(Lander, WY) – Members of the newly formed conservation group, Citizens for Keeping Sinks Canyon Wild, organized a demonstration to voice their opposition to the Sinks Canyon Via Ferrata while Governor Mark Gordon was in Lander on August 12th.
Around 30 community members held signs with messages such as “Keep Sinks Canyon Wild,” “Displace Via Ferrata Not Wildlife,” and “State Park Not Amusement Park” were displayed behind the closed entrance gate at Lander’s Hunt Field Thursday afternoon.
A change in venue had Governor Mark Gordon meeting with local and state officials as well as the Secretary of Interior Deb Haaland in a hangar at Hunt Field. Despite arriving at the airport ahead of the demonstration, House District 54 Representative Lloyd Larsen shuttled the Governor over to the now opened gate where he listened to the community members’ concerns.
The installation of the Sinks Canyon Via Ferrata is part of the Sinks Canyon Master Plan that was finalized in the fall of 2020. The Via Ferrata is described in the plan as a “permanently cabled cliff-side trail that allows non-technical climbers to have a guided climbing and traversing experience in vertical terrain.”
In a July 21st press release from State Parks, it was shared that the Via Ferrata proposal is moving forward and is expected to provide an economic boost and attract tourists to the region.
The current planned location for the Sinks Canyon Via Ferrata is on the cliff between the Sawmill Campground and The Rise on property owned by the Wyoming Game & Fish Department (WGFD).
State Parks will hire a concessionaire to run the day-to-day of the seasonal Via Ferrata and both state agencies will provide levels of oversight – State Parks will receive a percentage of the use fees collected by the concessionaire.
The Citizens for Keeping Sinks Canyon Wild are concerned about the direct impacts a Via Ferrata will have on the canyon’s wildlife and landscape, as well as broader concerns for the canyon becoming overdeveloped and overcrowded.
Governor Gordon heard their comments which shared not only the aforementioned concerns but also that the process of approval for the Via Ferrata was not as transparent nor as thorough as it should have been. Concerns that the Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone Tribes were not consulted in the process were also voiced.
Representative Larsen, who was with Governor Gordon, disagreed with their viewpoint of the approval process. He noted there were three public meetings and that input was sought and considered during the planning process.
Members of Citizens for Keeping Sinks Canyon Wild bring various backgrounds to the group – including oil and gas, retired WGFD employees, biologists, and District 25 Senator Cale Case.
Among them is Bob Oakleaf, a retired WGFD nongame supervisor and wildlife biologist. He shared that in April of 2020 he identified the potential conflicts to WGFD and State Parks between the proposed Via Ferrata location sharing the same cliff as peregrine falcon nesting sites.
The current planned location of the Via Ferrata is on one of two cliffs in the canyon that host peregrine nesting sites. For the past 27 years, only one pair has nested in the canyon annually, according to Oakleaf.
He shared the image below which highlights the four nesting sites on the cliff in orange and the proposed route of the Via Ferrata in blue. The 2021 nesting site is the second from the left and did produce a chick this year for the single pair of peregrines that nested in the canyon.
Oakleaf has worked with peregrines since reintroduction efforts started in the early 70s before moving to Wyoming. He began his WGFD tenure in 1977 and was key in the peregrine reintroduction to the Greater Yellowstone Area which started in 1980. He was also part of their release in Sinks Canyon.
“As climbing activity has greatly increased and recently exploded, adequate nesting habitat has been reduced to the cliff above ‘The Rise’ that is protected for administrative reasons and the cliff south of the Sawmill Campground, which is protected by difficult access,” Oakleaf explained.
He is also concerned that detailed plans for Sinks Canyon Via Ferrata have not been released to the public. This includes how they plan to ensure nesting peregrines will be protected.
An official wildlife impact study has not been completed for this area which is a Wildlife Habitat Management Area (WHMA). WGFD Lander Region shared with County 10 that personnel did discuss wildlife impacts in the same way they have before approving other projects on their lands.
Both State Parks and WGFD have shared if peregrines nest in the vicinity, a Via Ferrata closure will be implemented. The area will also be regularly monitored to ensure there are no wildlife conflicts.
A cultural clearance for the area was underway in June as part of the NEPA approval.
“The Cultural Report for the cliff face of the proposed location determined that there would be no significant adverse impacts to the cliff,” shared Jason Hunter, Lander Region wildlife supervisor.
An update on the NEPA status has not been shared with County 10 as of this publishing.
Last week, State Parks announced a public information meeting to present the final Sinks Canyon State Park Master Plan will happen on August 30th. Click here to learn more.
To view all of County 10’s coverage of the Sinks Canyon Via Ferrata, click here.