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Katie Klingsporn WyoFile.com

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

House Bill 74 – Wyoming Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund would create a new account and endow $6 million to fund the Wyoming Office of Outdoor Recreation and grants for related infrastructure projects. The House Travel Recreation, Wildlife & Cultural Resources Committee advanced the bill with amendments on Jan. 17.

The committee-sponsored bill has been in the works for years as lawmakers struggled to establish a mechanism to support and manage the growing industry. Proponents say outdoor recreation is already here and the state will benefit from managing its growth.

A task force created in 2016 by then-Governor Matt Mead prompted the state to create the Bureau of Outdoor Recreation, which will focus on expanding and promoting Wyoming’s outdoor activities economy.

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Since then, visits and usage have exploded. The Wyoming Department of State Parks and Cultural Resources, which oversees the OOR, has cobbled together funding to keep the office running, department chief Darin Westby told the committee, but also hopes to find permanent funding for what becomes one significant endeavor.

“Outdoor recreation is a big beast,” Westby said. “We have a lot of land. There are many opportunities that we are missing out on.” COVID-related spikes in visitor numbers, he said, also exposed management issues that come with the sprawling crowds.

“The focus is trying to anticipate some of the things that are going on to make sure we protect critical habitats,” 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 this outdoor rec world.”

The bill, meanwhile, emerged after years of debate over what one lawmaker called a “legitimate policy challenge.”

The bulk of public testimony on Jan. 17 — from business owners, tourism officials, residents and others — supported the bill.

“One of the biggest challenges in spreading tourism across the state is often the lack of product development, and spreading tourists across the state is the best way we see it to grow the state’s second-largest industry,” said Wyoming Hospitality’s Chris Brown and Travel Coalition. “We see the potential in this bill to have a positive impact on all 23 counties.”

“The outdoor recreation boom is here now,” said Steff Kessler, representative of 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, capture its revenue and direct it for our needs and our values. Or it will run over us.”

However, many have expressed concern about the details – such as the source of funding, the body empowered to grant money, the state’s potential to exercise a significant sphere, and the impact on wildlife. Several people said the bill should include safeguards to ensure impacts on wildlife are considered before any recovery projects go ahead.

The Wyoming Farm Bureau opposes the bill, said Brett Moline, the bureau’s director of public and government affairs. “My organization doesn’t appreciate having this type of fund, this perpetual fund, in place,” he said.

The committee made several changes to the bill. These included requiring consultation with the Wyoming Department of Wildlife for wildlife impacts for projects, legal approval of grants exceeding $250,000, and funding of the bill through the Bureau of Tourism’s Special Projects and Reserve Account and not by redirecting sales tax. They also included a requirement that funds be allocated in inverse proportion to existing tourism economies – an attempt to empower regions that benefit less from tourism.

Members voted 6-2 to move it forward.

The Office of Outdoor Recreation launched an initial outdoor recreation grant program in July 2022 to distribute approximately $14 million, most of which came from federal funds from ARPA. The Office received 117 applications totaling more than $71 million, 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 shortly.

A related bill, House Bill 48 – Active Transportation and Recreation Grant Program, was narrowly defeated in committee on Jan. 12. That bill would have allocated $40 million for path and trail development, freeing up funds for costly infrastructure projects that advocates say are in high demand.

WyoFile is an independent, nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and politics.