Representatives of the Pilot Hill Project requested $1 million from the University of Wyoming Board of Trustees during the board’s meeting Thursday, seeking support for the purchase of a large patch of wilderness east of Laramie.
While they didn’t receive the $1 million, they did receive a statement of support stipulating that any contribution from the university would come with the understanding that UW could develop wells on the 5,500 acres that make up the Pilot Hill purchase area.
The area stretches from city limits on its westernmost edge to the Medicine Bow National Forest in the east, providing a connection between Laramie and the forest. Sitting over the Casper Aquifer and home to a resident herd of elk, among other wildlife, the area is valuable to a number of varied stakeholders.
In lieu of pledged funds, one of the project’s members — Sen. Chris Rothfuss, D-Laramie — requested support from the university.
“I would ask the trustees to put together a subcommittee working group to really study this and better understand what the benefits to the university would be … and how we can partner better with the university on this project as we’re trying to raise and identify resources throughout the state, throughout the community,” he said.
Rothfuss presented alongside Trustee Kermit Brown and Former Wyoming Supreme Court Chief Justice Marilyn Kite. The three presented on the ecological and recreational value of the land in question and pushed for buy-in from UW, which — they argued — stood to benefit greatly from the purchase.
The Pilot Hill Project intends to make the land public and keep the area both free of development and open for recreation, wildlife and scientific research.
“It really has to be a partnership between the local communities and the state government and, we hope, the University of Wyoming, because it’s not going to happen without that collective effort,” Kite said. “Everybody has a different, personal interest in this. There’s the recreationists and the preservationists and there’s the people concerned about the Aquifer, but we really see this as a tremendous benefit to the university in the long haul.”
Citing the many recognitions UW has received as a great outdoor or outdoor recreation college, Rothfuss said purchasing the land will connect the city to the forest and increase the amount of public land available to students — and prospective students — of UW.
“It really is a bargain, as I see it,” he said. “When you talk about $10.5 million giving us access to not just the 5,500 but 55,000 additional acres of National Forest with trail systems already developed, this is an incredible potential resource for the university.”
The Warren Livestock Company, current owner of the purchase area, offered to sell the land to Albany County for $10.5 million — as long as the land is purchased by September. In October, the Albany County Commission agreed to buy the land if the full amount was raised before the deadline.
“The seller of this property receives queries almost daily about sales of this property,” Brown said. “It’s going to sell. It’s just a matter of whether it’s going to sell to the project or whether it’s going to sell and be developed. If you have a passion for this, like we do — if you have a passion for this university and what it’s about — it just seems like a one-time opportunity that we just can’t allow to pass.”
Rothfuss said the prospect of development was very real, and that the land, once developed, could never be taken back.
“Everyone can imagine how different Laramie would be if you looked east and just saw houses,” he said. “That’s a change. That’s a dramatic change. And that’s a realistic future vision.”
The purchase area is also notable for the fact that it sits atop the Casper Aquifer — one of two primary sources of Laramie’s water.
Aside from protecting the purchase area for public use, UW could gain the ability to dig wells and bypass the city’s water treatment plant, Brown said.
“We all feel that the city of Laramie is finally going to lower the hammer on us on the cost of water,” he said. “And though we may not believe it, they believe that we’re getting quite a special deal on water and that could come to an end. So this would be our safety valve.”
Board Treasurer John McKinley recused himself from the discussion and vote entirely and Brown — sitting in front of the board rather than at its head with the other board officers — abstained from voting. The remaining board voted in favor of a motion voicing their support for the Pilot Hill Project, mentioning the area’s recreational and environmental value to the UW community. The motion also stated that should UW give money to the project, it would retain the right to dig wells.
“Passage of this motion does not incur any indebtedness on the part of the University of Wyoming,” Trustee John MacPherson said. “All of our options are open. All this motion does is (say) that we endorse the project and we want it to go forward with the understanding that we would reserve the right to develop water should we choose to (do) that.”