By Renée Jean, Business and Tourism Reporter
The potential for backpack tourism in Wyoming once seemed very small.
“People said a backpacker would just, in his visit to Wyoming, only change his T-shirt and a $10 dollar bill,” Steph Kessler, who works with Wyoming Pathways, told lawmakers on the House Travel, Recreation, Wildlife and Cultural Resources Committee meeting Tuesday afternoon. “That is no longer the case today.”
Outdoor recreation enthusiasts from around the region like Salt Lake City and Colorado have already discovered Wyoming, spending millions of dollars here. Proponents of House Bill 74 believe it’s only the beginning of the state’s true potential.
The bill would create a $50 million trust fund to help realize that potential. “An average mountain bike is $5,000,” Kessler said. “My son just recently asked for a pair of rock-climbing shoes for Christmas that were over $300 a pair.”
New-fangled backcountry skis, meanwhile, are well over $2,000.
Outdoor Rec ‘Boom Is Here Now’
But these tourists don’t just want to spend time in the great outdoors.
They want to stop and smell the coffee at local shops, try out local brew pubs and restaurants, sleep in posh hotels and enjoy the other amenities and experiences that small Wyoming towns have to offer.
“The outdoor recreation boom is here now,” Kessler said. “Wyoming needs to put itself in the driver’s seat of this boom.”
Make The Most of the Boom
Putting the state in the driver’s seat of its own outdoor tourism economy is the aim of House Bill 74 and the trust fund it establishes for the recently created Office of Outdoor Recreation.
The trust would eventually pay for the operation of the office as well as outdoor recreation grants for projects across the state. These could include shooting ranges, climbing venues and new trails, as well as other experiences across the Cowboy State.
No expenditures from the fund could happen until the trust reaches $50 million, or by July 1, 2026, whichever is first.
Wyoming Lagging Even Nebraska
Wyoming has lagged behind other Western states in making the most of its outdoor tourism potential, Mark Weitz told lawmakers.
Weitz formerly served on the Outdoor Recreation Taskforce created by former Gov. Matt Mead.
While serving in that capacity, Weitz said he was surprised to learn Wyoming was dead last in dollars and jobs generated by outdoor tourism compared to 11 other Western states.
“If you added Nebraska, we were 12th,” he said.
But there’s a bright side to that rather gloomy statistic, Weitz said. Wyoming’s outdoor recreation is at the perfect point to be molded and shaped.
Now is the time, he suggested, to lay a foundation that will prevent over-tourism of favorite areas, mitigate negative effects on wildlife and create new opportunities that are dispersed more evenly across the state.
“There’s nowhere to go but up with the economic opportunities associated with outdoor recreation,” Weitz said.
More Than Tourism At Stake
But it’s not just an opportunity for increased tourism, Mara Gans of Fremont County told lawmakers.
Born and raised in Fremont County, Gans is among the young Wyomingites who left the state for career opportunities after graduation.
“However, the amazing outdoor recreation opportunities here in Wyoming have continually pulled me back home,” she said.
She’s now a full-time teacher with Central Wyoming College.
“Access to outdoor recreation is a key part of what brought me back here, and why I hope to stay in Wyoming for a long time, to continue to contribute to this community,” she said. “I think it’s important to emphasize that supporting outdoor recreation opportunities in Wyoming is not just about bringing tourists in or bringing new people to the state.
“It’s about holding onto the quality and talented people who already live in Wyoming who grew up here.”
Farm Bureau Not In Favor
Along with support from so many outdoors groups, there also was some solid opposition to House Bill 74.
Brett Moline, director of Public and Governmental Affairs for Wyoming Farm Bureau, testified that his organization doesn’t appreciate these types of perpetual funds.
He did not elaborate, however, on the opposition, instead focusing on changes he’d like see, given the likelihood the bill already had all the momentum it needed to move forward out of committee.
Among these, he asked for a sunset of 30 years for any public access easements, citing occasions where long-lived easements became a problem once an area began to attract significant tourism.
“As things change, new terms can be negotiated to take care of things that change over time,” he said.
He asked lawmakers to retain a requirement for the Legislature to disperse money rather than an appointed body or commission.
He also suggested striking the words “as necessary” from consultation with agencies like Game and Fish, which echoed an amendment offered by Wyoming Wildlife Federation.
Moline’s recommendation for the easement time limit was taken to heart by four of the committee members.
But it wasn’t enough to add the amendment to the bill in committee as it failed on a tie vote.
There were, however, several amendments that were approved, among them one changing the bill’s funding structure.
That amendment was being worked on by Rep. Sandy Newsome, R-Cody, who was absent from the committee after breaking her leg horseback riding over the weekend.
Rep. Cyrus Western, R-Sheridan, acting as chairman for Newsome, said he believed diverting sales tax money was likely to draw opposition.
As acting chairman, however, he could not move the amendment, which changes the funding stream to a recurring $6 million appropriation from the Wyoming Office of Tourism’s Reserve Fund.
Rep. Donald Burkhardt, R-Rawlins, moved the amendment for Western, and it passed unanimously.
However, Burkhardt also moved a less popular amendment requiring outdoor recreation grants be disbursed based on the inverse of a county’s proportional share of statewide tourism income, as determined by the Wyoming Office of tourism.
“Normally, all this money seems to go to the northwest corner of the state,” Burkhardt said. “Central counties get little. Eastern counties get little. Southeastern counties, some of them, get little.”
By basing the distribution on the inverse share of statewide tourism, counties that usually have less chance at that money should get a greater share, Burkhardt suggested.
The amendment passed narrowly, with five yes votes.
There also was an amendment requiring any projects that need more than $250,000 in grant funds to come before the Legislature for approval, from Rep. Abby Angelos, R-Gillette.
That passed unanimously, as did a proposed amendment from Wyoming Wildlife Federation requiring consultation with Game and Fish.
House Bill 74 heads back to the House floor with a do-pass recommendation from the House Travel, Recreation, Wildlife and Cultural Resources Committee. There were two no votes on the measure from Reps. Daniel Singh, R-Cheyenne, and John Winter, R-Cody.