Outdoor recreation advocates won big this spring when the Legislature created a new $6 million trust fund to generate grants for trail building, camping infrastructure and other such developments.
Lawmakers didn’t, however, provide a mechanism to spend the money, leaving the trust fund idle.
House Bill 74 – Wyoming outdoor recreation and tourism trust fund created the fund and identified the funding source — the Wyoming tourism reserve and projects account.
Before they passed it, however, lawmakers stripped out the governance structure, meaning no money can be spent before lawmakers act again.
“So at this point, if we don’t pass more legislation, we can’t get that money out,” Rep. Sandy Newsome (R-Cody) said. “It just stays in the trust fund, and we have no spending authority.”
Meantime, there’s still a looming question of how Wyoming can strike a balance between reaping outdoor recreation’s economic benefits and tipping into crowding and natural resource damage.
Stakeholders hashed out ideas to achieve that balance during a recent three-day University of Wyoming forum in Laramie, discussing everything from recreation’s impacts on wildlife to community-led planning processes.
Doing it the right way is a nut Dave Glenn’s been trying to crack for years, the Wyoming State Parks & Cultural Resources acting director told participants. It’ll likely require discomfort and concessions as user groups work with not only one another but also stakeholders like the oil and gas industry.
He cautioned people against being what he calls “MONLYs, the me-onlys” — or individuals solely focused on one activity and not the entire ecosystem.
“We’ve got to work together,” Glenn said. “Wyoming is big enough that we have the ability to make sure that we can provide all the outdoor recreation that we want to provide, and set this up and design it so everybody can have their cake and eat it too.”
Not there yet
About 200 people attended the forum, which came in the wake of some major steps forward for Wyoming’s outdoor recreation industry. Gov. Mark Gordon in March signed HB 74 into law. Between 2022 and 2023 the state also earmarked some $26 million in federal stimulus and state tourism dollars for projects.
While HB 74’s draft gave the Wyoming Parks and Cultural Resources Commission oversight and required funds be spent on grants for outdoor recreation infrastructure projects and administration, the Senate stripped much of that language with the intention that those details would be ironed out between legislative sessions.
The Legislature’s Travel, Recreation, Wildlife & Cultural Resources Committee will take the issue on. A draft bill is in the works that would model the fund’s governance on the Wyoming Wildlife and Natural Resource Trust, a program established to enhance wildlife habitats, committee Chairwoman Newsome told WyoFile after the forum.
“So what we want to do is to model this legislation after theirs, creating a board, creating spending authority, defining how the funds can be spent, and defining how large the trust fund [is],” she said.
The travel committee will tackle the issue in June, she said. Any draft legislation the committee works up will have to navigate the 2024 legislative budget session, a more difficult process than seeking passage during a general session.
“The challenge in a budget session is you have to have two-thirds vote of the house that introduces it … in order for it to even be heard,” Newsome said. “And so we need to champion our cause and get people to reach out to their legislators to say, ‘this is really important to us.’”
No money has been disbursed from the state’s other large pot of outdoor rec money, the $26 million earmarked for project grants. Applicants filed for the first tranche last summer — the Office of Outdoor Recreation had $14 million mostly in American Rescue Plan Act funds — but the state has yet to announce recipients. That’s mainly due to the time-consuming job of ensuring the projects meet rigorous federal funding standards.
“There’s been a lot of delays,” Glenn said.
“We’re getting very close,” Outdoor Recreation Office Manager Patrick Harrington told WyoFile. His office will likely announce a first batch of grantees soon, he said, followed by a second batch when it’s determined they meet the guidelines. The office is also working on additional resources for applicants to help equip them to meet criteria for the next round.
‘That is the why’
The three-day forum in Laramie at the end of April was titled “Outdoor Recreation in Wyoming: Building it the Way We Want It.” It’s a topic Glenn has spent a lot of time chewing over.
“I don’t know how many hours I’ve spent … in a bar, over a campfire, having conversations with recreation providers … recreation users, professionals in the industry, people who are constantly trying to figure this issue out,” he told attendees.
When he canvassed the crowd about why people love Wyoming, themes emerged: empty places, wildlife, natural beauty, public lands.
If that’s the case, “why would we sit here talking about building new outdoor recreation infrastructure if these are our values … the big empty, wild places, no people?” he asked. “We’re gonna attract more folks. They’re going to spend more time here and it’s going to take away from those values.”
And yet, Glenn said, he has seen initiatives like an offroad vehicle network near Evanston benefit local communities.
He recalled being at an early public meeting about that network where skeptics fretted about issues like trespassing. Then an older rancher got up to the microphone.
“‘If you think we’re going to stop the growth of outdoor recreation and tourism in the community, you’re wrong,’” Glenn remembers her saying. “‘That horse has left the barn. We need to find a way to manage it…” or Wyoming is going to get burned.
“That is the why,” Glenn said.
In 2021, outdoor recreation contributed $1.5 billion to the state’s gross domestic product, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis. Statistics like that buoy advocates who see outdoor recreation as a way to diversify Wyoming’s fossil-fuel-dependent economy.
But skeptics warn that Wyoming should proceed with caution lest it open the floodgates, damaging resources, disrupting wildlife and leading to poor experiences. Figuring out that path was at the heart of the forum, which was hosted by the Ruckelshaus Institute, the Wyoming Outdoor Recreation, Tourism, and Hospitality Initiative and the Wyoming Outdoor Recreation Office.
It’s not as easy as saying “let’s build a trail,” Glenn told participants. Getting a project completed can entail tedious environmental reviews, community meetings, changes of administration, years of work and a lot of money.
Much of that money is currently paid for by the motorized community, hunters and anglers and the oil and gas industry in the form of taxes and conservation fees, Glenn said. Glenn has in the past floated the idea of mountain bike user fees, and told WyoFile his office is still open to the conversation if communities want to have it.
After the forum, Harrington said one takeaway was participants’ interest in the funding piece of the puzzle.
Funding, he said, “is something that we’ve been able to at least really start that ball rolling in our office, and it’s an aspiration of our office to be able to help fill that gap.”
That will ultimately be up to the Legislature and what it decides for the administration of the trust fund.