In the shadow of Yellowstone

Bighorn Canyon director working hard to find money for improvements

Posted 6/27/19

Bighorn Lake is finally full — a sure sign of summer’s arrival. With improvements, Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area is ready for the arrival of the sun-loving crowd.

Yet a short …

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In the shadow of Yellowstone

Bighorn Canyon director working hard to find money for improvements


Bighorn Lake is finally full — a sure sign of summer’s arrival. With improvements, Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area is ready for the arrival of the sun-loving crowd.

Yet a short couple weeks ago, with annual snow melt being held back by the Bureau of Reclamation, beaches and campgrounds were devoid of traffic. A lone American avocet worked its way through the shallows at Crooked Creek Bay, bobbing its head from side to side while bighorn sheep grazed on the area’s steep banks.

If birding is a true test of patience, Mike Tranel fails the test. The supervisor of Bighorn Canyon likes to keep moving. Not that he doesn’t appreciate birds. Early in his marriage to Mary Tidlow, an architect for the Park Service who works as a facilities manager in energy management, the couple went on a bucket list trip to Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands. While there, Tranel met what he calls “real birders.”

“They would sit there for four hours waiting for the parrots to come down,” he said.

He knew then he’d have to find a different hobby. “I’m a little too antsy to sit and wait.”

A year into his job, Tranel has logged thousands of miles overseeing four national park properties in pursuit of upgrading facilities. It can be a slow process.

“There are some challenges in this parks group,” he said.

But much has been accomplished in Tranel’s first year as superintendent and he’s stuck close to his goals. Tranel splits his time between Bighorn Canyon, Ft. Laramie National Historic Site and the Little Bighorn Battlefield and Devils Tower national monuments. He’s concentrating much of his time organizing improvements at the Bighorn Canyon recreation area, which runs from the Lovell area to Fort Smith, Montana.

Projects at the park largely involved fixing what was already there, Tranel said.

“It fits exactly with the secretary of the interior’s priorities because it’s part of the deferred maintenance number that you hear so much about,” he said. “This park contributes to that number.”

On the Wyoming side, facilities were built over time in a mismatched manner. Crews are now repairing buildings and infrastructure, having just put the final touches on projects at Horseshoe Bend to increase accessibility and to help increase a consistent “National Park” look.

Bighorn Canyon still has $23.4 million in deferred maintenance. It pales in comparison to Yellowstone National Park’s $500 million backlog, but the amount still seems daunting. Major national parks like Yellowstone get to keep 80 percent of their collected fees. The other 20 percent is divided among free NPS properties. Two-thirds of all 420 NPS properties — including Bighorn Canyon — are free to the public, creating quite a competition for federal dollars.

“We compete nationally for every project we do,” Tranel said.

In the end, every completed project has been scrutinized on several levels and was a hard-won battle.

The improvements include adding a wheelchair accessible ramp to the swimming area at Horseshoe Bend and repairing equipment in public areas. Crews are currently working to install two new boat docks. The Crooked Creek Ranger’s station and aquatic invasive species check station — the first facility you see after entering the park — is also undergoing a facelift.

There is also a new foundation in place for the eventual reconstruction of the Ewing-Snell Ranch farmhouse, which burnt to the ground in December of 2015. The cost of recreating the structure is about $500,000, Tranel said, and the money isn’t in the budget at this point.

“We’re trying to get funding to rebuild it. It’s the most iconic ranch of the four [in the park],” he said.

Most of Bighorn Canyon’s $23.4 million backlog is in Montana. Much of the work needed is for roads north of the Wyoming border and facilities in the Fort Smith area, totaling $19 million.

“That creates a challenge with rebuilding something like [the Ewing-Snell ranch house],” Tranel said, “because the question all the way up to the secretary of the interior level is, if our priority is to reduce [the maintenance backlog], how does it help us to spend $500,000 to rebuild [the ranch house] when we have all this other stuff that needs work?”

A history buff, Tranel considers the ranch house one of the top cultural resources in the park. He’s keen on getting it replaced. But there is a chain of command. Park superintendents can’t go to congressional delegates to lobby for money.

That’s not to say Tranel avoids politics. He jumps at the chance to talk about the great things happening at the park or to invite VIPs to visit. He even beat Yellowstone’s Cam Sholly to the punch in scheduling time with Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon.

On trips through the Bighorn Canyon’s amazing landscape, Tranel often faces a similar question. “Every time I take people out I hear the same thing: why aren’t more people here?” he said.

About 300,000 visitors came to the park last year, but it largely remains a hidden gem in the NPS system.

“We could easily handle twice as many people,” Tranel said.

He’s been working with the Wyoming Office of Tourism to help get the word out to folks traveling to the state. Earlier in the year, Wyoming was named one of the top global destinations — and the office of tourism hopes to use it as a springboard in continuing to advertise Bighorn Canyon.

The office has a dedicated landing page for the Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area, which includes facts and things to do in the area. They also have a variety of social media posts and stories highlighting the area, special to their summer campaign, Fly Your WY. Many in- and out-of-state visitors have highlighted the beautiful scenery of Bighorn Canyon by tagging #FlyYourWy in their social media posts.

Tranel arrived last June with some pretty lofty goals. It’s a pretty good bet you won’t catch him birdwatching until he’s reached them all.