Stakeholders ID new cliff for controversial via ferrata project

A peregrine falcon perches on a rock outcropping. The raptors nest in rocky cliffs. Photo courtesy of National Park Service

Lander-area recreation stakeholders have identified a new site for a controversial cable-and-rung via ferrata project originally proposed on a cliff where peregrine falcons sometimes nest.

The new site is still in Sinks Canyon State Park, but is no longer on wildlife habitat management area land owned by the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission. 

It sits across Highway 131 from the originally proposed site — identified in the 2020 Sinks Canyon State Park Master Plan. The new location is on a sandstone buttress accessible via existing trails and a parking area. Climbers and outdoor educators regularly use the sandstone, and peregrine falcons are not known to nest on the cliffs. 

Stakeholders will meet again on Dec. 14 to hash out details of the new plan. Sinks Canyon Wild, a citizens group that has emerged in opposition of the original plan, said while it’s “elated” the project has come off the wall used by peregrines, it still expects a transparent and rigorous review that includes a no-build option. Proponents say they believe the parties have arrived at a workable compromise. 

“It’s not our first choice,” said Sam Lightner, a climber and leading project proponent. But, he noted, it’s the result of “the give and take that’s supposed to take place.”

Located roughly 10 miles southwest of Lander, Sinks Canyon State Park is popular for camping, mountain biking, climbing and other recreational pursuits. The 585-acre park sees several hundred thousand  visitations each year. 

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 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 recreation advocates submitted the idea as a way to draw visitors and boost the town’s 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 mounted. 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 once plummeted but have rebounded in Wyoming and elsewhere.  

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. 

The cliff in question was also on land owned by Wyoming Game and Fish Commission, obligating the wildlife agency to evaluate new facilities. The agency had OK’d the via ferrata proposal subject to mandatory seasonal closures for nesting peregrines and other measures. 

State Parks held an open house to discuss the master plan in August. Roughly 300 people attended, with discussion and comments focused on the proposed man-made climbing route.

As a result of that feedback, State Parks initiated talks with stakeholders in an attempt to identify an alternative project site. Over the course of two lengthy meetings, representatives from Wyoming Catholic College, Sinks Canyon Wild, climbers and others ultimately arrived at the new site. 

The new cliff is commonly known as “the Sandstone Buttress” and “the Gunky Buttress” — a reference to a classic climbing route that snakes up the rock. 

Via ferrata advocates favored the original cliff site due to its north-facing aspect and sheer rock. If a via ferrata were erected on the sandstone alternative, the season of use would be adjusted to spring and fall and miss the summer crowds, Lightner said, but could be more favorable for student groups. The new cliff is also more feature-rich. That could also be a boon for children or others for whom a via ferrata could serve as a “gateway” to climbing, Lightner said. 

Rock art is located on the large rock formation, around the corner from the proposed via ferrata site.

Bob Oakleaf, a retired Game and Fish wildlife biologist who was instrumental in the West’s peregrine recovery effort, was one of the most prominent opposing voices to the original cliff site. He has drafted criteria for the alternative site review process, which include furnishing a detailed written plan for what it will entail. 

“And certainly, in the end, if there’s going to be a true evaluation of alternatives, there needs to be an evaluation of the no-action alternative,” Oakleaf said. 

In a statement, Sinks Canyon Wild emphasized that the process is not over. “Sinks Canyon Wild will determine how to proceed after evaluating the new proposal,” the statement said. 

The conversation has tapped into deeper concerns for the future of the park and has exposed a rift between recreation desires. Though many support the via ferrata as a different recreation option, others say they want to preserve the wild qualities that still exist in the park and avoid overdevelopment. 

Those divisions were on display during a Nov. 16 Game and Fish Commission meeting in Riverton. 

“I’m up here opposing the via ferrata entirely,” said Jenny Reeves-Johnson, who said she’s witnessed tourism grow as a small business owner. “Let’s be different than Colorado, and not [do] this hyper-development of recreation.” 

Oakleaf stressed the importance of adequate outreach. 

“I think there needs to be some trust rebuilt,” Oakleaf said. “A lot of people just were caught dumbfounded at the plan for development … and the giveaway of a wildlife management area.”  

Michial Garvin, an Eastern Shoshone tribal member, said Sinks Canyon is “very sacred to the Shoshone people.” He warned of a slippery slope of recreation. “Human beings need to live with nature, not try to regulate and manage nature,” he said. 

Jordan Dresser, chairman of the Northern Arapaho Business Council, emphasized that tribal consultation goes beyond a simple invitation to the table. 

“Earlier a comment was made about if tribes want to participate, they’re allowed to,” Dresser said. “But wants or needs are two very different things. A want implies a luxury, while at the end of the day, tribal constitution needs to happen.”

Chris Floyd, manager of the Wyoming Office of Outdoor Recreation, said State Parks is committed to involving both the Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone tribes. 

“We’re going to continue to engage with both tribal historic preservation officers again, regardless of the location of this, and if they want consultation we will work with them through that,” Floyd said. 

Others, like Rep. Lloyd Larsen (R-Lander), defended the process as open and thorough. The agency went above and beyond to be transparent, State Parks and Cultural Resources Commissioner Aaron Bannon said. He advocated for smart management. 

“We have the option to either try to develop [growth] and carefully manage that growth, or let it continue on its own accord,” Bannon said. 

Sen. Cale Case (R-Lander) brought up the proliferation of yard signs that read “No via ferrata on peregrine cliffs” in Lander.

“There’s no way,” he said, “that the Lander community supports the via ferrata.”

The thrust of the proposal has always been to offer an alternative form of recreation that could help draw summer tourists who drive through Lander, Lightner said. Even though the process has been bumpy, he said, he still believes it holds benefits for the community. 

“All of our lives have been changed by outdoor recreation, for the better,” he said of himself and other proponents. “We’ve seen other people’s lives get changed by outdoor recreation … I really do believe it’s good for us.”

The goal is to have the via ferrata be free or inexpensive, Floyd said. He told the Game and Fish Commission that State Parks will continue to engage the wildlife agency. “We want to manage wildlife in the canyon, regardless of who the landowner is.”

Ultimately, Floyd said, “a lot of conversations needed to happen about the future of that park, and that’s why we went through that process.”