Wyoming Outdoor Rec Fund Gets $6M Every Two Years, But No Way To Manage It

The Legislature is considering ways to pay out $6 million in grants for outdoor recreation and tourism. A Senate bill to do that failed by 3 votes Monday. Now it’s up to the House.

RJ
Renée Jean

February 14, 20246 min read

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Wyoming joined a growing list of states last year that have a dedicated fund for investing in outdoor recreation.

But one thing that is missing from the Wyoming Outdoor Recreation and Tourism Trust Fund is an actual governance structure and an income account so that money from the trust can be distributed.

Senate File 40 was supposed to fix that problem, but failed by three votes to gain the two-thirds majority it needed for introduction in the Senate on Monday.

That now leaves it to House Bill 67 to create a workable fund, with the means to pay out grants under the supervision of a nine-member board.

HB 67 was created as a mirror bill to SF 40 by Travel, Recreation, Wildlife and Cultural Resources Committee Chairwoman Rep. Sandy Newsome, R-Cody.

“That will probably be up tomorrow, late morning or early afternoon,” Newsome said during committee deliberations Tuesday. “And I want to remind everybody that this committee voted unanimously for this bill, as we did our interim work, and so I’m hoping that you can vote for it on introduction.”

Money Is There

Rep. Andrew Byron, R-Jackson, said he had talked to some of the “no” votes, and was told many of them hadn’t realized it was meant to establish a governance board.

“They thought it was to establish the actual fund that’s already been established in the previous session,” he said. “So, if there’s any clarification from our colleagues, I think that’s worth discussing.”

Newsome said that SF 40 had been part of a consent list in the Senate and suggested it probably would have probably been best to pull the item off the consent list and explain it.

“The explanation is that the trust funds have been created,” she said. “The money’s there. Tourism’s putting in $6 million a biennium. And now we just need to create the income account, and we need to create a governance structure.”

That structure will be similar to what’s in place for the Natural Resources Wildlife Trust Fund, Newsome added.

“So, it would create a nine-person commission,” she said. “Any large project over $200,000 would go through the Legislature, just like it does with the Wildlife Trust Fund. So, it’s just similar to the Wildlife Trust Fund.”

Demand Rising For Outdoor Recreation

Wyoming already has an outsized demand for better outdoor recreation in communities across the state, said Wyoming Pathways Executive Director Mike Kusiek. That demand is continuing to grow as the popularity of outdoor recreation in general expands.

Kusiek is among those advocating for HB 67 as an answer to that demand.

“We’ve got at least 40 Wyoming municipalities who have reached out to our survey alone asking for some form of outdoor recreation amenities in their community,” Kusiek told Cowboy State Daily. “We also saw $71 million in requests for the first round of ARPA grants where $14 million was available.

“We then saw the further constriction of the ARPA grant program such that just two or three communities, and in some cases, just neighborhoods within communities, were eligible for round one and round two money from ARPA grants.”

The Outdoor Tourism and Recreation Fund will help ensure a steady stream of funding to help communities with improved outdoor recreation amenities.

“So, when this trust fund is passed and has a mechanism to pay grants out, we can solve that problem, you know, down the road for years to come,” Kusiek said. “Just like all the other trust funds do, they’re going to earn interest. We’re going to have a corpus, we’re going to be able to pay grants out of that income account — all of the things you need to give communities (assurance) that eventually it will be their turn to get some of this money to build on their projects.”

The projects won’t be something imposed from outside, Kusiek added. They will be what communities themselves are seeking to meet the demands of their residents.

“A big part of what we’re doing (with this legislation) is for Wyoming citizens,” Kusiek said. “We have Wyoming citizens requesting these amenities for their communities, so that they have leisure activities. It’s really not all about tourism. It’s really mostly about quality-of-life improvements and economic development opportunities for communities.”

If You Don’t Build It, They’ll Still Come

Outdoor recreation has been a growing segment of America’s economy particularly since the COVID-19 pandemic.

That’s been doubly true in the Cowboy State, where there are so many high-quality outdoor recreation opportunities from one end of the Cowboy State to the other.

“(It) is actually a big part of our economy,” interim WYORBA coordinator Stephanie Kessler told Cowboy State Daily. “And across the nation, if you look at outdoor recreation, Wyoming ranks fourth for the proportion of outdoor recreation as part of our state’s gross domestic product.”

With a 4.1% GDP, Wyoming is just behind Hawaii, Vermont, and next-door neighbor Montana. It’s third in the nation when it comes to the number of workers employed by outdoor recreation, at 5.6%.

A well-targeted approach to outdoor tourism could help bolster that economic impact even more, Kessler suggested.

But it’s also crucial for ensuring that the onslaught of outdoor recreation seekers wanting Wyoming experiences is well-managed, so that visitors won’t be destroying the resource with all that love.

“My feeling is that the outdoor rec boom is coming whether we like it or not,” she said. “So, it’s important that Wyoming manage for it, and that’s one of the principles of our organization. We really believe that outdoor rec should be responsible, and done on Wyoming’s terms.”

That concept is not just a big part of why WYORBA was formed, Kessler added. The Outdoor Recreation and Tourism Trust Fund can be an important tool for helping ensure that all the outdoor recreation love happens in a way that suits individual communities best.

“It’s better that we be proactive and think about it, of how we want it, than to just throw up our hands and let it overrun us,” Kessler said. “What I like about the trust fund bill is that it is for Wyoming. We’re not depending on federal government funds, and, so there’s a lot more flexibility.”

Renée Jean can be reached at renee@cowboystatedaily.com.

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Renée Jean

Business and Tourism Reporter