With $14M, Wyo prepares to contemplate outside rec proposals

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With more than $14 million in state incentives and other funds earmarked for outdoor recreation, Wyoming is preparing to accept funding proposals for diversions, new campgrounds, boat ramps and more.

The State Parks and Cultural Resources Department oversees the review of applications and the allocation of funds. The cash glut could have lasting economic effects as it helps expand infrastructure ranging from trailhead parking to campground expansions, said Patrick Harrington, chief of the Wyoming Outdoor Recreation Office. There’s a lot of energy in the state for building outdoor recreation products, he said, both for economic benefit and to cope with growing visitor numbers.

“Anyone involved in the outdoor recreation world in these communities has a bag of ideas,” he said. “All they’re really waiting for is one, the spark, and then two, the funding.”

What is eligible

The state has $12 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds to use for outdoor recreation, along with $2 million from the Wyoming Office of Tourism. The two pots have different spending deadlines, so the state will use a rolling application process, Harrington said. It hopes to open the first round in June.

The overall goal is to fund new outdoor recreation projects that respond to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and have commercial potential, Harrington said. A wide range of projects will be eligible, from kayak parks to motorized trails and boat ramps.

An RV at the Sawmill campground in Sinks Canyon State Park. Nearly 700,000 people visited the state park in 2020. (Katie Klingsporn/WyoFile)

“It could be corrals for horses. Maybe it’s an ATV wash station to reduce the impact of invasive species at a trailhead,” he said.

The funds are open to water-based recreation; motorized, non-motorized and bridleways; camping on public land; climbing infrastructure or area development; shooting ranges and other uses. “Really anything that gives people more access to their outdoor opportunities,” Harrington said.

The department is not interested in funding planning, wayfinding (signage) without an associated project, or the purchase of equipment or real estate, Harrington said. Buy-in from local communities gives applicants a head start, along with matching dollars. Organizations can apply for multiple projects, he said.

visit trends

The year 2020 brought increased visitor numbers to Wyoming’s public areas as crowds flocked to the relative safety of outdoor destinations. While the influx helped cushion blows to the state’s other economic sectors, the crowds also posed management problems as they jostled around campgrounds, filled parking lots to capacity, and spilled into scattered areas.

“We’ve seen so many of our outdoor recreation spots, whether they be state parks or state lands, that have not been overrun during the pandemic but have been very popular,” Harrington said.

He pointed to Curt Gowdy State Park, where visitor numbers jumped from 220,000 in 2019 to 622,000 in 2020.

“It’s an extreme visit,” Harrington said. “I think every land manager across the state, from Yellowstone to Johnny Behind the Rocks, understands that. There’s just increased use out there.”

Given the trend, he said Wyoming can take two approaches.

“We can blow this thing up and stick our heads in the sand and keep saying, ‘We don’t want them here,'” he said. “But the reality is they are coming. So the really solid approach is to go ahead and build resilient infrastructure that is not only sustainable, but can also handle what is likely to be an ever-increasing number of visitors to these places.”