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. 

Background

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.

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

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. 

A via ferrata has been proposed for this cliff wall, seen here from the highway, in Sinks Canyon State Park. (Katie Klingsporn/WyoFile)

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.  

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. Water is the lifeblood of all western communities. The karst system in Sinks Canyon is the primary source of water for Lander.

    Karst systems, especially those with “sinks” are extremely vulnerable to contamination. Increased traffic, human waste, animal waste in addition to others present a real risk to the water which is critical to our town. It may take a few years but it this worth the potential for harm?

    No one has raised what I would think is a real concern during this process. If the project could be moved to an alternative site, I think there would be great community support.

    In the interim, I would like request an EA or EIS that addresses this issue in particular as well as the disturbances to wildlife.

  2. This entire process has been held under the “veil of darkness”. This State Agency has always tried to pull the wool over the eyes of their Public.
    Wyoming State Parks is beholden to the Public and not a select few who have been cherry picked in an attempt to fulfill someone’s pipe dream.
    All citizens are stakeholders and must be involved (Period).

  3. I live up in the Sinks the last house 1/4 mile from the park. I have lived up here going on 16 years. I did not like the idea of paving the switch backs because that was suppose to be a wilderness area, but it has proved to be a benefit. I think this via ferrata will be a benefit as well for the economy of our little town and for the recreational benefit for those who would like to rock climb but are afraid to. I would be among the first to do it. All these controversies over a pair of Falcons that SOMETIMES NEST THERE. It’s like shutting down a whole town’s economy for a mouse that is a little rare, please!!!

  4. If Jackson is any guide, tourism is a race to the bottom of environment stewardship.

    Currently, Lander hasn’t shown any advantages to hosting tourists on an industrial scale except for a very small minority of business owners who offer up horrible wages and working conditions.

    Sinks appeals mostly to people who are camping, and drive bys. The economic benefits of VF will mostly go to those hosting the VF, not the community of Lander. Meanwhile, Lander will be stuck with more crowds in Sinks, and less opportunities for locals to enjoy solitude and find a camping spot. Wildlife included. Jackson is the poster child for the dangers of Industrial Tourism. Don’t confuse it’s wealth with with well being. It wealth comes from property owners who have driven out locals.

    1. Have you ever tried to have a negotiation with 40,000 people sitting at the table?

      And where were all those stakeholders during the many master planning meetings?