History, energy balancing act creates New Fork Park in Sublette County
Two historical trails in Sublette County are the focus of modern-day determination to preserve their pasts and continue their futures.
Both rely on local rivers – the Upper Green River for the Green River Drift, to guide more than a century’s worth of cattle to summer pastures, and the New Fork River, the Lander Road’s welcome oasis and treacherous obstacle where people crossed to travel westward more than 150 years ago on the new portion of the California Trail.
On June 20 at the Sommers Ranch and Homestead, the Green River Drift was dedicated as the National Register of Historic Places’ first-ever ranching-related Traditional Cultural Property (TCP). The nomination process involved local, state and federal agencies and organizations along with many volunteers for what has been called a “ground-breaking” result.
On June 21 came the grand opening of the Lander Trail New Fork River Crossing Historical Park, an even more complex collaboration springing from the energy industry’s need to mitigate new development in Sublette County.
The park’s ribbon-cutting ceremony brought about 150 people and project partners, now at 29 with the latest, Wyoming Game and Fish Department (WGFD), supporting public fishing access to the New Fork.
In its 100 acres, the New Fork River Crossing Park includes the riverbank, channels and most of the island that was a stopover for thousands heading west. They were traveling the new Lander Wagon Road, or the Lander Road or Trail, that cut up to seven dangerous days of desert travel and ferry crossings from the Oregon Trail. It was the first federally-funded road west of the Mississippi.
Engineer Frederick Lander designed the 256-mile road from South Pass to Fort Hall, Idaho. It was built in 1858 and served the massive migrations of people and livestock west.
As a halfway point in the six-month journey to Oregon or California, in peak summer months 200 to 300 people camped nightly at this often dangerous river crossing, according to Clint Gilchrist of the Sublette County Historical Preservation Board and the June 21 grand opening master of ceremonies.
“People lost their lives at this river crossing,” Gilchrist said, noting the park’s mission is, “to focus on the daily lives of people who were here.”
The wooded island, since cut in half by a shift in the river’s main channel, is now connected to the new parking lot by a trail, new bridges and boardwalks.
But the island’s prior mid-river location gave those crossing a break. This parcel, part of the Olson family’s 3 Bar H Ranch, was confirmed as the original crossing site with many surveys and records, and it was for sale.
The Wyoming Cultural Trust Fund provided grant moneys for two seasons of initial archeological surveys. The resulting artifacts provide a deeper picture of the site.
The Lander Trail’s historical importance was noted by the Bureau of Land Management Pinedale Field Office (BLM PFO) as a consideration when energy companies began developing the area.
Later, the proposed PacifiCorp/Rocky Mountain Power transmission line planned to cross the trail in two places. Ultra Resources and Shell (SWEPI) also proposed expanded drilling nearby.
With two projects involved, the BLM’s Resource Management Plan would call for two separate mitigation agreements under Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act.
The odd mix of interested parties – local and California-Oregon Trail historians, Sublette and Wyoming officials, power and energy companies and federal agencies – grew into a historic, productive collaboration rather than a divisive conflict.
PFO Archeologist Dave Crowley is credited with steering the mitigation process so that two required historic-preservation agreements dovetailed with one goal – to preserve the New Fork River crossing site.
Crowley explained the BLM has “legal mandates to protect” the Lander Road branch of the California Trail “that passes through the Anticline’s full-field development – one of the most productive gas fields in the nation.”
Often historical protection and mineral extraction create conflicts and are at best a balancing act, he said.
Ultra Resources and SWEPI as energy developers and PacifiCorp with its power transmission proposal, with the BLM and preservationists, considered the “upfront idea” to create one “big ticket item” for both mitigation agreements.
Company mitigation funds then went into the pot to buy the Olson property, priced at about $900,000. PacifiCorp first offered one-third of the cost, with Ultra and Shell agreeing after the Sublette County Historical Society became the sale broker.
The internal aspects took shape as every agency and organization contacted – from Sublette County historians, volunteers and officials to the Wyoming Conservation Corps to the National Park Service’s Intermountain Long-Distance Trails Office and the BLM – jumped in.
Setting new precedent
“It’s pretty precedent-setting,” said Nancy Brown, liaison with the BLM for the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation. “It’s very unusual to have two projects working together to make this possible – an outstanding public-private collaboration. The spirit of collaboration was already alive when they began the process.”
Brown forecasted the mitigation project as a “national model for excellence.”
Mary Shepherd of the Wyoming State Historic Preservation Office said the new park gives visitors a look back in time and preserves that experience “for our children and our grandchildren.”
The National Park Service remains involved in the park’s development, with attractive new signs and interpretative sites along the mile-loop trail.
“This is a forever project,” Gilchrist said before cutting the red ribbon with a giant pair of scissors, admitting sometimes he wondered if the park would actually take shape.
As of June 21, about 300 individuals and 29 organizations are partners, he said, honoring partners with cottonwood plaques made by the Pinedale FFA.
“In every organization, someone stuck their neck out and took a chance on this project,” he said.