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.
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.
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.