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Heritage designation effort advances despite property-rights wariness

Natrona County OKs feasibility study on national designation for swath of central Wyoming rich with historical resources. Many Carbon County leaders support it, though some in Natrona County distrust it.

A wagon on the Emigrant National Historic Trail in Wyoming. (Bob Wick/BLM/FlickrCC) Credit: robert wick

by Katie Klingsporn, WyoFile

The yearslong effort to pursue a federal heritage designation for 8.5 million acres of central Wyoming lurched forward last week when Natrona County officials OK’d a necessary early step to complete a feasibility study. 

History buffs Vernon Lovejoy and Glenn Haas are leading the designation effort, which they tout as a no-brainer for Wyoming. A designation would help raise the area’s profile and organize its resources into one attractive pool for history tourists, they say, providing a new economic leg for energy-dependent communities to lean on.

Not everyone agrees; concerns have risen over private property rights, which Lovejoy and Haas assure will be preserved. Both men reside in Colorado, and that has also sowed some skepticism about their interest in Wyoming. 

“Frankly, everywhere we went, somebody has always said that: What’s in it for you?” said Lovejoy, a retired BLM employee who was inspired to launch the effort by the dozen years he spent in the Rawlins area. “It’s been very difficult to convince people that we do this because we want to do it. And all that we get out of it is just the fact that we like doing things that are beneficial for the public.” 

The proposed Pathways National Heritage Area would encompass Carbon and Natrona counties in a slender quadrant of land from the Colorado state line north to the town of Midwest. It would include the cities of Casper and Rawlins, a leg of Interstate 80 and a stretch of the North Platte River. The windswept area of sagelands and rock outcroppings is home to numerous historic curiosities: from rutted two tracks traveled by emigrant wagon trains to a section of the nation’s first coast-to-coast highway and a grand company town built in Spanish Colonial style.

When the men first presented the idea to the Natrona County Commission last summer, members expressed worry about the federal government’s involvement and potential encroachment on landowner rights.

This map highlights the historic trails proposed for a National Heritage Area designation in Wyoming. (Vernon Lovejoy)

Last week, Lovejoy and Haas came before the commission again during a work session — this time with allies from Natrona and Carbon counties in tow. Later at their regular meeting, commissioners green-lighted the study, noting that this step doesn’t bind or commit the county to any outcome. The study will be created at no cost to the counties.  

The presence and support of fellow Wyoming officials seemed to help swing the board’s decision, Haas said. 

“I think the lights went on a little bit and they realized that, you know, we’re potentially offering them the golden goose and platter to the whole nine yards and it’s worth looking at this opportunity,” Haas said. The process has been more of a struggle than expected, he said, but “we got to a good place. We’re really pleased.”

Economic boost?

A national heritage area is a congressionally designated geographic area where “historic, cultural and natural resources combine to form a cohesive, distinct and nationally important landscape.” There are 62 such areas across 36 states. None are in Wyoming.

Lovejoy’s time in Rawlins, where he met his wife, exposed him to the region’s history and landscapes. The idea for the designation sprung from his desire to facilitate alternative economic pillars after watching the region suffer from extraction busts. Tourism struck him as the obvious answer. When he started exploring opportunities years ago, he said, “it became really apparent that these two counties have an enormous heritage of pioneers and early 20th century activities going on.” 

Among the assets: Independence Rock, where thousands of emigrants etched their names as they traveled westward in wagon trains; Fort Caspar, a U.S. Army post located at a major river crossing for emigrants; Parco, a cluster of Spanish-style buildings in Sinclair built as a company town; and the path of the first transcontinental railroad.

Those sites, Lovejoy and Haas said, complement some 15 heritage pathways including the Oregon, Mormon Pioneer, Chief Washakie and Pony Express trails. 

Haas, a retired Colorado State University professor of parks, recreation and tourism, was involved in the designation of the Cache La Poudre National Heritage Area and the South Park National Heritage Area. A 2017 study of the economic impact of the Cache La Poudre National Heritage Area reported an annual $81 million economic impact to the region.

Heritage tourists are generally history buffs who utilize online guides to take self-guided automobile tours.

The National Park Service oversees the heritage area program, though the agency does not assume ownership of land inside heritage areas or impose land-use controls. Rather, the park service partners with, provides technical assistance and distributes matching federal funds to heritage area entities, which are steered by local groups. 

This undated image from the Carbon County Museum collection is labeled as “Train comming (sic) through the cut west of town.” (Carbon County Museum/1947.002.0037001)

The men’s first task was to get local groups to buy in. But when they brought the idea to the Natrona County board last summer, commissioners weren’t ready to hop on the bandwagon. They wanted to know more about potential federal mandates and landowner impacts, and urged the men to have more public meetings. 

Round two 

When the no-cost proposal came before the commission again last week, Lovejoy and Haas stressed that a designation would not infringe on private property rights or uses of public lands like grazing. They were also accompanied by Wyoming residents. 

“Our history and heritage assets are a key component of the tourism portfolio already … and the enhancement of that could possibly be a big positive for us,” said Luke Gilliam, director of sales and development for Visit Casper. “So we are in support of this study.”

When Carbon County Commissioner Travis Moore first heard about the proposal, he said, he did some research and called down to Colorado to ask about impacts or federal overreach concerns. 

“They have yet to find a downside down there in terms of bolstering their heritage tourism,” he said, adding that his commission supports the feasibility study. 

If the National Park Service approves the designation, he added, locals will maintain control. 

Hanna Mayor Jon Ostling said his town, which historically relied on coal, is “seeking other opportunities to try to bolster revenue, bring people in.” This could help, he said, particularly given Hanna’s rich history.

Other entities that support the feasibility study include Discover Carbon County and the Casper Historic Preservation Commission.  

Casper resident Bob Bailey was the sole voice of opposition at the commission meeting. “Why are people from Colorado so concerned about Wyoming and want to help us?” he asked. “I think we can do a lot of this stuff ourselves.” He also wondered “what economic benefit is there to them and their company.”

Independence Rock in central Wyoming, where thousands of emigrants inscribed their names as they traveled westward. It earned its moniker from wagon trains aiming to reach the landmark by July 4 in order to cross the Rocky Mountains before winter set in. (Julie Falk/FlickrCC)

The designation threatens property rights, he maintained, saying ranchers will likely see people wandering their lands. Lovejoy and Haas refute this. 

Next steps 

Haas and Lovejoy will finalize a feasibility study team, Haas said, and begin to draft the study presently. The plan is to release drafts in the coming months to keep the public abreast of developments, with a finished product ready by September. 

That’s still just the beginning. Congress must ultimately designate a national heritage area. 

Once designated, heritage areas receive congressional appropriations through the park service. Although most entities are authorized to receive up to $1 million annually over a set period, actual yearly allotments range from $150,000-$750,000, according to NPS.


This article was originally published by WyoFile and is republished here with permission. WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.

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