The University of Wyoming plans to lease its portion of Pilot Hill land to the project’s nonprofit group, Pilot Hill Inc., which will govern the 5,500-acre section of land east of Laramie that’s now becoming publicly-owned.
Sarah Brown Mathews, a key organizer of the Pilot Hill Project, told the Boomerang that both parties are “in the process of finalizing the draft” and she’s hoping that a 25-year lease for the UW-owned 1,233-acre parcel will be finalized by the time the Office of State Lands and Investments completes its purchase of the rest of the Pilot Hill land.
Wyoming’s five statewide elected officials, who comprise the State Board of Land Commissioners, voted this month to lease OSLI’s 4,344 acres of the project to Albany County as soon as the state closes the sale — something that should happen in August.
Jason Crowder, deputy director for OSLI, told the Boomerang that his office is working to complete the closing “as soon as we can.”
“As you can imagine with a transaction of this size and complexity, ensuring that all deeds, patents, and title commitments are accurate is imperative and time consuming,” Crowder said in an email. “The sellers have agreed to extend closing to make sure everything is in line, however we do not have an agreed upon closing date at this time.”
Albany County Commissioners are set to vote on handing over managerial responsibilities to Pilot Hill Inc. at their Tuesday meeting.
BLM leaseEven if Pilot Hill Inc. has control over the vast majority of the project area by the time it opens to the public, there’s one area the local nonprofit won’t have oversight of in the immediate months: The 480 acres owned by the Bureau of Land Management.
Pilot Hill organizers have planned to eventually construct eight trails in that parcel, which lies in the middle of the northern corridor.
Albany County Commissioners applied for a 25-year lease of the BLM property in July, and Brown Matthews said the federal agency appears amenable to turn over control of the land to Albany County.
“We’ve been working with the BLM for quite some time,” she said.
However, it will likely be 3-4 months before BLM turns over management control, she expects.
While Albany County has agreed to pay OSLI $35,215 per year — with increases for inflation — for the lease of 25 years, there would be no cost for the BLM lease.
Before the BLM property is leased, the State Archaeology Office needs to complete an archaeology study.
The ground work on that study has been completed, Brown Mathews said, and she doesn’t expect any of the findings would inhibit Pilot Hill Inc. from moving forward on its trail plans.
“The findings are similar to what was found on the rest of the property,” she said.
Pilot Hill organizers have received permission to begin some engineering work on the BLM portion of the property, but trail construction on the BLM portion won’t start until the lease is completed.
“We won’t disturb the (BLM) soil in any way until we have the authority to do so,” she said.
Instead, Pilot Hill Inc. will focus on prioritizing construction of new pedestrian trails near the Schoolyard Trails with the idea that some trails will be ready for use this winter.
After OSLI closes on the sale, Brown Mathews said the plan is to keep the public off for another 15 days so that organizers have time to install signs and to complete a sweep to “address any major safety hazards.”
Until the first new trails are built, Brown Mathews said the public will be asked to stick to the single existing trail that runs to the summit of Pilot Hill.
No motorized use
When SBLC approved the purchase of Pilot Hill in early June, it was originally scheduled to sign off on Albany County’s lease of the land at the same meeting.
However, the approval of the lease — which bars motorized use of the property — was delayed after State Treasurer Curt Meier expressed interest in some motorized access.
The five state officials heard testimony on that possibility at SBLC’s July 16 meeting.
Local organizers of the Pilot Hill project said motorized access, specifically that involving internal combustion engines, was antithetical to one of the project’s primary objectives: Protecting the Casper Aquifer, whose fragile recharge zone includes the Pilot Hill land.
“This is a pretty fragile area, and before it was fenced off … mud-bogging became a pretty popular sport there,” said Phil Nicholas, the Laramie attorney who represents Doug Samuelson, the property-owner who’s selling the land. “I could show you the areas that were just ripped up by mud-bogging. There’s just no way to control it.”
Organizers also said that allowing motorized access would jeopardize the project’s relationship with Wyoming Game and Fish, which plans to manage the southern portion as wildlife habitat.
Nicholas also said that allowing motorized access would enable illegal trash dumping on the land — another issue he said pervaded the Pilot Hill land before Samuelson fenced it off.
Ultimately, SBLC unanimously approved the lease to Albany County at its July 16 meeting with the motorized use ban intact.
Board members still expressed concern about how Pilot Hill organizers came to the decision to bar motorized use after Laramie man Shannon Markle, who said he represents the Laramie motorized community, protested that decision.
Markle said that allowing motorized use would’ve provided additional funding that would allow Pilot Hill’s trails and other amenities to be constructed faster.
“We have all experienced that when there’s a lack of trails in an area that’s open to the public, users are going to create their own without oversight,” Markle said.
Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow described Markle’s comments at the July 16 as “really valid concerns.”
“We’re not really sure why the motorized community was left out of this lease,” Markle said. “I was actually on the original recreation board for the Pilot Hill group and attended countless meetings and had hours of discussions with several members, and there was continuous refusal to even allow questions on the surveys that were presented to the community about motorized use. My perception was that we were driving the results (of the survey) in one direction.”
The possibility of motorized use was discussed at several public meetings, however, the community wasn’t surveyed on the option because land-owner Doug Samuelson had already barred that possibility in his original sales offer, Brown Mathews said.
“There were conversations back-and-forth (with Samuelson) about why those restrictions were put in place on the property. He wanted to keep the land in its natural state as much as possible,” Brown Mathews said. “We didn’t want to make the community think it had the opportunity to change something that we had already given our work on. In a sense, Shannon was right. We didn’t offer that to the community as something we could negotiate because that wouldn’t be honest.”
Nicholas said his client intends to continue running a sheep operation next door, a factor that also drove Samuelson’s desire not to see motorized access.
“Part of the issue with sheep is having noises. You want to keep your sheep eating. You don’t want them watching next door,” Nicholas told SBLC.
Pilot Hill organizers have also stated that allowing motorized use on the property could have also jeopardized public support by drawing the ire of neighboring residents.
“There are ranchers who’d like to continue their livelihood on one side, and neighbors on the other side who have some reasonable expectation of privacy,” Nicholas said.
Secretary of State Ed Buchanan had suggested allowing motorized access on the Buck Sullivan Spring Road, an existing road in the southern portion of the Pilot Hill property that is planned to be a Wildlife Habitat Management Area.
“I had looked at the Buck Sullivan trail as a possible compromise where we could test the ability of having a limited kind and frequency of motorized trail into the entire project,” Buchanan said.
Pilot Hill organizers do not plan to retain that road as a trail, though one other trail is planned to go through that WHMA.
“We really worked closely with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department on where it would be appropriate to put a hiking, biking and horse trail within that WHMA area that would avoid some of the critical drainages where elk and moose seek winter habitat areas and seek shade in the summertime,” Brown Matthews said.
Before that WHMA trail is constructed, Brown Mathews said that cameras will monitor wildlife activity in the area “to make sure we’re making wise decisions on exactly where that trail will be located.”
Meier suggested that some of the Pilot Hill land near town could be used to establish parking and some businesses that would serve recreationists.
Pilot Hill organizers acknowledge that additional parking near the Pilot Hill land will be greatly needed, and the project also provides additional business opportunities.
However, former Wyoming Supreme Court Chief Justice Marilyn Kite, who’s helped organize the Pilot Hill project, said that surrounding private land would be the best opportunity for businesses.
“There have been lots of discussions with private land-owners that are adjacent to this property close to town,” Marilyn Kite. “We’ve all joked that we will need a brewpub at the bottom of this development. Bike shops, brewpubs and restaurants would all be a natural use of that private land. I think we would be concerned about trying to manage leases on state-owned property. I think that would be a complicated issue and in some way competing with those private land-owners.”
E-bikes and wheelchairs
SBLC did make one amendment to the lease: Allowing electric wheelchairs and e-bikes, subject to terms determined by Pilot Hill Inc.
Both, Nicholas said, would “not be offensive to what the seller intended” by banning motorized vehicles.
Electric wheelchairs will be allowed, but e-bikes won’t be — at least immediately.
Albany County Commission Chairperson Terri Jones said she was amenable to allowing pedal-assisted bikes.
However, Brown Mathews told the Boomerang that no e-bikes will be allowed on the Pilot Hill property in the near term since organizers intend to unify their trail system with that of the Pole Mountain Unit.
The National Forest Service considers e-bikes, including pedal-assisted bikes, to be motorized vehicles that are not allowed on the Pole Mountain Unit.
NFS is currently re-examining whether to allow some e-bikes on its trails, and Brown Mathews said that, if NFS makes a change, the board of Pilot Hill Inc. could eventually make a corresponding change to allow pedal-assisted bikes.
“(The board) would have to look carefully at what makes sense,” she said.
Pilot Hill Inc. plans to soon solicit interest from community members to serve on its board of directors.