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On Wyoming's Wind River Reservation, eclipse planning is a little different

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By Art Lawson’s calculations, it would take 20 to 30 game wardens to adequately patrol over 2 million acres of tribal land on the Wind River Reservation.

But come the August eclipse, when more than 10,000 visitors are expected to descend on Fremont County and the reservation, the Shoshone and Arapaho Fish and Game director will have three. Same as always.

Tourism officials and authorities in Fremont County have been working on eclipse preparations for two years, relying on consultants and broad task forces. Planning on the reservation, though, has largely fallen to Lawson.

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Fremont County Eclipse

Art Lawson, director of Shoshone and Arapaho Fish and Game, sits in his office in Fort Washakie. Planning for the eclipse on the reservation has largely fallen to Lawson, who has been on the job less than a month.

He’s been at it for three weeks.

“I just got the director’s position,” Lawson said. “We’ll see what happens.”

County contrast

Fremont County took some warming up to the importance of the August eclipse.

“When I heard about it at first, I was like, ‘eh,’” said Jordan Dresser, who does public relations for the Wind River Casino, which has been planning for the event for more than a year.

Then the data started piling up. A consultant’s report in early 2016 projected up to 20,000 eclipse visitors on top of an already busy summer tourism season in the area. After Casper, Fremont County has emerged as the second most popular location in Wyoming for tourists to view the totality.

The local visitors council started promoting Fremont County as a destination, and communities from Dubois to Lander have prepared unique programming. Public authorities have been working on the logistics of handling thousands of out-of-state visitors traveling to view roughly two minutes of the sun disappearing behind the moon.

Excitement has spread.

“It’s a small community,” said Wind River Visitors Council spokeswoman Casey Adams. “Everybody I talked to — they’ve got family and relatives showing up.”

In the county, hotels, vacation rentals and campgrounds are still available during the eclipse, and the visitors council website lists dozens of accommodation options.

But opinions about, and preparation for, the coming eclipse vary depending where one stands in central Wyoming.

Concerns and hope

On the reservation, it’s complicated. The two major tribal-owned casinos are offering eclipse programs and lodging, and a local nonprofit is offering tepee stays in one of the small population centers.

But while nobody is sure exactly how many people will be around on Aug. 21 to view the eclipse, it is very possible that more visitors will come than can be accommodated at the casinos — which are familiar with working with tourists — and the tepee camping operation. Other than the signs denoting reservation boundaries, there is little to inform travelers that the open spaces bordering the state roads through the reservation are private land requiring special permission to access.

Lawson is planning to put up more signs and will try to block off some of the more sensitive sacred sites and graves.

Buying food, gas and other essentials may also be a challenge for visitors who find themselves on remote parts of the reservation, which often lacks cellphone service.

Paula McCormick, with the visitors council, said that one of the most popular destinations on the morning of the eclipse will be tiny Crowheart, on the northern edge of the reservation, due to the length of the total eclipse.

“The center line is Crowheart,” McCormick said. “For the people who have traveled to do this ... the importance to them is being as close to the center line as possible.”

The Crowheart Store, with its expansive convenience store, post office and gas station, is the only service stop for miles in either direction.

Eclipse keychains and shirts are already on display, and owner Lloyd Haslam said he’ll keep additional supplies and gas on hand for the expected visitors. But he was wary of overstocking and skeptical of whether more than a few tourists would purchase the expensive camping permits for the designated area near the town.

“I’ve had people all summer talking about it as tourist people come in and stuff,” Haslam said. “Heck, I could care less.”

Camping opened

While camping for non-tribal members is usually allowed only adjacent to bodies of water where fishing is permitted, the tribal councils have agreed to open three broad swaths of land for camping: two southwest of Highway 26 and 287 and one northeast of the Wind River.

Permits will be required, covering the week leading up to the eclipse and costing $500. Viewing the eclipse from reservation side roads will also require a day permit.

Despite the remote nature of the camping areas, no portable toilet facilities or garbage cans will be provided.

“You pack it in, you pack it out,” Lawson said. “We will cite.”

While the Bureau of Indian Affairs is planning to bring in additional officers from Montana to patrol the reservation during the week leading up to the eclipse, law enforcement of all kinds will be stretched thin.

Lawson and his wardens have the authority to cite and arrest lawbreakers on the reservation, but they rely on the Fremont County Sheriff’s Department to actually transport detainees to jail. On the day of the eclipse, when many day trippers are expected, that may be a tough sell.

Wind River Casino spokeswoman Jackie Dorothy said the sheriff’s department has told homeowners to protect their own land.

“During this one day, people are going to be told they have to defend their homes themselves,” Dorothy said.

Lawson acknowledges enforcement will be a challenge.

“It’s a special event, and we’re going to have stuff happen,” he said. “The biggest problem is going to be trespassing and littering.”

Mitigating mishaps

In part, that is why the tribal casinos are offering eclipse programs.

Dorothy said the Arapaho-owned Wind River Casino will be offering reservation tours and two eclipse viewing areas. One, at the main casino, will offer traditional Arapaho songs during the event.

“That’s the reason for designating those two spots,” she said. “Just so you know you’re not trespassing on sacred lands or in someone’s yard.”

Lawson has already had to discourage a German film crew that wanted to perch on Crowheart Butte to film the eclipse.

“I’m like, ‘No, absolutely not,’” Lawson recalled. “There are grave sites and everything around Crowheart Butte.”

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Star-Tribune reporter Arno Rosenfeld covers local government, with a focus on Casper and Natrona County.

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