On New Year’s Eve, the executive council of Governor Mead’s Economically Needed Diversity Options for Wyoming committee released its first report on its deliberations. Early last year, the governor assembled this brain trust to look for ways to stop the “boom-and-bust” cycle that has defined Wyoming’s economy for most of the last century.
The governor has, in the past, paid some heed to the part outdoor recreation plays in the Wyoming economy. Two years ago, he appointed another blue-ribbon task force to research that role; unfortunately, the findings of that panel have apparently not found their way into ENDOW’s deliberations.
Tourism (and associated outdoor recreation) is generally regarded as Wyoming’s second largest industry. According to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, mining contributed 20 percent of Wyoming gross domestic product, or about $7.66 billion in 2016. According to the Outdoor Industry Association, outdoor recreation generated about $5.6 billion in consumer spending to the state’s economy in that same year. Jobs? Outdoor recreation accounts for about 50,000 jobs in the state, while the mining and energy industry, including oil and gas, maintains about 27,000. These are often better paying jobs, but their number is decreasing, not increasing.
The extreme fluctuations in energy prices that regularly buffet the oil and gas industry are almost solely responsible for the booms and busts in the state’s economy. Traditional wisdom places faith in the farming and ranching sector to help protect the state and its citizens from the inevitable downturns in the oil patch, but it should be clear by now that the ag sector can’t begin to compensate — in 2015, the last year for which data are available, Wyoming farmers and ranchers generated $536 million in gross domestic product and 14,000 jobs. That’s about 10 percent of the cash flow of outdoor recreation and 28 percent of the jobs.
It seems to be an article of faith in Wyoming that we “can have it all” — that we can continue to expand outdoor recreation while at the same time drilling more wells, building more wind turbines, diverting more water, and restricting more public access. Even the most casual examination of that notion is enough to show how ridiculous it is.
People do not come to Wyoming to look at oil and gas wells. They’re not interested in taking pictures of gigantic wind farms, stretching to the horizon. They won’t buy fishing tackle if the state’s rivers have been diverted to grow alfalfa. They won’t come to hunt mule deer or bighorn sheep if there are no deer or wild sheep left. Herds of big game, untrammeled wilderness, sparkling trout streams — the solace of open spaces — are our most precious commodities. They will do nothing but increase in value as the world becomes more crowded, and with enlightened management, there is no reason they should ever be exhausted.
But there’s the rub — we don’t manage them wisely; in fact, we barely manage them at all. Yes, we have three state agencies — Game and Fish Department, Wyoming State Parks Historic Sites & Trails, and Wyoming Office of Tourism — whose job it is to promote outdoor recreation and tourism. Of the three, only Game and Fish pays any attention to protecting the resources that actually support this industry, and without the support of the governor or the Legislature, the agency’s efforts seldom go beyond regulation of fishing and hunting; they don’t really reach the core problems facing wildlife habitat. State Parks’ efforts are limited to the tiny reserves under its control, and the Office of Tourism has practically no authority at all over the natural resources it promotes.
None of the three begins to have enough money or manpower to manage these resources at the scale of an entire state. In the 21st century, it will take far, far more spending, staffing, and political will to understand and maintain them. There’s a lot to be done in the way of both scientific analysis and on-ground management that will take a well-paid, skilled workforce.
In the interest of promoting this, our most dependable, “economic engine,” I suggest that the ENDOW board, the governor, and all Wyoming’s citizens consider some of the following:
Steps to enhance Wyoming’s outdoor recreation that won’t cost money:
- We should change our attitude toward industrial activities on federal land.We need to scrutinize the process of leasing for oil, natural gas, coalbed methane, and wind far more carefully than we have in the past, pressing for management that maintains open space, abundant wildlife, untrammeled vistas and water.
- We need to recognize the effects that wind turbines have on wildlife. Almost a decade ago, biologists with the Game and Fish Department called for significant limits on wind energy development. But those recommendations were gutted by political interests before they were released to the public. Similar suppression has occurred in the past when the state’s wildlife experts made recommendations requiring adequate reclamation of coal mines and oil and gas fields. Wyomingites need to hear the unaltered opinions of these professionals concerning energy development in the state.
- We need more effective regulations to limit the proliferation of “ex-urban developments,” the low-density suburbs that have an impact on wildlife habitat, migration corridors and open space far greater than the density of the human populations that occupy them.
- We need more robust laws to protect instream flows in the state. Efforts to pass such legislation have been short-circuited by special interests. They need to be passed. At the very least, an owner of a water right should be allowed to leave his water in the stream without the risk of losing the right itself.
- We should consider a stream access law similar to Montana’s. The flowing water of the state belongs to all its people; they should be able to wade, use the shoreline, and anchor their boats between high water lines freely and without interference from adjacent landholders.
- We should put an end to state funding for “water development” projects that cost taxpayers tens of millions of dollars while benefiting only a handful of ranchers and farmers.
- We should consider a constitutional amendment that would allow more enlightened management of state-owned lands for the benefit of wildlife and outdoor users rather than simply maximizing income.
- The legislature should give up the effort to take state ownership of federal lands. Wyoming can’t afford to properly manage these lands, and if the prime parcels — or all of the federal public domain — are sold off, they will be exposed to the same kinds of abuse that characterized business activity on the public domain in the 19th century.
Steps to enhance Wyoming’s outdoor recreation that come with a price tag:
- We need to increase funding for research on high-profile wildlife. Much has been made of the extensive pronghorn and mule deer migrations in the Pinedale area. We know about this migration only because of intensive radio-telemetry research carried out over more than a decade, which was funded by oil and gas developers as part of the leases that allow them to drill in the area. There are no doubt other migrations in the state of similar and possibly even greater magnitude. They should be protected, but we can’t protect them until we know where they are. The state should fund that research, not wait until we have to assess the impact of development.
- We need to find solutions for the disease problems facing our big game. Chronic wasting disease and brucellosis are the main pathogens here. But other diseases, like West Nile virus in sage grouse and the various diseases that hamper populations of bighorn sheep, should be cured or at least managed to minimize their effect.
- We should consider buying water rights to bolster flows in the state’s blue-ribbon streams. The fisheries in these streams are beyond price as engines of economic activity. We should invest in them.
- We should expand the state’s programs that open private land to public access for hunting and fishing. In several corners of the state, this would not only expand opportunity; it would allow more effective management of local big game herds.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of steps that could be taken to support and expand outdoor recreation in Wyoming. But it shows the opportunity we have to build a sustainable economy by supporting an industry that already thrives in the state. Tourism is a business sector built on renewable use of the state’s natural assets that would at least help insulate us from the vagaries of the energy markets. We are entrusted with some of the planet’s most spectacular landscapes, places that attract visitors from around the world. They are the reason most of us are here, the reason we stay. They’re not factories; they are treasures, an inheritance that comes down to us from generations who recognized their value and found a way to preserve them. We owe it to those men and women to pass on their legacy, untarnished, to the generations ahead.