With a new $6 million trust fund designed to award grants to outdoor recreation projects, Wyoming is poised to join the growing list of states that are investing government dollars in the burgeoning industry.
House Bill 74 – Wyoming outdoor recreation and tourism trust fund passed out of the Legislature and is awaiting Gov. Mark Gordon’s signature. It follows years of discussion and false starts at devising ways the state can better embrace, and capitalize on, outdoor recreation — from mountain bike trails to shooting ranges, off-road routes and campgrounds.
“I think in the big-picture sense, it’s a really exciting time for Wyoming,” Patrick Harrington, who manages Wyoming’s Office of Outdoor Recreation, said about the fund’s passage. “And I think what was created … is really a legacy for the state of Wyoming.”
Governance details of how the funds will be granted remain unresolved. But with the Legislature’s greenlight of the trust fund, coupled with state and American Rescue Plan Act funds already earmarked for outdoor recreation grants, Wyoming is positioning itself to take a more proactive approach to shaping the industry’s growth and future within its borders.
In 2016 then-Gov. Matt Mead created a taskforce that led to the formation of the state’s office of outdoor recreation, which aims to expand and promote Wyoming’s outdoor activities economy. Wyoming is one of 18 states with such offices, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Since then, visitation and use have grown significantly, a trend accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Destinations from Yellowstone National Park to Curt Gowdy State Park reported record visitation in recent years, while national forests have struggled to keep up with maintenance and infrastructure in the face of growing demand.
Outdoor recreation added $1.49 billion in value to Wyoming’s GDP in 2021, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis — up from $1.25 billion in 2020.
These factors have compelled advocates to push the state to invest in and manage the industry — urging officials to capitalize on its potential while protecting Wyoming’s resources from overcrowding and damage.
Agreement on how to permanently support outdoor recreation was elusive for years. The creation of a trust fund, however, changed that. The Joint Travel, Recreation, Wildlife & Cultural Resources Committee drafted the first iteration of the legislation during the interim.
House Bill 74 traveled through the House and Senate with no major roadblocks, though it was heavily amended. The final one-page version simply seeds the fund with $6 million from the Wyoming tourism reserve and projects account and dictates that, subject to legislative approval, another $6 million be added every two years.
While the original 11-page draft included rulemaking language that gave the Wyoming Parks and Cultural Resources Commission oversight of granting and required funds be spent on grants for outdoor recreation infrastructure projects as well as on administration, the Senate stripped much of that language with the intention that those details be ironed out in the interim.
Though the bill’s passage is a win, Wyoming Outdoor Council Legislative Advocate Era Aranow wrote in a newsletter, the removal of safeguards like the requirement that Wyoming Game and Fish assess wildlife impact is “bad news” for the legislation.
Senators also inserted “tourism” into the fund’s title.
Wildlife, planning, resources concerns
Though much of the testimony on the bill was in favor of embracing outdoor recreation, the proposal sparked discussion about how Wyoming can properly protect its wildlife and resources while shepherding outdoor recreation growth. Lawmakers and stakeholders raised concerns ranging from project planning transparency to how best to spread the wealth and impacts from tourists around the state.
“We love where it’s going, but there are some wildlife concerns,” Wyoming Wildlife Association Government Affairs Director Jessi Johnson told the House Travel committee early in the session.
Johnson’s group and other conservation outfits like WOC advocated that potential outdoor recreation projects be vetted for impacts to wildlife.
On the Senate Floor, Sen. Cale Case (R-Lander) later urged requirements to favorably consider expenditures that increase outdoor recreation while protecting cultural and historical concerns and mitigating crowding. He suggested strengthening the division’s current process for approving projects, citing the Sinks Canyon State Park master plan that set off a controversy in 2021 over a via ferrata.
Others welcomed what they said is a step toward diversifying the state’s economy.
“When I think about the dialogue around the tourism budget over the last 10 or so years, I feel like this bill addresses two of the sticking points that we’ve run into a number of times,” Chris Brown with the Wyoming Hospitality and Travel Coalition told the Joint Appropriations Committee. The fund, he said, would allocate tourism dollars to projects around the state — increasing Wyoming’s inventory of outdoor recreation destinations.
It would also help spread out those products, Brown said. “The best way to grow the state’s second-largest industry is to spread people out and to move them around the state in all 23 counties,” Brown said.
Sen. Fred Baldwin (R-Kemmerer) considers it an investment in the state, he said. “And it’s an investment that will have returns. We may not see them right now. We may not see them for five years,” he said in the Senate Travel Committee. “But we need to invest in our state because it’s gonna make a difference to what’s here for us, and for our kids and our grandkids.”
Rep. Wendy Schuler (R-Evanston) also spoke of the fund’s promise for helping retain and attract young people to the state. “If they’re gonna go to a small-town Wyoming … they want to be able to recreate,” she said in Senate Travel.
Sen. Mike Gierau (D-Jackson), who has experienced the explosion of outdoor recreation in his corner of the state, said it has come with challenges, but also great opportunities “for business and for locals and tourists alike.”
Still, Wyoming will need a good process to protect its resources, Sen. Larry Hicks (R-Baggs) warned.
“I know that the state to the south of us and their Division of Wildlife down there has basically said, ‘Wyoming, get ready. Outdoor recreation has come. You better be prepared for the impacts associated,’” Hicks said.
Those concerns can be addressed while the specifics get ironed out, Harrington said.
“The intention being, ‘let’s create the fund, let’s get it funded. And then during the interim, let’s build a robust system of sideboards,’” he said. “The intention is still that it will be responsive to those concerns and our office is … supportive of that effort.”
In 2022, the The State Parks and Cultural Resources Division had $12 million in ARPA funds plus an additional $2 million from the Wyoming Office of Tourism earmarked for outdoor recreation. It used that money to launch a grant program for trail reroutes, new campsites, boat ramps and more.
The office received 117 applications totalling more than $71 million in requests — exceeding available funds by more than $50 million.
The division will receive another $12 million tranche of ARPA funds this year, Harrington said, so even without the trust fund it’ll be able to administer another round of grants. A supplemental budget request of $400,000 to operate the Office of Outdoor Recreation was also approved during the session, he said.
Though the conversation has been percolating for years, Harrington thinks the benefits of recent outdoor recreation projects such as the Backcountry Discovery Route and the growth of groups like Southwest Wyoming Off-road Trails have helped gain support to tip the scales.
”It’s just years’ worth of work and good projects happening on the ground,” he said.
If passed into law, the fund goes into effect in July.
This article was originally published by WyoFile and is republished here with permission. WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.