The search for a funding mechanism for Wyoming’s growing outdoor recreation sector continues to irk lawmakers.
Lawmakers reconsidered decisions during a meeting of the Joint Committee on Travel, Recreation, Wildlife and Cultural Resources in Thermopolis last week. Members have opposed a bill to use scratch card revenues to fund the sector, but noted that the long-standing problem cannot be eliminated indefinitely.
“Somehow we have to address this outdoor issue,” said Sen. Bill Landen (R-Casper). “Somehow we have to share that with our colleagues when we go to work this winter [during the legislative session]that we have a legitimate political challenge.”
Three members of the committee have volunteered to independently explore tastier options for the group, and will likely look to other states that are using everything from user fees to taxes and interest income to bolster outdoor recreation.
“We want to have a source of income for the Office of Outdoor Recreation, but we need to find that money elsewhere [from the lottery legislation]said Sandy Newsome (R-Cody), co-chair of the committee, summarizing the group’s opinion.
The conversation about government funding and outdoor recreation has been going on for years.
A task force created in 2016 by former Gov. Matt Mead led to the creation of the State Office of Outdoor Recreation, which aims to expand and promote Wyoming’s outdoor activities.
Visits and usage have since increased significantly, a trend accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Destinations as large as Yellowstone National Park and as small as Curt Gowdy State Park have reported record visits in recent years, while the national forests have struggled to keep up with maintenance and infrastructure needs amid growing demand.
Visitors walk past the overflow parking lot at Jenny Lake in Grand Teton National Park while making their way to the natural attraction, June 20, 2021. (Angus M. Thuermer, Jr./WyoFile)
Outdoor recreation added $1.25 billion to Wyoming’s GDP in 2020, according to the US Bureau of Economic Analysis. At 3.4%, Wyoming ranked fourth among the 50 states for the proportion of its economy supported by outdoor recreation.
But establishing a mechanism to support outdoor recreation on a permanent basis – through funding the OOR, investing in infrastructure such as hiking trails and campgrounds, or preserving existing resources – has proven elusive.
According to manager Patrick Harrington, the OOR costs about $1.4 million per biennium to operate. That funding has so far been cobbled together with support from the Division of State Parks and Cultural Resources, as well as a one-time grant from the Wyoming Office of Tourism — but the OOR has a budget deficit of about $800,000, Harrington wrote in an email.
Jerimiah Rieman, an avid mountain biker, executive director of the Wyoming County Commissioners Association, and former policy adviser to the Mead administration, provided the committee with a chart detailing how other states generate revenue from outdoor recreation. Rieman was spurred to compile and share the data as an individual with a desire for Wyoming to find a “long-term, sustainable solution,” he said. He considers a concept of collecting money, for example through biker usage fees, to be too narrow.
Wyoming, he said, may consider options being implemented in other states, such as:
• Colorado Springs, Colorado, levies a $4 excise tax on every bicycle sold within the city to help fund improvements to bike lanes throughout the community.
• Oregon has mandated that when a highway or road is built, reconstructed, or relocated, a small percentage of state highway funds should be dedicated to footpaths and bike lanes.
• Alabama passed a constitutional amendment requiring that a percentage of interest income from offshore natural gas licenses be used for outdoor recreation and conservation purposes.
“I ultimately think there’s something in there that might serve any or all of the purposes that I mentioned, or even purposes that you might have,” Rieman said.
“We can do better”
The bill under consideration by the committee would have legalized the sale of scratch cards, the proceeds of which would have funded investment in the outdoor leisure sector.
Reception to the proposal was lukewarm at best.
Rep. Jeremy Haroldson (R-Wheatland) supports strengthening outdoor recreation, he said. But he’s not convinced that promoting gambling is the way to go.
“As a pastor, I have an opportunity to see probably the dysfunction of this industry, so I’m jaded on one aspect,” he said. “And is this the answer moving forward? I don’t think it is.”
“I don’t think that’s the vehicle either,” said Sen. Mike Gierau (D-Jackson). “The bottom line is you’re not thinking big enough.”
A mountain biker rides at Johnny Behind the Rocks on BLM land near Lander. (Leslie Kehmeier/Bureau of Land Management/FlickrCC)
The conservation group Wyoming Outdoor Council, meanwhile, has been neutral about the “mechanism itself,” WOC representative Kristen Gunther told the committee. “Our interest in this bill is primarily to support meaningful, dedicated permanent funding to support outdoor recreation in Wyoming,” she said.
Steff Kessler, who has worked in Wyoming conservation for decades, warned the committee that it could not go on doing nothing.
“The outdoor boom is already here,” said Kessler. “It may not be in every city, but it is here. And we have the choice to either put ourselves in the driver’s seat of this boom and lead it onto our Wyoming trails, or be overwhelmed by it.”
While members were not enthusiastic about the lottery proposal, they still wanted to explore solutions. Haroldson, Newsome and Gierau agreed to come back to him with new options at the next committee meeting.
Landen acknowledged that it was a major challenge, but said solving challenges is what lawmakers are committed to.
“We need to do better and think a little more globally,” Landen said.
Rather than a “magic bullet” solution, Kessler said, “there’s probably a lot of silver BBs we need to pull together.”
Visitor surge caused by COVID is easing across Wyoming, land managers report.
Yellowstone National Park, hit by severe flooding in June, recorded 596,562 recreational visits in July 2022 — a 45% decrease from July 2021, when it recorded over 1 million visits.
State parks in Wyoming are also seeing fewer visitors this year, agency director Darin Westby said. Visitor numbers have risen from a record high of 5.8 million visitors in 2020 to 5.7 million in 2021, and this year the system is on track to see an expected 5.3 million visitors, Westby told the committee .
Nevertheless, the general upward trend in state visits continues and other figures suggest that interest in the sector has not waned.
Washington campers Lexi Wilson and Andrew Yokel-Deliduka watch the sun set behind the Tetons at the Shadow Mountain campground in the Bridger Teton National Forest on July 16, 2022. (Natalie Behring)
The nonprofit Wyoming Pathways has circulated a survey across the state to gauge interest in and need for trails and safety projects, its executive director, Michael Kusiek, told the committee.
“We received approximately $100 million in projects requested through our survey from over 40 communities,” he said. “So there’s a lot of demand for it.”
The State Parks and Cultural Resources Department, meanwhile, is overseeing work to distribute $14 million in state incentives and other funds earmarked for outdoor recreation.
The state parks just completed the first round of grant applications, Westby said, and the response has been remarkable.
There were “83 applications valued at over $37.5 million,” he said. “If you add any of the projects that the state parks will bring to the table, we’ll likely have over 100 projects and inquiries worth about $50 million.”
OOR manager Harrington said his office takes the funding it has developed seriously and “regards it as our opportunity to demonstrate the proof of concept. We believe we can achieve this every day.”