Restoring a Lost Corridor

County, City and Citizens Plan to Make Private Lands Public

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Chris Rothfuss is a Wyoming state senator and adjunct professor at the University of Wyoming in Laramie.

Melanie Arnett, data coordinator with the Wyoming Natural Diversity Database, is project coordinator for the Pilot Hill Land Purchase.

Peggy Gribble McCrackin is a long-time resident of Laramie, Wyo., and supporter of the Pilot Hill project.

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Posted: Wednesday, January 31, 2018 12:12 pm | Updated: 5:40 pm, Wed Jan 31, 2018.

There is only one obstacle standing between the college town of Laramie, Wyo., and the year-round recreational opportunities of the Medicine Bow National Forest just to the east.

That obstacle is a spread of 5,528 acres of privately owned land, sloping uphill from the edge of Laramie to what is known as Pilot Hill, which also happens to stand atop a portion of the Casper Aquifer, the main water supply for Laramie and the surrounding area.

Now the city of Laramie, and Albany County, where the town is located, are putting together a deal to purchase this private agricultural grazing land, clear up to the national forest border. Not to develop it for housing or an industrial park, but rather to protect its natural beauty and preserve its environmental and recreational benefits for generations to come.

The Pilot Hill Purchase Plan has many proposed benefits, with one of the most important being protection of the underground geological formations that store water and replenish the aquifer. The Casper Aquifer provides about 60 percent of the city's drinking water and 100 percent of the water going to homes within the aquifer’s recharge area. In 2002, the city developed a plan to protect the aquifer from development that might allow contaminants to seep through the shallow soil and into the community’s drinking water. But as the city's growth seems to be strongest along the east side of town, more houses can be seen dotting the landscape on the flanks of Pilot Hill.

Chris Rothfuss, a Wyoming state senator and adjunct professor at the University of Wyoming in Laramie, is chairman of the oversight committee created by the Albany County Commissioners to manage the land purchase project. He said the community had been concerned for many years about protecting the aquifer from development that could harm the water supply.

"This is a clean water supply that would be easy to ruin," Rothfuss said.

For many years, the agricultural land that separated the town of Laramie from the public lands of the national forest were heavily used by locals for non-motorized recreation. Although the land was known to be private, the owners allowed people to enter the unfenced acreage to walk dogs, hike, snow-shoe, run or bike across well-worn trails or gravel roads leading into the forest through an area known as Pole Mountain. But after a time, the landowners became concerned about overuse and other issues.

Seemingly overnight, areas that were private but unfenced were suddenly fenced and marked with No Trespassing signs. Laramie residents could only access the forest by driving 15 miles up Interstate 80, shoulder-to-shoulder with semi-tractor trailers and other traffic.

Rothfuss said once that change occurred, the community became "very interested" in restoring their former access, for reasons that went beyond recreation and preserving the view. It turns out, the beautiful undeveloped foothills covered with sage grass and forest are critical habitat for wildlife. The mule deer, elk, antelope, song birds, raptors and other creatures who live in the Medicine Bow National Forest are undeterred by boundary markers, fences and No Trespassing signs. Wildlife can readily be found on the private property acreage between the national forest and the city in the Pilot Hill area and beyond.

When county commissioners surveyed residents, a large majority said they favored the purchase to protect the land against urban sprawl and ensure direct public access to the national forest, not just for their own quality of life, but for the economic boost that recreational tourism brings. Visitors come from around the region for rock climbing or cross-country skiing along 30 miles of groomed trails, or tent camping in the primitive sites of Medicine Bow. Many of these visitors also spend time and money in Laramie.

Rothfuss said that in 2017, the landowner offered to sell the property to the county for $14 million, but with the stipulation that the land would not be developed and could only to be used for recreation. Those conditions perfectly suited what most local residents wanted. The question was, how could the money be raised. The landowner gave the county commission one year to raise the funds but after that, he could take his offer elsewhere.

The county commissioners entered into an agreement with the seller, and then appointed an oversight committee to tackle this question from various angles. In addition to Rothfuss, other members include the director of the Laramie Rivers Conservation District, an Albany County commission member, a member of the Wyoming House of Representatives, a University of Wyoming trustee, a retired Wyoming Supreme Court justice, and a Laramie City Council member... all individuals with a track record of getting things done.

In addition, the oversight committee created subcommittees around economic development, land management, finance and communications. Each of these committees has eight to 15 members.

"We are in the early stages of identifying large pieces of the financial puzzle, such as large donors and grants," Rothfuss said. "There might have to be some funding approved by the voters," he added. Private contributions are being gathered by the Wyoming Community Foundation.

The various subcommittees have the support of Melanie Arnett, data coordinator with the Wyoming Natural Diversity Database, who has come on board as project coordinator. She expressed confidence that local citizens are fully behind the project.

"The overwhelming support for this purchase, as evidenced by the survey of residents performed by the county when the opportunity was first announced, offers a unique opportunity for many diverse people to unite, find common ground… and build non-partisan community bonds," Arnett said

Rothfuss said he used to explore the trails himself before they became off limits to the public. "I'm looking forward to being out there again and my kids will certainly take advantage of it," he said.

He added that proximity to public space can shape the future of a community in positive ways. "This is so important for evolution of the community. There's nothing better to serve people of this city, to keep the land not just open, but public. Now when we sit in War Memorial Stadium to watch the Wyoming Cowboys play, we know we'll always have that open view from the stands of that beautiful hill, instead of a housing development."

Peggy Gribble McCrackin has a story that is typical of many in this outdoors-loving community. She has lived in Laramie since 1978, with the exception of two years spent with the Peace Corps. She described herself as "absolutely thrilled" about the Pilot Hill Land Purchase project. For many years McCrackin was a regular on this terrain. "Mountain bikers and runners were able to jump on their bikes or lace up their shoes in town and head up the hill. I remember many beautiful rides and runs through Cactus Canyon up to Pilot Hill and on to Pole Mountain," she said.

But then the fences and signs went up. "I felt a huge sense of loss without access to the trails, land, and vistas that brought me so much pleasure," McCrackin said. She still uses the public trails on forest lands, but has to get in her car and drive up the interstate to get to an access point, bypassing Pilot Hill. In winter, which at 8,800 feet can last nine months, frequent blizzards close the interstate and make travel dangerous. Being able to access those lands by simply strapping on skis or snowshoes at the edge of town and staying out of the way of motor vehicle traffic makes much more sense. As McCrackin said, "Even though I do it, the irony of driving in order to ride or run is not lost on me."

McCrackin said not everyone honored the No Trespassing signs, and simply went around the fences. But she decided that for her, trespassing on private land was not the answer. Instead, she volunteered on the Laramie Parks and Recreation advisory committee and the Parks and Recreation Master Plan Ad-Hoc committee. "I did everything I could think of to advocate for finding a way to provide public access to this lost corridor."

McCrackin has noticed some "chipping away" of the Casper Aquifer Protection plan through the years but thinks the Pilot Hill Land Purchase project has a good chance of effectively protecting the water supply. "It is a win-win for both protecting our community's water and for improving the quality of life through opening up a recreation corridor that connects town with the national forest. It could also prove to be an economic development tool, attracting more business, college students and faculty who are looking for a community with easily accessible outstanding recreation opportunities."

McCrackin will likely have to face another spring and summer of driving up the interstate to reach her trails, but if Rothfuss is correct, the end of that inconvenience is in sight, maybe even in time for next winter's ski season. That's because access to the trails could once again be at the edge of town, possibly with an "official" trailhead parking lot and informational kiosks.

"I am so stoked for this to happen," McCrackin said. "I have chipped in a financial contribution and I hope others will, too."

Rothfuss is "very confident" the sale will go through. "This is an incredibly supportive community that understands the value of this deal, from an economic development standpoint," he said. "This is exactly the type of lifestyle asset to attract tech companies and bring about innovative diversification that will bring people back here or retain them. The upside, over the long term, is tremendous."

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