Blazing New Access, No Helicopter Required
by Chris Madson
A great new access easement opens a wilderness study area in Wyoming to the public—whether they drive a fancy truck or an old sedan.
Up until last summer, Neil Hymas was the Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s warden stationed in the bustling metropolis of Cokeville, population 553. The town is set hard up against the Idaho border about 80 miles as the raven flies southwest of Jackson Hole. Hymas knows the 20 miles of rugged high country between the Thomas Fork and Smith’s Fork rivers like few other people do. After all, it was his office for 35 years.
The maps call it the Sublette Range. To locals, it’s Raymond Mountain, one of the gigantic folds in Wyoming’s Overthrust Belt, a series of north-south ridges thrown 3,000 feet above the surrounding flatlands by the slow-motion collision of the Pacific Plate and the North American mainland. It’s steep, rocky and seldom visited, except by sheepherders
When Theodore Roosevelt drew the line that created the Bridger National Forest in 1908, his pen left Raymond Mountain just outside the boundary. Its timber was spotty, and it was surrounded on three sides by private land, most of which settlers had already claimed and been working since the 1880s. Still, the mountain itself remained a wild place.
In 1991, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the federal agency charged with managing Raymond Mountain, designated it a wilderness study area, citing the steepness of the terrain and opportunity for solitude as well as the mountain’s importance as “moose, elk and deer habitat.”
When Hymas was first assigned to Cokeville in 1985, he quickly recognized the value of the area to both wildlife and hunters, but he also saw a potential problem with access. At the time, he said, “There was 70 or 80 percent public land, but there’s a lot of places where you cross private land to get to it.”
He summed up the prevailing attitude of area landowners: “Just go; don’t even ask. Nobody even questioned it. I wrote a letter to the BLM and said, ‘Hey, here’s 10 different roads where you could buy access from the existing landowner for probably
There was no response.
Twenty years passed without any new entry points secured, and the tradition of easy, handshake access faded. Some of that had to do with the changing character of the people with an interest in Raymond Mountain—more people from outside the local community, strangers with no contacts among the ranchers and farmers. There were problems with trespass, damage to fields and fences. Then there were the strangers who bought land in the area, the wealthy families looking for vacation properties who brought a more stringent idea of trespass with them from more settled places.
And there were the environmentalists. In 2014, Jonathan Ratner of the Western Watersheds Project (WWP) had been collecting water samples on Raymond Mountain in an effort to force BLM to enforce its grazing standards in the area. That led some of the local ranchers to sue to keep him off federal land.
When that failed, they looked for ways to block access to BLM land. County officials arranged to sell a three-acre parcel next to a federal highway to a local landowner, which allowed her to close access to the Coal Creek Road, the only vehicle access on the north side of Raymond Mountain. According to coverage by WyoFile, Jonathan Teichert, senior planner with Lincoln County, wrote that “they will now have the ability to close the West Access of the Smith’s Fork Allotment to WWP.”
The dispute spurred the Wyoming legislature to pass a law that imposed special penalties on anyone who “entered open land for the purpose of collecting resource data” without written permission from any landowner whose property was crossed to get to that public land. That law was eventually struck down by a higher court.
All these confrontations caught hunters in
the middle. Many hunters who had used the Coal Creek Road for decades decided not to go through
“I’d check them on the Smith’s Fork wandering around, looking for a place to go hunting, because they didn’t dare go where they’d been hunting for
20 years,” Hymas says.
With access practically impossible on the east side and questionable on the north, there was really only one way to get onto 37,000 acres of public land—a road on the west side of the range that led to an abandoned phosphate mine, and even that access was less than secure.
“The one everybody thought was an access was Raymond Canyon,” Hymas remembers. “At the time, the county attorney was Scott Sargent. I went to him and said, ‘I’ve been researching. There is no public access in Raymond Canyon. Everybody thinks there is, but there’s not.’”
The road crossed the property of seven landowners who had allowed the public to pass through for years but had never ceded an easement. Hymas told Sargent, “Nobody, nobody would fight you if you declared that a county road” to provide access to the canyon. As it turned out, one landowner, an absentee owner from out of state, hoped to get some compensation for an easement. But, in the end, he decided to cooperate with the county, and an agreement to formalize the first access was signed.
The Raymond Canyon trail lies about halfway between the north and south ends of the mountain, which leaves 10 miles of rugged country on either side with no access. And the canyon trail doesn’t really get you all the way to the top of the ridge.
“Even guys with horses go around the backside,” Hymas says. “If you’re a really brave horse rider and have a really good horse, you can get up on top. The elk herd has done well there, but you have to get up on the mountain .”
Twenty miles of high, rough country, a federal wilderness study area prized by hardy backcountry hunters—and only one access point. That was
where things stood until three years ago when Kim Clark heard about a piece of land for sale at the
mouth of Groo Canyon on the southwest flank of
Clark grew up with a strong connection to the backcountry.
“My dad was an outfitter,” he says. “Hunting was a big part of our life and upbringing. After I graduated from high school, I started guiding a few hunters, which I thought was the absolute ultimate job in the world.”
He left guiding behind to take up a career in law enforcement, first as a deputy sheriff, then as an investigator with the Wyoming Livestock Board. Over the next 25 years, he nursed two passions: hunting wild sheep and starting his own working cattle ranch. But he had to look farther afield to feed his addiction to hunting bighorns.
There are currently no wild sheep on Raymond Mountain. From the 1880s through the 1940s, intensive domestic sheep grazing diminished native forage. Disease transmission and hunting pressure took their toll, and local bighorns died out years ago.
“Sheep are not common here in our part of the state,” Clark says. “But, for some reason, I just kind of got into it…and then I got into it…and then I got way into it. I invite myself with people who have tags, and every one of them has been successful. I’ve probably been on 25 sheep hunts. I’ve personally taken a Wyoming ram and a Montana ram.”
As challenging as hunting wild sheep can be, it pales in comparison to the difficulty of starting a ranch from scratch in the modern West. Clark laughs when the subject comes up and says, “Yeah, yeah, that’s an ongoing thing—we’re still chipping away at it pretty hard.”
About three years ago, he heard through the grapevine that the land at the mouth of Groo Canyon was about to come on the market.
“I don’t know that we were really looking for another piece of property,” he remembers, but “I just jumped all over it.”
He’d heard a little about the canyon as an access point to the mountain itself.
“We knew there was a lot of interest in people going up Groo Creek to get into the BLM because it’s very hard to access from the east side.” And the situation was little better on the other flank of the range. Groo Canyon was the best way to get to the top on the south side, but, as Clark points out, the canyon wasn’t open to the public.
“The previous owner—and the ranch had been in that family for three generations—they did not allow access up through there,” Clark says. “So there were a lot of problems. People still going up through there, and they’d cut fence…just, really, lots of problems.”
After he took title to the property, Clark thought about how to handle the access issue. From a practical point of view, he wanted to head off the fence-cutting, the driving over soaked fields, the trash. If he could find somebody to buy an easement, build a good road and some fence, he thought, people might show a little more consideration.
He also had a less practical reason for allowing access:
“You read about this place in Montana back in the middle of a big ranch, and the only way to access it is with a helicopter. And people do that. But, you know, that’s for the privileged few. I don’t think that’s fair. I’d just as soon guys that drive a little Toyota car still have a chance to go hunting—if they want to—in a good spot. And this is a good spot.”
Clark and Neil Hymas had gotten to know each other over their years in law enforcement, and they’d become good friends. Clark called Hymas and asked whether the Wyoming Game and Fish Department might be interested in developing an easement.
“Man, he just jumped all over that,” Clark remembers. Within days, four folks from Game and Fish visited Clark to talk things over.
The only barrier to the project was the perennial problem—a lack of cash. Clark was struggling to build a ranch and couldn’t afford to donate the easement, and the department didn’t have the funding to purchase the valuable easement in addition to building a mile of road, fences, a parking area and an outhouse. That’s where Leah Burgess, senior conservation program manager for the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, based out of Laramie, Wyoming, came in.
“We’d been watching this project for probably a year and a half,” she says. “We were able to bring some funds in pretty short order, including a significant grant from the Bass Pro Shops & Cabela’s Outdoor Fund. RMEF’s Torstenson Family Endowment gave a sizeable sum too, and onX maps contributed as well. So that’s how we were able to come up with the deal.”
She adds, “Wyoming Backcountry Hunters and Anglers has also been a highly supportive partner, and they raised funds for access infrastructure by raffling a big game tag donated by a Wyoming Game and Fish commissioner.”
Leah has deep experience in the business of negotiating land deals for conservation, but she thinks this project broke new ground.
“The value of public access, that’s another story on its own,” she says. “A year-round permanent public route through private property provides huge public benefits, economic and otherwise—especially as we continue to lose unsecured access points. A permanent public access like this is incredibly important, and to many, invaluable.”
The easement negotiation and purchase was just the beginning of the project, she points out.
“So now, the actual access is getting implemented by WGFD’s Habitat and Access crew. They’re putting in the road and fence and developing the parking lot, and then the trail up through the canyon. There’s a lot of work that’s happening this summer. We plan to have a workday and then celebrate with our partners when it’s done.”
Kim Clark is looking forward to seeing the final product.
“There are so many people—they’re young; they don’t have the luxuries a lot of people have. Some guy that’s 16, 17 years old and he likes to hunt but his family is not set up with horses and pickups and trailers and saddles and all that kind of stuff,” Clark says. “I really would like to see that guy, if he has the ambition, go up in there and at least have a chance to take an elk. It’ll just make my day if I see three or four pickups and horse trailers up in there and, right in the middle, some little Toyota Celica that some kid got out of with his granddad’s old .30-06, strapped it to his back, and headed up there afoot.”
Neil Hymas tells of walking down the street in nearby Cokeville when the ex-chief of police stopped him to inquire about the easement.
“Did that go through?” the man asked.
And Neil said, “Yeah, it did.”
He said, “Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. That’s gonna be so cool for me and my son.”
And Neil said, “Yeah, mine, too. Forever.”
A frequent contributor to Bugle, Chris Madson trained as a wildlife biologist and has spent 35 years as a writer and editor with two state wildlife agencies. When he’s not hunting, he writes on wildlife conservation and the environment from his home in Cheyenne, Wyoming.