Five minutes from downtown Laramie, Melanie Arnett unlocks a gate. She pulls a truck through and we’re inside the 5,500-acre parcel of land that Laramie folks have been drooling to explore for years. I’m feeling pretty smug about my VIP pass.
“Right now, we’re looking right at Pilot Peak,” says Melanie Arnett, who was recently hired to serve as the Pilot Hill Land Project’s director. A local businessman, John Pope with Blue Sky Group, volunteered to pay her salary for now.
“Just to the north, you can see Jack Rabbit canyon that extends all the way down.”
For the last few months, Arnett has been working hard to bring together the city, the county, businesses, and nonprofits to raise the $10.5 million the landowner is asking for this historic property, one of Wyoming's oldest ranches, the Warren Livestock Company. And she’s making some serious headway. The Wyoming Community Foundation recently set up a fund and is already taking donations. And last fall, Albany County signed a purchase agreement for the land. Now it’s just a matter of getting the money.
But at the moment, Arnett’s job is four-wheeling. It’s not long before we encounter a herd of pronghorn.
“This is crucial winter antelope range,” Arnett says, stopping to snap a photo. “I think this herd particularly lives right here.”
And so does a lot of other wildlife: hawks, jack rabbits, elk, bear, and moose. When we get to the top and start walking through the aspens, we even find mountain lion tracks.
“Blood! My god!” shouts Arnett.
In some deep tracks in the snow, I see red spots too, and some elk or deer fur.
“Oh my god, awesome!” Arnett says, laughing in delight. “I bet this is a cat kill!”
I’m pretty thrilled myself. “I think you’re right,” I say.
These fresh signs of mountain lion activity show this is a healthy landscape, the kind people like to hike, bike, hunt or teach kids about. Arnett says making such places available means the people who live near them are healthier, too.
So are their economies.
Arnett says it’s easier for businesses to recruit employees when they can show off how close public lands are. Last year, Governor Matt Mead assembled the outdoor recreation task force to figure out how access to Wyoming’s outdoor spaces could boost the state’s economy. One way the group identified was to open up more lands right on the outskirts of towns so local businesses could benefit. Now Laramie is working to do just that.
But it’s not the town’s first attempt. In 2010, citizens tried to put a sixth penny tax on the ballot, but it never took off. Then, in 2012, a bill was proposed by State Senator Phil Nicholas to do a land swap that would have allowed the state to take control of the property, but that fell through when Nicholas was accused of being too close to the deal. This time around, though, all these attempts seem to have coalesced into something stronger. That might have something to do with the state’s new focus on leveraging outdoor recreation for economic growth.
For one thing, Laramie could host major events on this land. Arnett’s already had interest from the National Interscholastic Cycling League to host mountain bike races up here. Organizer John Hutchinson told her one race could inject as much as $200,000 into the community because 450 racers and their families would come.
“Look at what we’re looking at right now,” Arnett says and gestures out the truck window at the landscape. “We’ve got some giant ponderosas around us and rolling terrain that provides everything you would need for a mountain bike race. And those kids would come here, travel back home and say, I want to go ride there again.”
It’s still unclear just who would manage this land: the city, the county, maybe a new water district. But Arnett would love to see it become a state park with world class mountain bike trails, like in nearby Curt Gowdy.
But as we drive on, Arnett says the community needs to buy this land for more than just the economic benefits.
“Right now, we’re crossing the aquifer,” Arnett says as we bump over rough white stone slabs. “We have the aquifer in action right now as the snow melts down into these fractures of the limestone.”
This property sits on top of 13 percent of the Casper aquifer, the county’s main water supply. Laramie folks have long battled over how to properly protect this aquifer. Sarah Gorin is a member of the Albany County Clean Water Advocates. She says some people think an aquifer is an underground lake, but it’s not. It’s porous rock. Like a sponge, the limestone soaks up melted snow, but it will also soak up other things.
“You know, the aquifer is big, and it can take a certain amount of inputs without adverse effects. But if that whole area were to be developed on septic?” Gorin says. “Or even just human impact, you know, herbicides, pesticides, road runoff, all the kind of things that go along with our daily life, it wouldn’t be good.”
The landowner, Doug Samuelson, has already had the property surveyed and laid out for development of 35-acre ranchettes, just in case the community can’t raise the money to buy the land.
And raising so much money to create a park is unprecedented in Wyoming.
The State Park Option
Wyoming State Parks Administrator Dominic Bravo says the city of Douglas did something on a smaller scale for a Prisoner of War camp historic site.
“But I will say I’ve really never seen a community for the amount of funds that need to be raised and even the application that we received, in regards to the site criteria, it was really robust and amazing,” says Bravo. “We’re pretty excited about where we can go with it.”
Bravo admits there are a lot of questions to answer before the west flank of the Laramie Range turns into a state park. Already people are quibbling over whether to allow motorized trails or dogs off-leash. But a survey shows that, for the most part, Albany County folks want this land to be public. In fact, the idea has a 92 percent approval rate. Bravo says all these details can be figured out later, because the benefits are so impressive.
“Because this is a pretty substantial deal,” Bravo says, “it’s almost connecting Cheyenne to Laramie.”
It’s true. Mountain bikers could ride from Laramie city limits over the mountain to Curt Gowdy State Park, 30 miles away.
Laramie Senator Chris Rothfuss sits on the county’s funding oversight committee. He says this project is a good model for the whole state.
“Part of diversifying our economy in Wyoming is really to attract businesses that wouldn’t normally locate themselves in Wyoming,” he points out. “When you have this opportunity where we have this world-class recreation available, that’s precisely the type of thing that makes Laramie, Wyoming attractive.”
It’s going to take some fast footwork. The county has given organizers only until September 2018 to raise $10.5 million. Organizers plan to unveil a couple fundraising campaigns in coming weeks.