Wyoming State Parks will host a meeting Monday for Lander-area stakeholders to discuss alternative routes for a controversial via ferrata planned in Sinks Canyon State Park.
The current via ferrata site proposal, which is identified in the Sinks Canyon State Park master plan, is on a north-facing cliff near the mouth of the canyon. Supporters say a via ferrata will benefit the town economically and help people experience nature in an already popular human destination. Opponents say a permanent iron-rung and cable climbing route will unduly disturb wildlife — specifically nesting peregrine falcons — on land that’s supposed to be prioritized for animals. Many say the project threatens to overdevelop the 585-acre park.
Roughly 300 people attended an Aug. 30 open house to discuss the master plan, with debate focused on the proposed man-made climbing route. Monday’s meeting is a result of feedback from the open house, said Kyle Bernis, Shoshone District Manager for Wyoming State Parks.
Members of the public submitted 117 comments and 33 letters. Some expressed explicit support for the via ferrata and others dismissed it outright. Many criticized the transparency and thoroughness of the planning process or aspects of the proposal, particularly its site.
“We’re trying to address a lot of that [feedback] the best way we can,” Bernis said.
Stakeholders will include representatives of the climbing community, the Sinks Canyon Natural Resources Council, Wyoming Catholic College and Sinks Canyon Wild, Bernis said.
The latter, a citizen’s group formed in opposition to the via ferrata, was quick to criticize the meeting’s format. Inviting select individuals rather than the public at large, member Ron Smith said, undermines the desire for extensive public process.
“The public was, you know, a little outraged that State Parks was doing a lot of this behind closed doors,” Smith said. “And yet here they go again … Did not they learn anything from the open house?”
“Holding yet another small and exclusive, closed-door meeting on October 18th to discuss siting the Via Ferrata snubs the public’s overwhelming appeal to your agency to hold transparent, fair, and open meetings,” the group wrote Bernis on Oct. 11 in a request to postpone.
The meeting will be made available for public viewing via Zoom, Bernis said Wednesday, though the intent is still to allow stakeholders to discuss siting alternatives amongst themselves.
Sinks Canyon State Park, which draws several hundred thousand annual visitations, is popular for camping, hiking, mountain biking, climbing and other recreational pursuits.
Though operated by Wyoming State Parks, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department owns the vast majority of the park’s acreage, 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 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 improvements and 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 residents submitted the idea 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, 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 spring of 2021 — as a nesting site.
Peregrine falcon populations have rebounded in Wyoming and elsewhere since plummeting in the 20th century.
Opponents have also decried a process they say was not transparent enough, and say tribal communities have not been consulted properly. Proponents, however, say there were many public opportunities to help shape the plan, which they see as a good way to attract visitors and outdoor newbies.
Striking a balance
The open house comments revealed a gamut of opinions.
“It will be a great asset to our community,” wrote one cheerleader.
“I oppose the premise that economic development must be the goal,” wrote a naysayer.
One throughline was a deep love for Sinks Canyon, and many underscore a desire for compromise and concerns over process and location rather than absolute objection to a via ferrata.
The aim of Monday’s meeting is to strike a balance, Bernis said.
“The goal … is for stakeholders to negotiate an alternative route,” he said.
If stakeholders do not reach consensus Monday, Bernis said, further meetings will be held. If they do reach consensus, he said, State Parks will inform the public and solicit input on any changes.
The Wyoming Game and Fish Commission will also consider the Sinks Canyon State Park master plan at its Nov. 16-17 meeting in Riverton.