Home Committee OKs $50 Million Wyoming Outside Rec Belief Fund

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By Renée Jean, business and tourism reporter
[email protected]ily.com

The potential for backpacking in Wyoming once seemed very small.

“People said a backpacker would only change his t-shirt and a $10 bill when he visited Wyoming,” Wyoming Pathways director Steph Kessler told lawmakers at the House Travel, Recreation, Wildlife and Session Cultural Resources Committee on Tuesday afternoon. “That is no longer the case today.”

A well-heeled crowd from tech communities like Salt Lake City and Colorado has already turned outdoor recreation into a multimillion-dollar industry in the Cowboy State, and supporters of House Bill 74 believe this is just the beginning of the state’s true potential is.

The bill would create a $50 million trust fund to fulfill that potential. “The average mountain bike costs $5,000,” Kessler said. “My son recently asked for a pair of climbing shoes for Christmas that cost over $300 a pair.”

Newfangled backcountry skis now cost well over $2,000.

Outdoor Rec “Boom is here now”

But these tourists don’t just want to spend time in the great outdoors.

They want to stop and smell the coffee at the local shops, try local beer bars and restaurants, stay in posh hotels, and enjoy the other amenities and experiences that small Wyoming towns have to offer.

“The outdoor boom is here now,” said Kessler. “Wyoming needs to put itself in the driver’s seat of this boom.”

Make the most of the boom

Putting the state at the forefront of its own outdoor tourism economy is the goal of House Bill 74 and the trust fund it is establishing for the recently created Office of Outdoor Recreation.

The Trust would eventually fund the operations of the office, as well as outdoor recreation grants for projects across the state. This could include shooting ranges, rock climbing areas and new hiking trails, as well as other experiences throughout the Cowboy State.

There may be no expenditures from the Fund until the Trust reaches $50 million or July 1, 2026, whichever comes first.

Wyoming even lags behind Nebraska

Wyoming lags behind other western states when it comes to making the most of its outdoor tourism potential, Mark Weitz told lawmakers.

Weitz was formerly a member of the Outdoor Recreation Taskforce founded by former Gov. Matt Mead.

While serving in that capacity, Weitz said he was surprised to learn that Wyoming was dead compared to 11 other western states in dollars and jobs created by outdoor tourism.

“If you add Nebraska, there were 12 of us,” he said.

But there is a bright side to this rather grim statistic, Weitz said. Outdoor recreation in Wyoming is the perfect spot to get sculpted and sculpted.

Now is the time, he suggested, to lay a foundation that discourages over-tourism in popular areas, mitigates negative impacts on wildlife, and creates new opportunities that are more evenly distributed across the state.

“There is no other way but to capitalize on the economic opportunities that come with outdoor recreation,” Weitz said.

More than tourism is at stake

But it’s not just an opportunity for more tourism, Fremont County’s Mara Gans told lawmakers.

Born and raised in Fremont County, Gans is one of a group of young Wyomingites who left the state for career opportunities after graduating.

“But the amazing outdoor recreation opportunities here in Wyoming have always drawn me home,” she said.

She is now a full-time teacher at Central Wyoming College.

“Access to outdoor recreation is an integral part of what brought me here and why I hope to stay in Wyoming for a long time and continue to contribute to this community,” she said. “I think it’s important to emphasize that supporting outdoor recreation opportunities in Wyoming isn’t just about bringing tourists or new people to the state.

“It’s about holding on to the quality and talented people who already live and grew up in Wyoming.”

Farm Bureau not for it

Along with the support of so many outdoor groups, there has also been solid opposition to House Bill 74.

Brett Moline, director of public and governmental affairs at the Wyoming Farm Bureau, testified that his organization doesn’t appreciate this type of perpetual fund.

However, he did not elaborate on the opposition, instead focusing on changes he would like to see given that the bill likely already had the momentum it needed to get out of committee.

Among these, he called for a 30-year expiration of all public access easements, citing instances where long-lived easements became a problem once an area began to attract significant tourism.

“As things change, new terms can be negotiated to take care of things that change over time,” he said.

He urged lawmakers to retain a requirement for the legislature to distribute money rather than an appointed panel or commission.

He also suggested removing the words “as needed” from consultations with agencies like Game and Fish, mirroring a change offered by the Wyoming Wildlife Federation.

Many changes

Moline’s recommendation for the easement period was followed by four committee members.

But adding the amendment to the bill in committee was not enough, as it lost in a tie.

However, there were several amendments that were passed, including changing the bill’s funding structure.

Working on that change was MP Sandy Newsome, R-Cody, who was absent from the committee after breaking her leg horseback riding over the weekend.

changes

Cyrus Western MP, R-Sheridan, who serves as Newsome’s chairman, said he believed diverting sales tax money was likely to generate opposition.

However, as acting chairman, he failed to pass the amendment that changes the funding stream to a recurring allocation of $6 million from the Wyoming Office of Tourism reserve fund.

MP Donald Burkhardt, R-Rawlins, introduced the Western amendment and it was passed unanimously.

However, Burkhardt also introduced a less popular amendment that would require outdoor recreation grants to be paid out based on the reciprocal of a county’s proportionate share of statewide tourism revenue, as determined by the Wyoming Office of Tourism.

“Typically all this money seems to go to the northwest corner of the state,” Burkhardt said. “Central districts get little. The eastern counties get little. Some of them in the Southeast get little.”

By basing the distribution on the inverse share of statewide tourism, counties that typically have less chance of receiving that money should get a larger share, Burkhardt suggested.

The amendment was narrowly passed with five votes in favour.

There was also an amendment requiring all projects requiring more than $250,000 in grant funding to be presented to the Legislature for approval by Rep. Abby Angelos, R-Gillette.

That passed unanimously, as did a proposed amendment from the Wyoming Wildlife Federation that requires consultation with Game and Fish.

summary

House Bill 74 returns to the House Floor with a recommendation from the House Travel, Recreation, Wildlife and Cultural Resources Committee. There were two votes against the measure by MPs Daniel Singh, R-Cheyenne, and John Winter, R-Cody.

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