Yellowstone scenery stock

It’s not yet 9 a.m., but the sun shines hot on a July morning near the mouth of Sinks Canyon State Park in central Wyoming. With a spotting scope trained on the cliff across the canyon, Bob Oakleaf sits on a grassy knoll amid whining grasshoppers.

“So you see that big slab that’s pasted up against the cliff?” Oakleaf instructs. “And then there’s a ledge at the base of it that extends off to the left? Well the eyrie’s back behind the bushes.

“Just a little while ago I saw [a] young poke its head out,” Oakleaf said.

He is identifying the site of a peregrine falcon nest. The birds don’t make another appearance this morning, but Oakleaf, a retired wildlife biologist who served as the Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s nongame wildlife supervisor, has been watching the nesting pair and their offspring all spring, he said.

He’s been observing the avian family, in part, because it may soon have new neighbors.

The cliff face has been envisioned for a via ferrata — a permanent cable and rung system that enables recreationists to “climb” vertical walls. Managers included the proposal in the newly updated Sinks Canyon State Park Master Plan after a group of Lander locals advanced the idea and gathered support for it as a recreational draw.

Oakleaf and others, however, believe nesting peregrines and a via ferrata are incompatible, stirring up a conflict in this small but popular state park over how to balance the twin goals of wildlife management and tourist-attracting recreation.

It’s a story colored by unique jurisdictional arrangements, a beloved place and one species’ heartening rebound. It also underscores the broader issues complicating land management as multiple-use and outdoor visitation grow across Wyoming’s public lands.

Many believe there is a middle ground to be achieved — the parties just need to work a little harder to get there.

“I think we can get to the point where everybody’s happy,” said Jessi Johnson, government affairs officer for Wyoming Wildlife Federation.

Many situations are black and white, Johnson said. This one is not.

“We’re lucky that it’s not one or the other,” she said. “A lot of times that is the choice. But this is one where it can be both. We just have to be creative about it.”

Sinks Canyon State Park is situated on 585 acres adjacent to national forest, BLM land and private land on the east slope of the Wind River Range not far from Lander. There, the Middle Fork of the Popo Agie River cuts a path through a canyon of sandstone and dolomite cliff walls. At the eponymous “Sinks,” the river is swallowed by a complex of limestone caves, disappearing for a quarter of a mile until it rises downstream.

The Wyoming Game and Fish Commission acquired portions of what is now the park in 1939 and 1953 and managed the area as a winter game refuge. Game and Fish still owns the vast majority of the land, and assigns management through memorandums of understanding. Since Sinks Canyon State Park officially opened in 1976, Wyoming State Parks has been the primary manager of the area.

As the land owner, however, Wyoming Game and Fish must approve all new facilities in the park. The land remains classified as wildlife habitat management area, a type of land acquired “in the name of the state for rearing and management of wildlife species, or to provide public hunting, fishing or trapping areas,” according to WGF.

WHMA land is regulated for “the management and conservation of wildlife, wildlife habitat and public access” or “to manage public use and special use of such lands,” according to the agency.

Today, 45 years after it opened, Sinks Canyon State Park is a recreation hub used heavily by Lander locals and visitors. According to Wyoming State Parks, visitation to the park reached 699,490 in 2020 — a 76% increase over 2019. Wyoming State Parks, Historic Sites & Trails authorized the preparation of a new master plan in 2019. Until then, the 1975 Sinks Canyon State Park Development Plan had guided improvements in the park.

“A lot’s changed since 1975, and the 2020 plan attempts to build on the improvements that they’ve made already,” said Kyle Bernis, Shoshone District manager for Wyoming State Parks. “And then to try and engage in a new direction for the future based on the needs and limits of the resources.”

The master planning process spanned more than a year and entailed public input meetings, steering committee meetings, small group interviews and an online survey. But it also wrapped up during the pandemic, moving some of the discussions to virtual forums.

When the approved plan was released in October 2020, it laid out a vision of a park with better parking and more trails, a larger visitor’s center, more educational opportunities and some augmented recreation opportunities. The most novel was the via ferrata.

The plan’s stated foundation was built around two major planning principles. The first is “Keep the Canyon Wild,” and the second is “Leverage Economic Development in the Valley.”

The inherent conflicts of those two principles have come to a head around the via ferrata.

Lander resident Sam Lightner has been climbing in the region since the 1980s. Along with authoring a Wyoming climbing guidebook, Lightner has established many routes, including in Sinks Canyon.

Several years ago, he said, he was chatting with climbing buddies about a well-worn topic: “What could we take advantage of for outdoor recreation that … might get more tourists to stop here?”

If Lander could intercept some of the tourists who pass through enroute to the national parks and other destinations each summer, he said, it could reap big economic benefits.

Someone heard about a via ferrata — Italian for “iron path” — in Colorado that was a huge boon to its nearest town, Lightner remembers. They brainstormed and identified a spot for a similar project in Sinks Canyon. Later, he said, he floated the idea to then-candidate Mark Gordon, who Lightner said lit up at the idea.

Lightner is quick to point out that a via ferrata and climbing are different activities; the purpose of a via ferrata is to draw a separate crowd from the climbers who visit Sinks.

Lightner approached Sinks Canyon State Parks and WGF, he said, and the momentum began to grow.

The particular cliff is suitable for several reasons, Lightner said. First, it’s an easily accessible north-facing wall, which means it will stay cool in the summer months.

“It’s also the cleanest wall,” Lightner said. “It has ledges but it doesn’t have just completely fractured rock all over the place.”

WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy. This story was edited for space. The full story can be found in its entirety at wyofile.com.

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