In terms of Wyoming State Parks, Sinks Canyon is one of the smaller ones.
The 585-acre park is sandwiched along a two-lane highway that extends into the Wind River Range outside of Lander. Only a few campsites are located near the Popo Agie River. By comparison, Glendo State Park, one of the system’s largest parks, has more than 500 campsites.
But also because of its relatively small size, Sinks Canyon State Park has a lot of visitors. Hundreds of thousands of people flock through it every year, said Chris Floyd, manager of the Wyoming outdoor leisure bureau. The biggest attraction besides the “Sinks” of the same name is the world-famous climbing in the canyon – inside and outside the park.
Because of this, as part of the park’s updated master plan, officials suggested building a via ferrata on one of the canyon’s walls. While some in the Lander parish are interested in the prospect of an assisted climbing adventure – more about via ferratas later – others are concerned about the impact on wildlife, especially a pair of peregrine falcons.
“This would basically remove 50% of their habitat. And unfortunately, peregrine falcons are very adaptable and so tolerant of people they nest in cities, but they are not tolerant of climbing, “said Bob Oakleaf, a retired wildlife biologist who worked with peregrine falcons and a nongame wildlife for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department acted as supervisor for decades.
“It drives you crazy when someone is on your cliff or over you.”
The state sponsors the via ferrata less to increase state park revenue than to promote economic diversity in the area.
“We looked for projects that we believed could be relatively effective economically but not as effective in terms of infrastructure and budget,” Floyd said. “In other words, the return on investment with something like a via ferrata could be good.”
For Oakleaf and other wildlife advocates, two aspects are highlighted in the proposed beginner climbing experience: what is an acceptable recreation in the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission (these are these) land, and how does the state balance the need for increased outdoor and recreational recreation economic diversification? with the needs of the wildlife.
Via ferrata and falcons
The Sinks Canyon is internationally known as a climbing destination, mainly because of its rock faces made of sandstone, limestone and granite. It was also once home to NOLS, the National Outdoor Leadership School based in Lander.
Via ferratas are, to a certain extent, an extension of this climbing heritage. It is a series of iron rungs that were first created in World War I to carry troops across snow-covered, icy and rocky terrain in the Dolomites and Alps in Italy and Switzerland. The name literally means “iron road”.
The concept of via ferratas as a recreation, rather than just a method of rescuing troops from deadly avalanches, began relatively recently in the United States, mostly in Utah and Colorado. The first via ferrata in Wyoming – and the first in the US Forest Service’s land – opened at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort in 2017.
The details for the via ferrata proposed in Sinks Canyon are currently poor. It will run over a series of cliffs and ledges on the south side of the canyon. State park officials are planning to build a rudimentary cable bridge to cross the Popo Agie River and ways to connect the routes, Floyd said. The project could cost the state about $ 100,000. State law requires a certain amount of parking fees for capital construction projects in state parks. Officials are also planning private fundraising drives to supplement government payments. A private company will likely run the course with guided and unguided trips. Construction can begin as early as late summer with a soft opening before autumn or in spring 2022.
But two peregrine falcons called home on those walls, Oakleaf said. The pair are currently nesting outside of the proposed via ferrata across the canyon, despite having nested on the proposed location in the past. Peregrine falcons need several nest ledge options to help them escape predators and nest parasites such as beetles.
Peregrine falcons were once on the verge of extinction in this country, plagued by pesticides like DDT and habitat loss. They are now removed from the endangered species list, and a couple has lived in Sinks Canyon since 1994.
State park officials spoke to the Wyoming Game and Fish Department about the via ferrata and potential wildlife issues.
“I wouldn’t say we’re not concerned, but the risk the via ferrata poses to the nesting peregrine falcons is small enough to support the project,” said Rick King, Game and Fish Wildlife Director.
Economic diversification vs. nature conservation
The via ferrata is not expected to generate much for state parks in revenue. It is one of many ideas to use the state’s natural resources to stimulate the tourism industry in the area.
“It’s a really interesting project that introduces people to climbing and brings people to your area,” said Mike Jones, Fremont County officer and a member of the Wind River Outdoor Recreational Collaborative. “We’ve read studies in areas like Ouray, Colorado that got one of them included, and it’s had a very positive impact on tourism.”
Jess Johnson, government director of the Wyoming Wildlife Federation, recognizes the need for economic diversification, but also cautions that it comes at the expense of wildlife, especially in areas designed to help wildlife.
The Wyoming Game and Fish Commission acquired just over 500 acres in Sinks Canyon as a winter game sanctuary in 1939 and 1953 under the master plan of Sinks Canyon State Park. It had been used historically by Shoshone and Crow. State Parks later took over the land under a long-term lease with Game and Fish. Less than 80 acres of the state park is owned by the Wyoming state park system.
Land ownership bothers Johnson and Oakleaf the most. How much permanent recreation should be allowed on land originally intended as wildlife habitat?
Oakleaf says that’s too much.
Game and Fish indicates heavy usage in the region. King also said biologists “will continue to monitor the nest and work with state parks to address concerns if any should arise.”
As the state continues to focus on its fiscal crisis and consider additional ways to increase revenue from tourism, Johnson hopes leaders do not overlook the inherent value of its wildlife.