Historic visions Green River Drift, New Fork River Crossing Park reach milestones
Humans and herd animals share an instinctive tendency – to move beyond boundaries, whether for land and dreams of riches or away from the desert to greener grass. Both create trails where signs of passage, both more than a century ago and to this day, revealed their potential as modern legacies of Sublette County’s history and heritage.
On June 20-21, two visions converged with celebrations centered on the century-plus old Green River Drift cattle trail, a 58-mile-long stock driveway from the desert to the mountains for summer grazing, and the New Fork River Crossing Historical Park, used by thousands of emigrants heading west on the Lander Road.
Green River Drift
The Green River Drift’s first recorded use was in 1896 by the Upper Green River Cattle Association. Its members gathered their cattle in the spring on dry desert pastures and slowly moved them north.
The route follows the Upper Green River north, with splits and spurs helping cowboys move herds to summer pastures along the eastern Gros Ventre Range.
In fall, cattle “drift” back south with cooler weather. Ranchers and cowboys still work their cattle out along the stock driveway and send them on their way home.
As it goes with humans and herds, this annual migration is well engrained in both species, basically unchanged in the past century, with the exception of snug cow camps, horse trailers and technological tools.
A lengthy process beginning in Sublette County and traveling to Washington, D.C. culminated with the Drift’s nomination to the National Register of Historic Places approved in November 2013. June 20 brought its dedication as the nation’s first-ever ranching-related “Traditional Cultural Property,” or TCP.
The dedication coincided with the first day of “turn-out,” allowing visitors to watch the historic cattle move first-hand.
“We’re trailing them up the Drift,” explained rancher Charles Price. “If we really had to push at these cattle we’d never get up there. This is more like a migration than a ‘drive.’ A lot of these old cows know exactly where they’re going, and they’re ready to go there.”
A morning tour took 80 people from the sorting grounds at Trappers Point, near Highway 191 west of Pinedale, north to Cora and on up to Bridger-Teton National Forest (BTNF) along the Drift’s route.
The driveway was protected lately by Sublette officials from development and crosses private, BLM and BTNF easements and highway right-of-ways. Association members have BTNF grazing permits on the Upper Green’s 100,000-acre allotment. Nearby ranchers with allotments “off to the side” use the driveway, as do bikers, hikers, riders, snowmobilers and migrating wildlife.
The Drift’s farthest reaches extend across the mountains to Union Pass, west of Dubois.
“We can go 32 miles and still be on this allotment,” Price said.
Each pasture system has a newer log cabin where riders are based to put out salt blocks, doctor cattle, disperse cattle from riparian areas, fix fence – and one new duty from accompanying grizzlies and wolves frequenting the Upper Green.
“As predators have moved up into this area, there’s a lot more searching for predator kills,” said Price, also on the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission.
Bringing the Green River Drift into its current prominence took a huge collaboration among Sublette ranchers, officials, historians and volunteers, progressing from an idea sparked by Jonita Sommers and the Sublette County Historic Preservation Board (SCHPB) into reality with support from the Upper Green River Cattle Association, Wyoming Stockgrowers Association (WSGA), Wyoming Cultural Trust Fund, Sublette County and Wyoming agencies and BLM, Forest Service and National Park Service.
After the tour, 225 people converged at the Sommers Ranch and Homestead, listed in 2009, to be welcomed by owners Representative Albert (HD-22) and his sister Jonita Sommers with a barbecue and an ample supply of mosquito spray.
Speakers explained why the Drift’s acceptance as a TCP is unique and historic.
“This is a living representation of our community’s heritage,” said SCHPB Chair Clint Gilchrist.
He then introduced Wyoming BLM Director Don Simpson.
Wyoming’s ranching traditions, policy recognition of ranching as an important multiple use and the Green River Drift’s status as the oldest continuously used stock driveway were important reasons for the BLM to support the nomination process, Simpson said.
Jonita Sommers told tales about the Drift’s earlier days, saying Harry Steele, now 93, built the Cattle Bridge over the New Fork River at its south end, the Little Colorado Desert, in 1946. That same bridge is used today, mainly by the Murdock family.
Wyoming State Parks and Cultural Resources Director Milward Simpson and Preservation Officer Mary Hopkins also discussed “the huge effort and a lot of painstaking research” for the nomination.
“It was a labor of love for our office,” Hopkins added.
Jose Castro, BTNF acting supervisor, called the Drift’s tradition “living history that mimics the movements of ancient hunters and wildlife centuries ago.
“I think this will be a classic textbook study for new similar projects in the future,” he said.
Sommers stood in the shade, still dressed in his battered cowboy hat and spurs from the morning’s cattle drive as his sister was honored for her tireless determination.
“This was a groundbreaking nomination,” Gilchrist said. “This was a very difficult thing to do.”
The final speaker, WSGA Executive Vice President Jim Magagna, reminded those present that the Green River Drift represents history that is still alive, basically unchanged for more than a century.
Also important, he said, is looking ahead to the future, especially with changes in the cattle industry.
“We’re celebrating the history – a living-history monument,” Magagna said, “but let’s all dedicate ourselves to the future.”
Next week, learn about another Sublette collaboration that brought about the June 21 ribbon-cutting of the Lander Trail’s New Fork River Crossing Historic Park.