Wyoming’s Office of State Lands and Investments plans to finalize the public acquisition of the Pilot Hill property this month or in early August, but there’s still no guarantee that the property will be immediately leased to Albany County as soon as the land is transferred to state control.
The State Board of Land Commissioners, which consists of Wyoming’s five statewide elected officials, voted in early June to purchase the Pilot Hill property. At the same time, OSLI staff presented the board with a 25-year lease to put management control in the hands of Albany County.
The proposed lease would bar motorized access to the land, and SBLC delayed voting on the lease after Treasurer Curt Meier asked staff to explore less restrictive land-use rules.
Meanwhile, county commissioners have already approved the lease barring motorized use, and local Pilot Hill organizers have expressed confidence that the version SBLC approves will reflect that as well.
After SBLC tabled the lease vote at the beginning of June, it scheduled an executive session for June 23 with plans to vote on the lease the same day — assuming time was available.
The June 23 vote didn’t happen, and OSLI deputy director Jason Crowder said it’s now possible the sale could be finalized before a lease is approved.
If that happens, the land-use restrictions for Pilot Hill would be, at least briefly, sparse.
Until a lease is approved or SBLC enacts some other restrictions, the public would be able to use the land under the SBLC’s Chapter 13 rules, which allow for hunting and fishing.
However, if the next lease vote is put off until August or later, Crowder said he hopes to get SBLC to vote this month on restricting Pilot Hill to walk-in access only for the time being.
SBLC doesn’t have another meeting scheduled until Aug. 6, but Crowder said it’s likely that Wyoming’s statewide elected officials will need to have a special meeting this month to deal with CARES Act funding.
“If that’s the case, I’m hoping to piggyback on that meeting,” Crowder told the Boomerang.
Meanwhile, the Pilot Hill Project’s local oversight committee recently approved a final plan for where trails will be constructed once SBLC leases the property to Albany County.
The local plan would, over the course of a decade or more, construct 43.9 miles of trails on about 7,000 acres.
That trail mileage is a slight increase from the draft plan that was unveiled in January.
“That was really only due to the incorporation of the existing roads on the property,” Ellie Wachtel, a consultant on the project, said during a public meeting in June.
Wachtel works for SE Group, a consulting firm that’s now working on trail engineering for the project.
In the last few months, the Pilot Hill plan has also been updated to include more specialized trails, including three miles of handicap-accessible trails, a downhill-only biking route, and a trail in the land’s southern portion that would connect to the Pole Mountain Unit.
Wachtel stressed, however, that the Pilot Hill is a “flexible” document that will likely evolve as trails are built over the next decade or so.
The plan envisions the northern half of the property to be recreation-heavy, with 41 new miles of trails in the corridor.
The southern half of the property, which is a key migration area for elk, is planned to be managed as a 3,000-acre Wildlife Habitat Management Area, with just one 2.9-mile trail connecting the northern recreation corridor with the Pole Mountain Unit to the east.
As trail continue east in the northern recreation zone, they would continue to get more dense as they approach the summit of Pilot Hill.
“We felt that this would be appropriate to be the highest density area because of all these drainages, ridges, valleys and tree cover,” Wachtel said. “Even though there are more trails up here, it doesn’t feel like there’s as many trails because you can’t see one trail from another, to a large extent.”
Of the total trail mileage, 27.1 miles are planned to be multi-use, 5.9 miles are planned to be designated for hikers, with another 10.9 miles planned to be bicycles-only.
In designing the trail system, Wachtel said that sustainability was a key focus.
“A big one with that was low average grades to limit erosion,” she said. “We tried to limit the visibility of one trail to another to discourage people from venturing off-trail because they see another trail in the distance.”
Wachtel said the community should expect it to take up to 20 years for all trails to be constructed.
Pilot Hill organizers have envisioned that the first phase of trail building will consist of 21.1 miles of trails with an estimated cost of $590,000-$1.6 million.
That phase will include the hiking loops close to the city, a horseback riding trail, and access trails to the Pilot Hill summit and the Pole Mountain Unit. The goal of that phase is to “get all user groups out on the area,” Wachtel said.
“Phase Two is about spreading people out on the property and offering people separate experiences for different user groups,” she said.
Phase Two would include specialized trails for hikers and bicyclists, with an estimated cost of $350,000-$875,000.
The last phase, which has an estimated cost of $310,000-$720,000, would include the “more difficult” biking trails and the one trail constructed in the southern portion.
“We really wanted that trail to be in Phase Three because it’s not intended to be a high-use trail,” Wachtel said. “It should only exist when there’s enough trails elsewhere to disperse the number of users appropriately.”
Once Albany County takes control of the lease, Wachtel said incremental progress will be key to bringing the vision to fruition.
“The most important thing is to get something done — continue to build that momentum and show the community that there’s signs of progress,” Wachtel said. “This project is definitely going to need lots of volunteers.”
She noted that some management considerations, like fee prices and rules about dogs, haven’t been determined. Among the issues that will need to be addressed, she said, include enforcement practices, amenities maintenance, trash, emergency services, seasonal closures, e-bikes and commercial use.
Sarah Brown Mathews, an organizer of the Pilot Hill effort, said she hopes trail construction could begin in September.
Brown Mathews said it’s conceivable all trails could be completed within a decade, but she warned there’s no need to rush.
“We do anticipate that we’re going to have the ability to leverage all the great volunteer groups in town and we may be able to build out this trail system faster than we anticipate, but we want to be thoughtful about making sure they’re well-engineered before we put any shovels in the dirt — and we also want to be realistic about funding and construction costs,” she said.