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State Parks drops contentious via ferrata project near Lander

Agency cancels effort, citing engineering cost. So what can be learned from the Sinks Canyon saga as more outdoor recreation development proposals are on the table?

This sandstone buttress in Sinks Canyon State Park was identified as an alternative site for a proposed via ferrata. Climbing advocate Sam Lightner Jr. pulls a rope at the base. (Katie Klingsporn/WyoFile)

by Katie Klingsporn, WyoFile

Nesting falcons, development concerns and loud local opposition bedeviled a proposal to build a via ferrata in Sinks Canyon State Park. But it was an engineering cost that finally spelled its end, according to Wyoming State Parks.

State Parks recently announced it is pulling the plug on the effort to build a via ferrata — a series of cables and rungs strung up a cliff that offers users protection while climbing. After spending considerable time determining a site that most people found suitable, the agency had begun the final steps to build the project. 

When it came time to find an engineer who could certify the cliff’s surface was structurally safe, however, the cost estimate of nearly $80,000 was prohibitive, said Nick Neylon, deputy director of Wyoming’s Outdoor Recreation Office and Division of State Parks.

“It was not easy to find someone who would do it at all,” Neylon said. “The cost came in considerably higher than we imagined it would be.” 

With a new outdoor recreation trust fund along with millions of federal stimulus dollars, Wyoming is poised to approve the development of more outdoor recreation projects and infrastructure — both in state parks and other places. As it considers other projects, many say, the state can glean lessons from the tumult that defined the via ferrata process. 

“For me the lesson is loud and clear,” said Mary Sanderson, an executive committee member of Sinks Canyon Wild, which formed in 2020 in response to the proposal. “You need to listen to the public.” 

State Parks stands by its process and plan, Neylon said, adding that the experience underscores the challenges agencies face when attempting to involve the public in planning. “We hope for the future we can find ways to encourage more people to participate as we’re going through the process,” he said. 

Bumps in the road

Sinks Canyon State Park is a small but popular destination located about 10 miles southwest of Lander. The 585-acre park has tallied more than 600,000 annual visitations since 2020. 

Wyoming State Parks launched a master plan update for the park 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: an idea for the via ferrata submitted by a group of Lander recreation advocates as a way to draw visitors and boost the town’s economy.

This map shows the original proposed via ferrata route as well as existing climbing routes on the cliff in Sinks Canyon State Park. (Courtesy Sam Lightner)

Following the plan’s release, however, opposition to the via ferrata mounted. Much of the concern stemmed from the fact that the proposed cliff is a nesting site for peregrine falcons. 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, and many community members also spoke in the project’s favor.

In response, State Parks held more meetings, which led to talks to identify an alternative project site. Parties ultimately arrived at a new site, a sandstone buttress across the highway. 

The engineering cost of evaluating the cliff, however, proved too high to justify, Acting Agency Director Dave Glenn told lawmakers last week during an interim legislative meeting. “That project has gone away,” he added. 

The news brought “so much relief,” Sanderson of Sinks Canyon Wild said. 

Sinks Canyon is unique as far as a state park, said Ron Smith, a fellow member of the group’s executive committee. Between its value for wildlife — Wyoming Game and Fish owns the vast majority of the land — traditional Indigenous use and historical management for resource protection, he said, the park has long leaned heavily on conservation. 

“We wanted to continue the legacy … of keeping it wild,” he said. 

The group pushed out a survey last spring to assess public opinion of the project, and the majority of people who responded said they don’t support a via ferrata anywhere in the park, Smith said. 

“You could tell when you talked to people in Lander … you could tell that people were against this,” Sen. Cale Case (R-Lander) said. 

Case has been critical of the process, the threat of over-commercialization he says it poses and the state’s potential liability vis-a-vis the via ferrata. He echoed the sentiment that Sinks Canyon requires individualized considerations.

Sen. Cale Case (R-Lander) speaks at Wyoming State Parks open house Aug. 30, 2021 at the Lander Community Center. Case criticized the Sinks Canyon Master Plan process. (Katie Klingsporn/WyoFile)

State Parks “still treats Sinks Canyon like somehow that it’s a marina that they’re trying to maximize concessions for,” Case said. “I still just have the feeling that they don’t appreciate the breadth of their holdings and the fact that they need different policies for different places.”

With a highway, campground, trails and other facilities, Case said, Sinks Canyon is far from pristine. But “it’s kind of still sacred, if you want my opinion.”

Takeaways for the future

State Parks is moving ahead on another project identified in the Sinks Canyon Master Plan — one that would establish a new trail on the canyon’s “sunnyside.” Sinks Canyon Wild supports that initiative, executive committee members said. 

Meantime, Glenn said, “there are plenty of other communities requesting new amenities in our state parks, and we’re gonna put our resources into those communities that are actually clamoring for those types of things.”

The challenge, Neylon said, is finding meaningful public engagement during the planning process, rather than in a reactive way after a plan has been released. The agency has not seen high involvement in an ongoing planning process of Buffalo Bill State Park, for example. 

“If we don’t know your opinion, we can’t include it,” he said. 

Case too advocated for a more inclusive public process as the state explores and supports recreation development. Sinks Canyon Wild, meanwhile, said the state’s should strive to locate appropriate uses in appropriate places.

“We’re not anti-recreation,” Sanderson said. “We believe a via ferrata is perfectly fine. Just not in that park.”

This article was originally published by WyoFile and is republished here with permission. WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.