Skiers flock to Snow King Mountain in Jackson on March 14, 2020 after the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort closed. Lines that long at the Town Hill haven’t been seen in years. (Angus M. Thuermer, Jr./WyoFile)

Pandemic-fueled spikes in park visitation, campground reservations, trail use and other metrics failed to translate into economic growth for Wyoming’s outdoor recreation sector in 2020.

In fact, jobs and revenue figures fell in the key economic segment, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, despite reports of high user numbers. 

Still, many business and policy leaders see outdoor recreation as crucial to diversifying Wyoming’s economy — and as a lifeline out of the pandemic-induced slump. 

“Tourism and outdoor recreation have become major contributors to our revenues. Most of those dollars are paid for by visitors, not our citizens,” Gov. Mark Gordon told the Joint Appropriations Committee on Dec. 16 as he proposed earmarking $40 million in federal stimulus funds for outdoor-recreation grants. 

Visitors walk past overflow parking at Jenny Lake in Grand Teton National Park as they make their way to the attraction in 2021. (Angus M. Thuermer, Jr./WyoFile)

Growing the sector may not be straightforward. Issues like workforce and housing shortages continue to challenge the industry, experts say. And if recent controversies are an indication, gaining buy-in for bigger crowds from Wyoming’s wide-open-spaces-loving residents may prove difficult.

Perception vs. actuals

Outdoor recreation added $1.25 billion in value to Wyoming’s GDP in 2020, according to BEA data released in November. At 3.4%, that ranked Wyoming fourth among the 50 states for the share of its economy driven by outdoor rec.

Both measures were down from 2019 in which $1.69 billion, or 4.2% of the state’s GDP, was credited to the outdoor recreation sector.

Nationwide, outdoor recreation’s share of GDP fell more dramatically from 2019 to 2020. Several other indicators, like real gross output and compensation, also declined. 

In Wyoming, outdoor recreation employment took a significant hit with a 24% decrease, from 21,344 jobs to 14,187. 

The industry was not alone in seeing a slump; 2020 was the worst year for Wyoming’s economic growth since 1986, according to a recent report by Wyoming’s chief economist, Dr. Wenlin Liu.

Climbers Grace Templeton, Ty Vineyard and Paul Kang scope routes on Squaretop Boulder near Lander. (Tucker Finerty/tuckerfinerty.com)

Still, the disappointing economic performance stands in contrast to anecdotal evidence and visitation tracking that depicted sky-high numbers in 2020. Wyoming’s overall declines were mostly fueled by sectors heavily impacted by pandemic-related restrictions and closures, according to Chris Floyd, manager of Wyoming Office of Outdoor Recreation. Snow activities, particularly at ski resorts, saw a decrease of 37%, or $40 million in economic impact, according to Floyd’s office.

“The ski resorts, that’s a big part of our outdoor rec economy, and so the hit [that sector] took overtook a lot of the other gains,” Floyd said. 

Other activities saw significant growth, he said. They included snowmobiling and ORV riding; permit sales of each jumped more than 15% from 2019 to 2020. Boating, fishing, biking and hiking were all up too, he said. “Almost everything else went up, but it was not enough to overtake [the declines],” he said. 

Another factor that shaped overall economic impact was the nature of visitation, said Wyoming Office of Tourism Executive Director Diane Shober. 

“There was a lot of day tripping,” she said. “There’s still economic value in day trippers,” but not as much as overnighters. 

COVID-19 also forced many enterprises to limit operations — from lodging to restaurant seats to guided tours — she said, so those visitation opportunities shrunk, and jobs sloughed as a result.  

High concentrations of visitors in areas like Park and Teton counties, Shober said, probably contributed to the perception of boomtime outdoor tourism. “But yet, it doesn’t always equate to … a positive economic benchmark.” 

Areas of growth

Comprehensive 2021 numbers aren’t yet available, but signs point toward continuing growth in outdoor recreation.

Wyoming’s State Parks and Historic Sites’ 2021 statistics are on track to match or exceed the record-setting numbers of 2020, the agency announced in December. Through October, state parks and historic sites had seen 5.1 million visits, a 24% increase over the system’s five-year average.

“We’re still way up,” Floyd said.   

A mountain biker at Curt Gowdy State Park. (Wyoming State Parks)

Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks also saw record-shattering visitation in 2021. GTNP had hosted more than 3.8 million recreation visits by the end of November and surpassed the busiest full year on record in September, while Yellowstone surpassed its previous annual highmark with 4.8 million visits through October. 

Huge crowds have prompted national park officials to consider more aggressive visitor management. 

Many businesses also reported strong equipment sales continued into 2021. 

“Last winter was great, last summer was great,” said Dave Carter, who owns Cheyenne Bicycle Shop.

Carter estimates that sales spiked 30% in 2020, a “huge” year in which he said he practically sold every item on the floor. Fortunately he had ordered his inventory pre-season and he had plenty in stock before the pandemic began — so he wasn’t as stymied by supply-chain shortages as others, he said. 

Business has levelled out a little, he said, but he still expects relatively high demand. 

“I don’t think it’s going to be like 2020 where everybody was just a feeding frenzy, but I think it’ll carry on for a little bit,” Carter said. 

Opportunities and challenges

Shober sees significant potential for outdoor recreation in the state. 

“There’s opportunity everywhere around the state of Wyoming,” she said — from raising the profile of destinations like the Killpecker sand dunes to growing activities like winter fat-tire biking to equipping visitors with things like guides, rental bikes and climbing equipment.  

Those opportunities could open even wider under Gov. Gordon’s recent ARPA fund proposals. The governor proposed spending $40 million of the more than $1 billion in federal stimulus dollars for “grants to enhance outdoor recreation in Wyoming and to help communities pursue construction of new outdoor recreation products and infrastructure.”

The program “would make substantially more dollars available to local communities that have been doing planning for how to build trails, parks and other recreational facilities,” Gordon said during the Dec. 16 presentation. 

The industry’s role in the state’s pandemic recovery, Shober said, “is essential.” 

However, she said, the state will have to work to ensure resources are protected and infrastructure holds up to increased use. Ancillary tasks that could bolster growth, she said, include supporting entrepreneurs and addressing workplace shortage issues that are plaguing employers across the country. 

Floyd echoed that recent trends have spelled out a need for the state to respond in other ways, such as expanding facilities in heavily used areas. “We need, quite frankly, to expand capacity in some places that can handle it,” Floyd said. 

“The key will be to try to find that balance right between innovative bold projects, but also the kind that can pass muster in the public but can also meet the deadline,” he said.

Recent controversies have shown that expanding outdoor recreation isn’t always embraced. Planners went back to the drawing board and revised a proposal to build a via ferrata on a cliff in Sinks Canyon State Park after local opposition crested. Wyoming State Parks also withdrew plans for 40 temporary campsites at Buffalo Bill State Park following “an abundance of public concerns.” 

Protesters critical of a plan to build a via ferrata in Sinks Canyon State Park gather at Lander’s Hunt Field Airport Aug. 12, 2021. The group assembled there to wait for Gov. Mark Gordon, who listened to their concerns. (Katie Klingsporn/WyoFile)

“The Via Ferrata shone a bright light on whether or not communities want actual growth, and if so, what kind,” said Mike Kusiek, a Lander resident who has been involved in trying to create a Wyoming outdoor recreation trade association. “NIMBY [not in my back yard] is real, especially when it’s affecting you.”

Recent pushback, he said, forced him to pause and reconsider how best to strike the balance between public desires and community benefits. 

Kusiek said he has found significant beneficial trickle-down effects of outdoor recreation, particularly in a study focused on Fremont County. And yet, he said, community buy-in is crucial for the industry to flourish. Floyd echoed that. 

“To me, the biggest challenge for outdoor recreation in Wyoming is not simply the funding,” Floyd said. “I think a lot of it is just getting buy-in from the public and helping them understand that Wyoming is facing a lot of headwinds economically and that there are a lot of challenges ahead, and Wyoming’s just going to keep changing.

“I think our public needs to be involved in this growth as much as possible because a lot of folks, quite frankly, are concerned about increased visitors, visitor use, increased traffic from other states,” he continued.  

Neither Kusiek nor Floyd see the growth trends reversing. 

“We’ve seen that the floor has been lifted,” Floyd said. “In other words, there’s like a new baseline for recreational use … and it doesn’t appear to be reverting much.”

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. I have not visited Wyoming for many years and will not due to the State’s treatment of Wolves, Bison and Wild horses. I encourage everybody I can, to boycott this state. The degradation of the Red Desert and the drilling/killing fields of the upper Green River areas is very sad. I spent a lot of time (1960s/1970s) visiting and learning to love these places on the creatures fiving there just to see the greed and ignorance of the Cowboy state desecrate and destroy them.

  2. Backpackers have a huge economic clout to Pinedale’s summer economy. Before and after going into the Wind Rivers they spend money on groceries, motels, gas, shuttles, dining, and bar hopping.. The town is alive in the summer.

  3. So many Wyoming residents are concerned about losing jobs in the energy, particularly the coal, sector. There are significantly more jobs created in the outdoor industry dimension of Wyoming’s economy, including lodging and restaurant enterprises that absorb seasonal visitors, than there are employees of mining or energy companies in this state. Which is it? Jobs or NIMBY?

    1. As with any situation, it is not an either/or choice, and can be a combination of both including other factors. The historical pay grade in extraction and utility industries have far outstripped pay in the service sector. For those who’s jobs are disappearing in coal and oil, they understandably are loathe to take a job that pays not much more than minimum wage, and to keep heads above water would likely work more than one. Perhaps one alternative to the Governor’s shoveling millions at new or upgrading projects would be to give a pay allowance to those highly-valued persons in the service sector to supplement wages that are a poor example of what folks are expected to live on.

  4. Great article touching on some of the most salient issues in outdoor recreation across the state. Local support for the construction of outdoor recreation amenities is critical. I would add that an example of a shovel-ready project that could directly benefit from Governor Gordon’s $40 mil. commitment to outdoor recreation is Pilot Hill in southeast Wyoming. There is a myriad of reasons that Pilot Hill has overwhelming local support. Pilot Hill developed a land use plan through a series of public input sessions. Additionally, the project seeks to serve multiple interests (aquifer and wildlife protection, recreational non-motorized multi-user trails, and education) and has a lengthy list of partners. Furthermore, this resource not only benefits the local population, it also serves to bolster tourism. An economic analysis commissioned by Pilot Hill found “…visitors will (annually) generate $5.8 million in added value to the regional economy and support 150 jobs. These visitors are also expected to generate about $1 million annually in sales, lodging, and property taxes from their spending. The additional local tax revenue is estimated at 3% of Albany County’s total revenue.” However, a roughly $5-8mil. additional investment is needed to add trailheads, signage, build trails, and improve wildlife habitat. Outdoor recreation infrastructure is expensive to build and maintain. I am very grateful Governor Gordon chose to allocate $40 mil. to support outdoor recreation projects state-wide. My hope is that the selected projects will be of benefit to, and supported by, the local populations while at the same time bolstering tourism, the second largest industry in our state. (In full disclosure I serve on the board of Pilot Hill and have made personal financial contributions.).

  5. I think Wyoming Residents should hold strong to NOT WANTING MORE TOURISM to be their main staple. I am from COLORADO and it has RUINED the agriculture business and has brought NOTHING but CITY PEOPLE WHO WANT TO BUILD BUILD AND BUILD and RUIN THE ENVIRONMENT and that has broken my heart after trying to save the beautiful but now WATER IS A SCARCITY from the building and taking farm land and ranch land away.