A mountain biker at Curt Gowdy State Park. Wyoming’s state parks have seen increased visitation as outdoor recreation grows. (Wyoming State Parks)

In an attempt to answer the long-standing question of how the state can best invest in, and capitalize on, outdoor recreation, lawmakers Tuesday advanced a bill that would create a Wyoming outdoor recreation trust fund. 

The Joint Travel, Recreation, Wildlife & Cultural Resources Committee wrapped up its interim work by passing the draft legislation, which would create a funding mechanism for the Wyoming Office of Outdoor Recreation.  

“This is a bill that I think can actually move the needle,” said Darin Westby, director of the Wyoming Department of State Parks and Cultural Resources. “I really appreciate where we’re headed with this.”

A percolating issue 

A task force launched in 2016 by then Gov. Matt Mead led to the formation of the state’s office of outdoor recreation, which aims to expand and promote Wyoming’s outdoor activities economy.

Since then, visitation and use have grown significantly, a trend only accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Destinations as large as Yellowstone National Park and as small as 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 $1.25 billion in value to Wyoming’s GDP in 2020, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis. At 3.4%, that ranked Wyoming fourth among the 50 states for the share of its economy driven by outdoor rec.

Dave Clapsaddle and his dog Pogo, both of Laporte, Colorado, enjoyed a morning of kayaking on the calm waters of Rob Roy Reservoir in the Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest July 31, 2022. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

But pinning down a mechanism to permanently support outdoor recreation has proven elusive. 

It costs roughly $1.4 million a biennium to operate the OOR, according to Manager Patrick Harrington. That funding has been so far cobbled together with support from the Division of State Parks and Cultural Resources as well as one-time funding from the Wyoming Office of Tourism, Harrington told WyoFile in September. 

At the Travel committee’s August meeting, lawmakers nixed a measure that proposed to raise money for the office through scratch-off lottery tickets, but formed a working group and charged it with finding a better option.

The trust fund is what the group came up with, explained Rep. Sandy Newsome (R-Cody). 

“I think this falls in line with the many trust funds that the state of Wyoming has currently and the good work that happens in putting money aside and then working off of the interest on those trust funds,” Newsome said. “So this is a first step to create the trust fund and to create the trust and income account so that we could have money to spend out of that account.”

Projects, grants, administration 

Proponents have identified $50 million as the goal for the fund to begin functioning. “That’s what we need to get us going with what we have in partnership with the office of tourism today,” Westby said. “That’s to keep the office running, put some granting monies on the ground and try to develop those products so that we can truly move the needle in outdoor recreation and what we want to do.” 

The Wyoming Parks and Cultural Resources Commission would administer the trust fund. Grants, gifts, transfers and donations could be funneled into the account. The state treasurer would oversee the account’s investments to attain the highest possible return. 

As the account grows it could be used for awarding grants for planning, design, improvement and maintenance of existing or potential outdoor rec infrastructure; grants for the purchase of public access easements; outdoor recreation-related education or public outreach; and administration. The trust would be regularly audited. 

A skate skier enjoys Teton Park Road. (courtesy National Park Service)

How exactly to fund it remains an open question, Newsome said at the beginning of the discussion. Ideas include siphoning a small portion of sales tax revenue that is put into the general fund, using American Rescue Plan Act funds, taxing the purchase of certain outdoor equipment or imposing user fees on certain activities, such as mountain biking. 

Sen. Mike Gierau (D-Jackson) noted that when the Legislature finished its 2022 session, nearly $60 million in ARPA funds had yet to be expended. He’s kept an eye on ARPA allocations that have gone out the door. 

“It’s pitifully low,” Gierau said. “So there’s plenty of money floating around here, if we had the will to do this.”

Committee members debated over how to propose a funding mechanism, and ultimately moved forward on a proposal to set aside 5% of the sales tax revenue that currently goes to the general fund. 

Next up: session    

By passing the bill, the committee advanced it for consideration during the 2023 legislative session, where the entire body will determine its fate. 

Gierau looks forward to the discussion, he said. 

“You don’t get anywhere if you don’t get started,” he said. “I hope this discussion goes to the whole floor and that everyone gets to take part in it,  so we can really have an honest discussion about diversifying our economy.”

“Whether or not we can take any of this to the finish line or not, that almost becomes secondary to the fact that at least we’re sharing the message that we’ve learned throughout this whole interim and that is: This is a growing sector of our economy,” Sen. Bill Landen (R-Casper) said.

Director Westby echoed that. “They’re here,” he said of outdoor recreationists, “and they’re going to continue to do things that we don’t want them to do without good direction. … We have the option right now to get control of this and stay out in front of it.” 

The OOR launched an outdoor recreation grant program in July to disperse some $14 million — most of which came from ARPA funding. The office received 117 applications totalling more than $71 million in requests — exceeding available funds by more than $50 million, it announced this month. 

Of the 117 pre-applications, 47 were from state agencies, 37 from non-profits organizations, 22 from municipalities, 10 from county governments and one each from a tribal government and a county/non-profit partnership, according to a release. 

The grant review committee will determine final approvals by Oct. 30.

Katie Klingsporn reports on outdoor recreation, public lands, education and general news for WyoFile. She’s been a journalist and editor covering the American West for 20 years. Her freelance work has...

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  1. The tourism board and Wyoming Department of State Parks and Cultural Resources, need to address some of the impacts to communities caused by the wholesale promoting and use of areas next to these areas. Road damage, traffic, parking, noise, speeding etc. For every dollar spent on promoting, 10 cents should go to these impacts.

  2. “You don’t get anywhere if you don’t get started,” he said. “I hope this discussion goes to the whole floor and that everyone gets to take part in it, so we can really have an honest discussion about diversifying our economy.”

    Outdoor recreation has been doing just fine without greater government spending on outdoor recreation. If anything, current spending on that stuff has caused great harm to places like Jackson Hole and the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. And the internet has exposed everyone to Wyoming’s treasures so no need to advertise it or enhance it with tax dollars and destroy what used to make it special.

    Diversifying our economy through industrial outdoor tourism is a race to the bottom of the economic development ladder with very few winners (Gierau is one of them).

    As Director Westby said, “They’re here and they’re going to continue to do things that we don’t want them to do…” He went on to say that, “We have the option right now to get control of this and stay out in front of it.” Ask Jackson Hole how well they control it and stay in front of it. Hundreds of their workers sleep in the forest each summer. The richest county in the nation per capita can’t afford to fix its own problems with everything from water pollution to a shortage of workers to plow roads. They lost affordable housing, or any housing for the middle and lower class. They have a taxpayer-subsidized hospitality industry which imported cheap labor which in turn was displacing residents. The enviromental damage is well documented. Excess commuter and tourist traffic has turned Jackson’s main drag into Los Angeles’ Highway 101. Crowds in previously quiet places even remote places have spolied the enviroment and the experience. More demands for public services have resulted in increasing government budgets and more federal handouts to a town unable to deliver basic services. Shouldn’t the Feds be focused on taking care of their own problems and not ours?

    Our state’s economic problems aren’t solved by, and will never be solved by, industrial outdoor tourism. The extractive industry’s economic impact will never be replicated by catering to tourists or spending on outdoor playgrounds.

    There is nothing wrong with making Wyoming’s outdoor resources more attractive and more open to residents. There is nothing wrong with having some visitors visit Wyoming. Making it all feel like Disneyland is not what Wyoming should be about, however. Our remoteness and emptyness is what makes our state’s natural resources special. Maintaining Disneyland with public dollars isn’t cheap. Nor is it the great deal it’s advertised to be for the majority of Wyoming’s residents.

    Wyoming needs economic diversification. It has outdoor tourism. Time to find something new.

  3. All for it! An actual well funded state agency to promote and regulate outdoor recreation will improve it for all.