On a weekday evening in the mountains near Pinedale, a rural town in western Wyoming, a few people from the local hiking group were using their shovels to dig trails. Sublette Trails Association member Ryan Grove explained the plan to Paul Swenson:
“Try to bend it backwards and just sneak in so it’s not a fall line the whole way,” Grove said. “And then we’ll put some drains in there.”
These trails were built for downhill mountain biking in the late 1990s.
“Maybe a little early for downhill mountain biking in the West, which is now gaining popularity,” said Alex Artz, another member of the group. “These trails are still in use and usable, but they definitely need improvement.”
Pinedale is quite small, with a population of around 2,000. A boom-and-bust city whose main industries are agriculture and natural gas extraction.
But the area has about 750 miles of trails, and many of them are simply outdated. Some go straight up the mountain with no hairpin bends and others are completely overgrown, which is common in many western rural areas.
Many old trails are from cattle movements, wildlife migrations or old logging roads. In Wyoming, some see trail updates as a way to boost tourism and help diversify the economy. Coal mining in the state hit a 50-year low in 2020, and the last major natural gas boom was in 2009.
According to the American Trails group, recreational trails are linked to economic growth.
“My office is coming of age at a really important time in Wyoming history,” said Patrick Harrington, manager of the Wyoming Office of Outdoor Recreation.
In 2020, at the height of the pandemic, Wyoming saw a record number of visitors who came to explore the state’s public lands.
“We’re looking at development on a large scale and what the future of our state will be like,” Harrington said.
Trail group members Paul Swenson (right) and Alex Artz work on an old bike trail near Pinedale, Wyoming. The group wants to update old trails to make them more user-friendly for hikers, cyclists and horse riders. (Caitlin Tan/Public Media Wyoming)
But this development is expensive. Harrington estimated it costs about $50,000 per mile of new trail. He recently said the state has received millions from America’s bailout plan that will go toward trail development. The state is also exploring the idea of charging fees for using the trails to help cover costs.
But not everyone loves all these changes; Many people live in Wyoming because of its loneliness.
“People don’t want their community to be crowded,” Wyoming State Assemblyman Jim Roscoe said. “I have to agree with these people that I don’t want my backyard to be overrun either. But one thing about the recovery is that it gives the economy a boost in the arm.”
Roscoe said if enough planning goes into building outdoor tourism, he believes some of that solitude can still be preserved. He is sponsoring a bill next year that would provide $40 million in funding to support small town trail development for both tourism and the local community.
The Sublette Trails Association, made up of volunteers, recently received a $5,000 grant that helped purchase shovels and other trail-building tools.
But they also want to be careful with the development. Association member Alex Artz said he didn’t want Pinedale to become a huge tourist town.
“We just want to make things better for the people who are already here,” Artz said.
The rural vibe is why he lives in Pinedale, adding that better trails will help the whole community.
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