency has responsibility for lots of landscape with different purposes,” he said.
What’s more, he said, the outdoor collaboratives State Parks has helped facilitate around the state are often dominated by recreation industry cheerleaders, which can make it hard to gauge true community attitudes.
Case doesn’t think the Sinks Canyon Master plan reflects the Lander community’s vision, or his own. But, he said, his effort isn’t aimed at one particular proposal.
“It’s about a systemic look at the process that we use to develop our public lands that are under the jurisdiction of this agency,” he said. “And I’d like to see some more holistic thinking.”
Now that more money is available for outdoor recreation projects — including a new $6-million trust fund — interest in developing projects in state parks will increase, Case said, making the issue timely.
Case proposed a review of the state park planning process as an interim study topic in 2022 to no avail. He proposed it again this year; the Legislature’s Management Council will meet March 23 to finalize interim topics.