A fat biker rides up Granite Creek to the hot springs in the Bridger-Teton National Forest. Fat biking is generally allowed on all groomed trails in the National Forests in Wyoming, outside of Wilderness areas. (courtesy Tim Young)

Legislation to support Wyoming’s burgeoning outdoor recreation economy has found traction in the House. 

House Bill 74 – Wyoming outdoor recreation trust fund would create, and seed with $6 million, a new account to fund the Wyoming Office of Outdoor Recreation and grants for related infrastructure projects. The House Travel Recreation, Wildlife & Cultural Resources Committee on Tuesday advanced the bill with amendments. 

The committee-sponsored bill has been in the works for years as lawmakers have struggled to pin down a mechanism for supporting and managing the growing industry. Advocates say outdoor recreation is already here and the state will benefit from helping to steer its growth.

History 

A task force launched in 2016 by then Gov. Matt Mead led the state to form the office of outdoor recreation, which is focused on expanding and promoting Wyoming’s outdoor activities economy.

Since then, visitation and use have ballooned. The Wyoming Division of State Parks & Cultural Resources, which oversees the OOR, has been cobbling together funding to keep the office running, Division Director Darin Westby told the committee, but it also hopes to find permanent funding for what is becoming a significant endeavor. 

“Outdoor recreation is a big beast,” Westby said. “There’s a lot of land that we have. There’s a lot of opportunities that we’re missing.” COVID-related visitation spikes, he said, also exposed management issues that accompany mushrooming crowds.

“The focus is to try to get out in front of some of the things that are going on to ensure that we’re protecting critical habitat,” he said. The fund, he said, would “really ensure that we can get this office up and running and develop the opportunities for the rest of the state, in that outdoor rec world.”

RVs, tents and trucks are parked at Shadow Mountain campground in the Bridger Teton National Forest Saturday July 16, 2022. (Natalie Behring)

The draft bill emerged from the interim following years of discussions on what one lawmaker called a “legitimate policy challenge.” 

Who said what 

The bulk of public testimony Tuesday — from business owners, tourism officials, residents and others — was in favor of the bill. 

“One of the biggest challenges of spreading tourism out across the state is often the lack of product development, and spreading tourists around the state is the best way for us to grow the state’s second largest industry,” said Chris Brown with the Wyoming Hospitality and Travel Coalition. “We see this bill as having the potential to positively impact all 23 counties.” 

“The outdoor recreation boom is here now,” said Steff Kessler, representing Wyoming Pathways, before ticking off statistics illustrating the industry’s growing economic impact. “Wyoming needs to put itself in the driver’s seat of this boom, capturing its revenue and guiding it for our needs and our values. Or it will run us over.” 

However, many expressed concern about the particulars — such as the funding source, the body empowered to grant money, the potential for the state to exercise eminent domain and impacts to wildlife. Several people said the bill should include safeguards to ensure that wildlife impacts are considered before recreation projects move forward. 

The Wyoming Farm Bureau opposes the bill, said Brett Moline, the bureau’s director of public and governmental affairs. “My organization does not appreciate having these types of funds, these perpetual funds, set up,” he said. 

The committee made several amendments to the bill. Those included requiring wildlife impact consultation with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department for projects, requiring legislative approval for grants that exceed $250,000 and funding the bill through the office of tourism’s special projects and reserve account rather than through a sales tax diversion. They also included a requirement that funding be allocated inversely proportional to existing tourism economies — an effort to bolster the regions that profit less from tourism. 

Members voted 6-2 to advance it. 

Need ‘is out there’

​​The office of outdoor recreation launched an inaugural outdoor recreation grant program in July 2022 to disperse some $14 million — most of which came from federal ARPA funding. The office received 117 applications totalling more than $71 million in requests — exceeding available funds by more than $50 million. 

“So we know the … need is out there,” Westby said. 

The recipients of the first round are expected to be announced soon.

Other legislation 

A related bill, House Bill 48 – Active transportation and recreation grant program, was narrowly voted down last week in committee. That bill would have provided $40 million for developing trails and pathways, freeing up funds for costly infrastructure projects advocates say are in high demand.  

Katie Klingsporn

Katie Klingsporn is WyoFile's managing editor. She is a journalist and word geek who has been writing about life in the West for 15 years. Her pieces have appeared in Adventure Journal, National Geographic...

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  1. Some suggest MORE user fees and MORE taxes to support the tourism industry. Hummm.

    A fee for you to walk in a public forest. Or park at a trailhead. A fee to attract more people to special places that don’t need more people. A fee to subsidize the hospitality industry which has the lowest wages in the state. They are not worthy of any public subsidy. But, theirs is already substantial.

    Jackson Hole can’t provide basic services without hundreds of millions of dollars in federal handouts. Their airport burned through 100 million federal dollars in 7 years thanks to deficit spending by the feds. Teton County isn’t paying the bill. And neither is tourism. And tourism is no longer the main driver of economic activity in Teton County. Meanwhile, lift tickets at the trust-funders’ Jackson Hole Mountain Resort aren’t subject to sales taxes. Neither are many art sales at galleries. The snobby class always seems to get a free ride.

    If tourism is actually a good investment, why do we need ADDITIONAL sources of tax revenue and user fees to deal with it, or promote it? When will the ROI from tourism actually be able to pay for all the resources needed to cater to tourists? And pay for the negative impacts? And bring in additional money for other government services that residents actually need? Never. It’s like crypto. It depends upon a suspension of critical thinking skills unless you’re the hospitality industry scamming the public.

    If you believe all the hype, tourism brings us unimaginable riches just like the extractive industry. Tourism is a loss-leader, at best.

    People in Bondurant have strongly opposed billionaire Joe Ricketts’ luxury resort on his ranch. Sinks Canyon in Lander can’t support industrial tourism without a complete loss of what makes it special. Pinedale locals have had enough of Jackson Hole fishing guides. Affordable housing is nowhere to be found in places like Cody and Jackson. And any type of housing is in tight supply unless it’s housing for tourists. Locals live in the forest.

    Nothing wrong with some tourism but Jackson certainly doesn’t need more. Except, maybe, the guy who just built the newest hotel run with underpaid imported labor. Or, you’re the government only looking at sales tax revenue and not stuff like social and financial costs to Wyoming’s working class residents.

    WyoFile has reported on the idea that wealthy people may actually cost the state money more than they contribute to our economy. Why subsidize them?

    Here’s my compromise solution:

    The hospitality industry can pay for new attractions with their OWN money, and maintain them. Shouldn’t local banks be more than willing to invest in this remarkable business opportunity because the ROI is so incredible?

    Perhaps the state could offer loans to trail building communities. Thermopolis is building trails to attract tourists and wants to build more. Funding is an obstacle, of course. The State is flush with cash, billions. They can offer a loan. As long as it’s paid back, I’m happy. I don’t live in Thermopolis.

    And current statute provides authority to cities, towns, counties and joint powers boards to issue bonds to finance the creation or expansion of industrial development. Step up and pay for your own tourism development if it’s such a great investment. Nothing wrong with trail development.

    Shouldn’t State parks be able to pay for themselves without user fees if the economic multipliers from tourism are to be believed? How many State parks are free to Wyoming residents?

    New taxes and fees for Wyoming residents? For tourism developments? NO, thank you.

    The working class is over taxed, and can’t afford the fees. They pay a higher percentage of their income in State and local taxes than the wealthy. Tax them.

  2. I have concerns that the funding is earmarked for continued promotion of recreation and little or none is set aside to deal with the impacts of increased use. Albany Wyoming has been lambasted with users, roads are deteriorating, increased dust and traffic effects the landowners and a unresponsive forest service offers little remedy. Please Wyofile, investigate or place some reporting on this.

  3. I appreciate the people that spoke up for wildlife. In CO, recreational activity has exploded and there is nowhere left for wildlife. LED headlamps, GPS maps on every phone, and cellular service in the remotest areas have removed so many barriers to back-country travel that people are everywhere, all year, day and night. Wyomingites should make sure that any recreation funding requires limiting trail densities and enforces seasonal closures that will allow wildlife to survive.

  4. Recreational user fees are part of a funding solution, but not all. In CO, a large part of recreational dollars come from gambling dollars via GOCO, an initiative passed by the voters. Recreation/tourism is the second largest industry in the WY, we compete with other states for those dollars. These jobs can also attract WY kids here (check out Lander for an example). It is good to see the Legislature acting to support this key part of our economy.

  5. I resent and reject the concept of my tax money paying for spandex-adorned bikers and hikers. USER FEES, USER FEES, USER FEES ! Get it yet? No more free rides! Instead of squandering public resources, require user fees and fees on those whose businesses benefit from this outdoor tourism. I suggested this many years ago in Colorado. They too had no resources to fund the explosion of outdoor tourism. So, what did they do? They combines Parks with division of wildlife. Now, all registered vehicle owners will be paying a mandatory parks pass! But they’re liberal socialist democrats, we’re not ! If not user fees, maybe I’ll stop buying hunting and fishing licenses and let the state pay for it? Do you understand yet?

    1. This is how the rest of us feel about our tax dollars propping up the welfare ranching across the state. A trail can benefit thousands of members of the public per year for a few hundred thousand $, compare that to some of the $100+ million dollar reservoirs that benefit less than 20 ranchers.