Legislation advancing out of committee would solve a longstanding question of how to support, manage the state’s outdoor industry, advocates say.
Legislation to support Wyoming’s burgeoning outdoor recreation economy has found traction in the House.
House Bill 74 – Wyoming outdoor recreation trust fund would create, and seed with $6 million, a new account to fund the Wyoming Office of Outdoor Recreation and grants for related infrastructure projects. The House Travel Recreation, Wildlife & Cultural Resources Committee on Tuesday advanced the bill with amendments.
The committee-sponsored bill has been in the works for years as lawmakers have struggled to pin down a mechanism for supporting and managing the growing industry. Advocates say outdoor recreation is already here and the state will benefit from helping to steer its growth.
A task force launched in 2016 by then Gov. Matt Mead led the state to form the office of outdoor recreation, which is focused on expanding and promoting Wyoming’s outdoor activities economy.
Since then, visitation and use have ballooned. The Wyoming Division of State Parks & Cultural Resources, which oversees the OOR, has been cobbling together funding to keep the office running, Division Director Darin Westby told the committee, but it also hopes to find permanent funding for what is becoming a significant endeavor.
“Outdoor recreation is a big beast,” Westby said. “There’s a lot of land that we have. There’s a lot of opportunities that we’re missing.” COVID-related visitation spikes, he said, also exposed management issues that accompany mushrooming crowds.
“The focus is to try to get out in front of some of the things that are going on to ensure that we’re protecting critical habitat,” 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 that outdoor rec world.”
The draft bill emerged from the interim following years of discussions on what one lawmaker called a “legitimate policy challenge.”
Who said what
The bulk of public testimony Tuesday — from business owners, tourism officials, residents and others — was in favor of the bill.
“One of the biggest challenges of spreading tourism out across the state is often the lack of product development, and spreading tourists around the state is the best way for us to grow the state’s second largest industry,” said Chris Brown with the Wyoming Hospitality and Travel Coalition. “We see this bill as having the potential to positively impact all 23 counties.”
“The outdoor recreation boom is here now,” said Steff Kessler, representing 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, capturing its revenue and guiding it for our needs and our values. Or it will run us over.”
However, many expressed concern about the particulars — such as the funding source, the body empowered to grant money, the potential for the state to exercise eminent domain and impacts to wildlife. Several people said the bill should include safeguards to ensure that wildlife impacts are considered before recreation projects move forward.
The Wyoming Farm Bureau opposes the bill, said Brett Moline, the bureau’s director of public and governmental affairs. “My organization does not appreciate having these types of funds, these perpetual funds, set up,” he said.
The committee made several amendments to the bill. Those included requiring wildlife impact consultation with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department for projects, requiring legislative approval for grants that exceed $250,000 and funding the bill through the office of tourism’s special projects and reserve account rather than through a sales tax diversion. They also included a requirement that funding be allocated inversely proportional to existing tourism economies — an effort to bolster the regions that profit less from tourism.
Members voted 6-2 to advance it.
Need ‘is out there’
The office of outdoor recreation launched an inaugural outdoor recreation grant program in July 2022 to disperse some $14 million — most of which came from federal ARPA funding. The office received 117 applications totalling more than $71 million in requests — 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 soon.
A related bill, House Bill 48 – Active transportation and recreation grant program, was narrowly voted down last week in committee. That bill would have provided $40 million for developing trails and pathways, freeing up funds for costly infrastructure projects advocates say are in high demand.
This article was originally published by WyoFile and is republished here with permission. WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.