Divided commissioners support ‘via ferrata’ plan for Sinks Canyon

RIVERTON — On a split vote, the Fremont County Commission has endorsed a letter of support for further Sinks Canyon via ferrata planning. 

The letter comes, reportedly, after Gov. Mark Gordon asked the commission to support the plan.

Four commissioners approved the letter, but a fifth –– Commissioner Clarence Thomas of Fort Washakie –– was adamantly against it, questioning the governor’s motives for involvement.

A via ferrata is a rung-and-cable climbing course that opens high cliffs to amateur climbers.

Proponents for such a climbing course in Sinks Canyon above Lander have raised about $30,000 in the past two years, but the project has slowed amid opposition by peregrine falcon advocates, some tribal members and leaders, some conservationists, and by Lander’s state senator, Cale Case. 

Others have argued that the siting process has been too secretive. 

Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon had not responded to a request for comment on his via ferrata stance as of press time, but a chief proponent of the project, Sam Lightner, wrote that Gordon is “a climber at heart,” claiming the governor thought the via ferrata “was a brilliant way to bring more dollars to the central Wyoming economy.” 

The Lander Chamber of Commerce and Lander Economic Development Association “also loved it,” wrote Lightner. 

Fremont County Commissioner Mike Jones of Lander suggested the board pass a resolution proclaiming support for the via ferrata “as long as the process is followed correctly.” 

The resolution idea was rejected ultimately, but the commissioners voted instead to craft a letter of support. 

Jones also noted that the process has stalled slightly as opponents and proponents work together to consider a new site in the canyon. 

The original proposed ferrata site is near a ledge occupied by the canyon’s only peregrine falcon pair. It’s also in an area purchased with federal funding and subject to federal regulation. 

“They have not come up with (the new site),” said Jones. 

Thomas pointed out that the county doesn’t have jurisdiction over the via ferrata plan, which has been undertaken by the Wyoming Division of State Parks and Historic Sites. 

“But now we want to do a resolution? I don’t understand that, because if it’s not our deal, why do we want to get involved?” Thomas asked. 

“Partially out of a request from the governor’s office,” Jones answered. “Since there has been so much public comment.” 

“I’d rather listen to my constituents on this,” Thomas replied. “Why am I backing the governor? He’s never come here to talk to us. I’ve never heard anything about it from him. 

“So… I have some great issues with this until we know more about it and know why the governor or his people who work for him want us to do a resolution on it.” 

Jones said he understood Thomas’s concerns, but he noted that the public process through State Parks has been ongoing for two years. 

Jones also said the via ferrata could be an economic development avenue for the county. 

“It’s an option to bring additional people and… economic development, (which is) important and gives us an opportunity to keep people here a bit longer, and have something they can visit in Sinks Park, which is already a great park.” 

Commissioner Larry Allen said a letter of support to encourage WSP and the Wyoming Game and Fish Department “to continue the study” would not be harmful. Commissioner Jennifer McCarty agreed with him. 

Four commissioners voted aye, while Thomas voted nay.