Sheridan County, Wyoming, has long been known for its scenery, for “beautiful valleys in their virgin purity and richness,” as city of Sheridan founder John Loucks wrote rather dramatically in 1882.
Nestled on the east flank of the Bighorn mountains on the Montana border, Sheridan County’s topography ranges from the rugged and dry Powder River breaks to 11,000-foot spires on the edge of the Cloud Peak Wilderness Area. It contains some of the best grazing land in the state. With an average elevation of 3,742, it has a longer growing season than many Wyoming counties. Gardens actually include tomatoes.
Sheridan County also has something else: coal. In 1973, driven by the shock of the Middle East oil embargo, coal seams previously deemed uneconomical gained attention. “Massive mining operation rumored,” shrieked an above-the-fold story in a December 1973 Sheridan Press.
Opposition to the mine rose and land planning in Sheridan County began in earnest. There had been planning talk since the 1960s but little action. With the prospect of a coal mine, the county’s land use plan grew from a discussion to – more than 30 years later – what many people say is one of the most effective smart growth land plans in the Rocky Mountain west.
This transition came about because Sheridan County has its own version of rugged western independence. The county is solidly Republican and you’ll never hear a syllable of disregard concerning guns or property rights from any politician. However, when challenges arise, the county doesn’t seem to have much trouble asking for advice, even if it comes from, you know, the outside.
When it came to land planning, Sheridan County eventually turned to the Sonoran Institute, a Tucson-based organization that aims to help fast-changing western communities retain their core land, scenic, and cultural values.
The appearance of the Sonoran Institute as a latecomer wasn’t accidental. As executive director Luther Propst said about the Sonoran Institute’s entrance into any land planning process: “We usually don’t come to a community unless invited and its citizens are ready to deal with challenges. We want to be effective.” MORE …