Pilot Hill project would connect Laramie with national forest, protect aquifer and wildlife
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Pilot Hill project would connect Laramie with national forest, protect aquifer and wildlife

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LARAMIE – The land itself is about 5,500 acres.

It’s a vast expanse of windswept, sage-brush covered plains, conifer-lined canyons, limestone cliffs and rolling hills. It sits on the recharge zone of the Casper Aquifer, supplying about 60 percent of the city of Laramie’s drinking water.

If all goes as planned, that 5,500 acres may, relatively soon, become open to the public.

But as impressive as 5,500 acres sounds, some say what it could do for outdoor recreation and the community is even greater.

The Pilot Hill project, as it is called, would connect the east side of the city of Laramie to the western boundaries of Pole Mountain in the Medicine Bow National Forest. That 5,500 acres gives people in the Laramie area direct access to more than 55,000 acres of national forest land, in addition to neighboring Bureau of Land Management and state land.

A ranching family owns the property now and is willing to sell. They gave Albany County first dibs. The plan has been years in the making, and through land swaps with the state, may be within closing distance.

“It has the potential to become one of the most impactful things for Laramie since the university was formed,” said Dan McCoy, the Outdoor Recreation and Tourism Management degree coordinator at the University of Wyoming’s Haub School of Environment and Natural Resources.

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At a time when many major land projects come with controversy, the Pilot Hill one may be a rare glimpse into almost universal collaboration.

Mountain bikers, hikers, educators, wildlife viewers and horseback riders have been interested in the area for decades, back when fewer people flooded the trails and it was loosely open to the public.

The Laramie Rivers Conservation District’s board decided years ago to encourage the city to look at ways to protect the area for conservation. The Casper Aquifer provides critical drinking water and at some places in the area rests surprisingly near the surface, said Tony Hoch, director of the Conservation District. Any residential or commercial development has the possibility of contaminating the supply, leading to tens of millions of dollars spent to then treat the water.

Economic development specialists saw the land as a way to boost southeast Wyoming’s growing outdoor recreation scene, bringing more people to town and keeping more University of Wyoming graduates after they finish their degrees.

So when Warren Livestock Company owners approached the county in 2017 with an option to buy, hundreds of people including all Albany County Commissioners came out supporting the project.

“It’s being driven by a private landowner. It’s not a land grab, and other private landowners will benefit by being able to purchase landlocked state land in their ranches,” Hoch said. “It’s a win for everyone.”

The hiccup was money. More than 5,000 acres of land bordering one of Wyoming’s largest cities isn’t cheap. The landowners need $10.5 million.

So an impressive steering committee formed with members including Sen. Chris Rothfuss, retired Wyoming Supreme Court Justice Marylin Kite and UW trustee Kermit Brown.

The committee explored every option from grants or federal funds to easements. When they met with officials of Wyoming’s Office of State Lands and Investments, they realized there was potential for a land swap. Since then, the state lands office has looked for landlocked parcels of public land in the region to sell in order to then buy the Pilot Hill section.

“We are trying to trade land that is not available for public use or recreation for land that would then be consolidated into this incredible opportunity for the public, opportunity for wildlife conservation, opportunity for access to our federal lands and opportunity to educational resources,” Rothfuss said.

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If all does go as planned, and the land swap proposals are released before the end of the year, the State Loan and Investment Board may vote as early as spring 2020.

In the meantime, another consulting company has been hired to undertake the weighty task of figuring out the best uses for the land.

Trails are an obvious one. From Laramie to the Medicine Bow National Forest is about 4 miles, and opportunities for trails are seemingly endless. A series of Community Days, as they’ve been called, have given locals a taste of what would be available if the land exchange passed.

Sharing that 5,500 acres are elk, deer and pronghorn, said Wyoming Game and Fish biologist Lee Knox. And for pronghorn, it’s critical winter range. Dividing it up into residential units would likely mean the end of the pronghorn herd.

A series of public meetings are proceeding to figure out the best use of the area, Hoch said.

But trail building also costs money.

Upwards of $1.5 million may be needed to fully develop the area for all forms of recreation including signage, parking, bathrooms and trails, said Rothfuss, and another $3 million could create an endowment to pay for maintenance, leases and management in perpetuity.

It’s a chunk of money, but seems relatively insignificant in the face of what that kind of outdoor amenity could provide to southeast Wyoming’s economy, the protection of Laramie’s drinking water and conservation of critical wildlife habitat, he added.

The hope one day is for a portion of ranchland on the eastern side of the Medicine Bow National Forest and Curt Gowdy State Park to become public, allowing for a series of trails connecting Laramie over the mountains to Cheyenne.

It’s not just a dream, said Sarah Brown Mathews, the staff person overseeing logistics of the project.

“We’re envisioning a Central Park, but Wyoming style,” she said. “Much bigger and better and wilder.”

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