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Pony Express Rides Again Through Wyoming Beginning On Thursday

in News/Tourism
20744

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By Wendy Corr, Cowboy State Daily
Wendy@CowboyStateDaily.com

It’s the stuff of great western movies — the lone horse and rider, racing at breakneck speed across the plains, carrying the mail from stage stop to stage stop.

And while the Pony Express only operated for a total of 18 months in 1860 and 1861, the adventurous spirit it embodied lives on in the Pony Express Re-Ride that has taken place nearly every year since 1980.

The annual Re-Ride will pass through Wyoming beginning Thursday, June 9, employing more than 150 riders in a horseback relay transporting a “machila” satchel filled with over 1,000 pieces of mail from Missouri to California.

“We stick to the same 10 day schedule that they originally had back in 1860-61,” said Les Bennington, president of the Wyoming division of the National Pony Express Association. “And once it starts it goes nonstop, 24 hours a day.” 

The Pony Express played a significant part in America’s history, as it sped up the time messages could travel between the east and west coasts. Prior to the completion of the first transcontinental telegraph in October of 1861, the Pony Express was the fastest means of cross-country communication. 

And since 1980, modern-day riders have kept the spirit of the Pony Express alive. 

500 Miles Through Wyoming

Bennington told Cowboy State Daily this year’s ride began in St. Joseph, Missouri on Monday, June 6, and will travel through 8 states before the machila reaches its final destination in Sacramento, California on the 16th. If the riders stick to the schedule, the Machila will be handed off to a Wyoming rider around 6 p.m. on Thursday, June 9.

“We have to average 10 miles an hour to make roughly 2000 miles in 10 days,” said Bennington of the multi-state effort. “We’ve got about 56 hours to get across Wyoming, which is a little over 500 miles on horseback.”

Bennington explained that each state names “ride captains,” who organize the relay in their section of the route. He said there are 7 ride captains for the 150 or so riders in Wyoming, broken up into segments of 40-80 miles.

“A rider, once he gets the machila, he’ll take off – or she’ll take off – and they’ll go about two miles and then transfer to another horse and rider,” Bennington said.

Bennington himself has been an integral part of the annual event since the beginning, serving as president of the National Pony Express Association from 2007-2010.

“I was national president when we had the 150th celebration of the original Pony Express,” the Glenrock resident said. “And that trip we took 20 days to get across, because we (had) celebrations along the trail.”

Follows Same Route



Bennington said that the Re-Ride roughly follows the route taken by Pony Express riders 160 years ago, although most of the original switching stations have long since disappeared.

“The original stations were 10 to 15 miles apart,” he said. “And the original riders back in 1860, they would ride from station to station, then switch horses, and keep going. They might end up riding 75-80, maybe even 100 miles with a bunch of different horses.”

The Re-Ride isn’t just for show, Bennington pointed out. Riders are carrying actual mail in the machila, sanctioned by the U.S. Postal Service.

“We swear our riders in each year,” he said. “Once (the mail) gets to Sacramento, the postmaster from there or his or her representative will come and pick the letters up and put them in the regular U.S. mail.” 

Thanks to a GPS device in the machila, Bennington said anyone interested can track the ride in real time on the National Pony Express Association’s website, and follow the riders on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/expressrider/

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So Far Record-High Gas Prices Not Affecting Wyoming Tourism

in News/Tourism
20161

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By Wendy Corr, Cowboy State Daily

The average gas price of gas in Teton County reached $5.18 per gallon this week, but those rising prices don’t seem to be discouraging visitors from driving their RVs and campers to various Wyoming communities.

Around the state, members of the tourism industry told Cowboy State Daily that they are expecting tourism numbers to rival last year’s records despite skyrocketing gasoline prices.

Campgrounds and hotels in Cody have reported reservations outpacing even last year’s record numbers. 

Robin Blessing, whose family owns the Ponderosa Campground in Cody, said despite a slower start than expected, reservations for the summer are filling up fast.

“We’ve had two cancellations, and that’s from people in California because of gas prices,” said Blessing. “But then after Memorial Day weekend, it’s just – with all the 150th birthday (of Yellowstone National Park), there’s a lot of reservations.”

Gas prices in California this week are averaging $6.06 per gallon – significantly higher than Wyoming, where the average price was $4.30 per gallon as of Wednesday. 

Prices for diesel, which many RVs and pickups use, are higher yet – $6.57 in California, and $5.47 in Wyoming, according to the AAA website.

All’s Good

But Shawn Parker, director of the Sheridan County Travel and Tourism Office, told Cowboy State Daily that the visitor center there has seen an increase in traffic, even over last year.

“All the metrics that we record and track, we’re up over last year even when fuel prices were significantly lower,” said Parker. “So we’re cautiously optimistic we won’t be affected negatively by fuel prices.” 

On Monday, Grand Teton National Park Superintendent Chip Jenkins told a crowd of business people in Cody that “there is no correlation between visitation and gas prices.”

“Grand Teton and Yellowstone actually have social scientists now,” Jenkins said. “And talking with them, it’s interesting to learn that there is no correlation between visitation and gas prices. So we are not expecting that visitation will be affected by gas prices. What we are expecting is that people, their spending may change.”

That’s information that Blessing heeded when it came time to stock up on souvenirs for the Ponderosa’s gift shop.

“They’re cutting back,” said Blessing. “Not eating out at as many restaurants, or not eating at more expensive restaurants and not buying as many souvenirs.”

Some Concern

Parker pointed out that if fuel costs continue to rise, that may affect the tourism industry down the road.

“Of course it’s going to have some effect over the long term if they don’t start to come down,” he said, “but it’s all part of the bigger travel puzzle.”

And that puzzle includes air travel. 

In Jackson, the community’s spring tourism has been affected dramatically by the closure of the Jackson Hole Airport for runway reconstruction. The latest lodging report compiled by the Jackson Hole Chamber of Commerce showed hotel occupancy at 33.1% in April, compared to 48.3% the previous year. 

Parker noted that because of high jet fuel prices, airline travel could take a hit for visitors flying to Wyoming.

“It’s probably never been this expensive to fly domestically with the cost of fuel for the airlines,” he said. 

But, he countered, that won’t stop people who are determined to vacation in the state.

“Folks still want to get out,” he said. “They still want to vacation. If they can’t fly somewhere, the next best alternative of course is going to be to drive.”

Group Tours

The industry that is likely to take the biggest hit, Parker said, would be tour companies, which utilize diesel-fueled buses. Scores of buses come through northern Wyoming daily, traveling between the Black Hills and Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks – and Parker said that’s an industry that his office is keeping an eye on.

“The places that are being affected are the ones who have group tours,” he said, “so the price of fuel for a big bus is going to be significantly higher than someone who’s just on an independent trip.”

And the international travel market is on the rise, despite rising fuel costs.

“We’re not seeing a dip in folks coming over from Europe,” Parker said. “Quite the opposite, in fact. We’re seeing huge demand across the board.” 

“Likely, people are going to continue to come,” Jenkins said, “but what they spend their money on may be different. So we will see how that plays out here over the next couple of months.”

“We’ll probably end up being busier than last year,” Parker predicted.

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Sen. Ogden Driskill Recalls Filming of “Close Encounters” On His Family’s Ranch At Devils Tower

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By Wendy Corr, Cowboy State Daily

Now that the U.S. government is finally releasing decades-long secrets regarding military encounters with unidentified flying objects, or UFOs, there has been a resurgence of interest in alien encounters around the country.

Here in Wyoming, one very “monumental” incident more than 45 years ago put one of the state’s most recognizable landmarks on the map.

But this incident didn’t involve true alien contact. Instead, it involved the filming of one of the classic films that kicked off a global renewal of fascination with science fiction movies.

In 1976, film crews descended on Devils Tower in northeast Wyoming to begin production of “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” Steven Spielberg’s hugely successful tale of ordinary people confronting intelligent life from other planets.

And Wyoming Sen. Ogden Driskill was there.

National Park Service Said No

“Steven Spielberg came out personally, a year ahead of the movie,” Driskill told Cowboy State Daily. “And the (National) Park Service would not let him do the main part of the filming inside (Devils Tower National) Monument. And so Steven Spielberg met with my mother and father, and I got to go along, and he paid them $20,000 to provide the film site for ‘Close Encounters.’”

Driskill – who was a junior in high school at the time – said his parents owned land adjacent to the unique formation that can only be glimpsed from Interstate 90. He recalled vividly the summer that his family’s land became a film set. 

“They came with two or three people, I kind of want to say in June, but I’m not positive, and they were done by August,” Driskill said.

Devils Tower featured prominently in the plot of the 1977 movie as the location that characters who had “close encounters” with UFOs are drawn to. It is also where the movie’s final scenes are set.

“The film site of ‘Close Encounters’ was an irrigated hay meadow that they graveled and turned into the helicopter pad and all the prep for ‘Close Encounters,’” Driskill recalled, adding that he and a friend worked with the crew during filming.

“I worked for the movie company, Columbia Pictures, the whole time up in what is now Devils Tower Gulch, they had set up a catering den, and fed several hundred people a day,” he said. “The kid that I ran around was Scott Robinson, his dad was superintendent in the park. We did grunt stuff, but Scott actually made it into the movie.”

Perks To Being There

There were perks, however, to hanging around the film crew every day.

“If you watch the movie, there’s a lot of helicopters,” Driskill said. “They had a whole fleet of old military helicopters there, and they had pilots on contract so that they were ready when they did the scenes. Well, they had to fly so many hours a day per the contract.”

Driskill said he had made friends with the pilots, who would fly him around the ranch or into Hulett to rope. And when Driskill had to leave the filming for a week to attend the Boys State conference in Douglas in June, the pilots were more than happy to give him a lift.

“When it came time to go to Boys State, they checked the schedule, and they didn’t have anything going, and so the entire fleet of 19 helicopters took me down,” Driskill said, smiling. “One of them lit on the ground at the state fairgrounds in Douglas, I got off, the rest of them hovered around, and then they turned around and headed back to Devil’s Tower.”

The special treatment didn’t do him any favors at Boys State, however.

“I ran for governor and did not get elected,” Driskill said.

Devils Tower KOA

Once the filming was over, Driskill said, his parents decided to put the $20,000 they were paid by Spielberg to good use.

“My mother talked my dad into using that money to build what is now the Devils Tower KOA,” said Driskill. “And when it finished, rather than reclaiming all the gravel and turning it into a hay field again, my mother built a building there, added on to it – there was an old A-frame restaurant there that a cousin had built – and opened a campground the year that the movie premiered.”

“Close Encounters of the Third Kind” was a huge hit when it was released in late 1977, eventually grossing over $300 million worldwide. It was nominated for eight Academy Awards, winning just one for cinematography.

And although not all of the film was shot in Wyoming — California and Alabama were other primary filming locations — Driskill said the movie has had a lasting effect on the state.

“Well, obviously, 40 years later now, it still has an economic impact on the state of Wyoming, because people still come here,” he said. 

But Driskill, the Legislature’s Senate majority floor leader, hasn’t let his family’s work on “Close Encounters” result in unqualified support for proposed legislation that would create an incentive program for film companies working in the state.

“Does the economic impact outweigh the cost?” he asked. “It’s obviously very important that we continue to find ways to promote our tourism, because every dollar of tax that’s paid by an out of state person is a dollar that doesn’t need to be paid by an in-state person.

“I’m generally supportive,” Driskill continued, “but only if it works economically. You know, we’re to the point in Wyoming where we’re trying to be very careful about where we spend our dollars.”

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Wyoming Tourism Season Is Here, But There’s A Serious Shortage of Workers

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19689

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By Wendy Corr, Cowboy State Daily

Tour buses are back; foreign worker visas are being approved; COVID restrictions have been rescinded. The tourism industry seems poised to enjoy a successful post-pandemic summer season in Wyoming.

But a lack of much-needed labor is casting a dark cloud on that sunny outlook.

“After 2020, we experienced the great resignation,” said Tina Hoebelheinrich, Executive Director of the Cody Country Chamber of Commerce. “You know, when (the country) still has – what is it, like, 3 million job openings? If every employable person actually went back to work, we would still be short 3,000 workers.”

With the ability of employers to hire foreign workers again this year after the lifting of coronavirus restrictions, it would seem that some of those shortages might be addressed. 

But Hoebelheinrich reported that issues including affordable housing and childcare will hamper the ability of employers to attract workers – foreign or domestic – during Wyoming’s busiest season.

“People who have worked in service-type jobs here in Cody, they’re typically making, what, $15 to $20 (per hour)? And that’s probably on the high end,” she said. “If they’re a double-income family and have kids, we are having an extreme shortage of childcare here.”

Hoebelheinrich said there have been some conversations among community leaders about addressing the shortage of childcare options, but no solutions have been forthcoming. 

Nor have solutions surfaced to address the problem of affordable housing for seasonal employees – particularly foreign workers brought to America using special visas.

“Where previously, (workers) may have been able to rent a house for the summer, so much of our real estate has been converted to vacation rental properties that affordable housing and summer-only housing is just at a premium,” Hoebelheinrich said. “And so all of that factors into whether or not it makes sense for employers to try and get (foreign workers), or to try and recruit locally. It’s a pretty big problem.”

Other tourism-oriented communities, such as Jackson, are experiencing the same issues, especially when it comes to determining if the community can support the foreign workers needed to staff businesses during the busy summer season.

“Any foreign worker really needs a lot of support, including housing,” said Anna Olson, president and CEO of the Jackson Hole Chamber of Commerce. “And if the housing isn’t there, what a lot of employers are forced to decide, even though they want (foreign workers), that they need to, if they have employee housing or they have year-round access to rentals or ownership, they are using those for critical year-round workers.”

Olson relayed the situation of one large employer who used to bring in between 30 and 40 foreign workers, but who this summer won’t host any.

“They had to decide, because they used to provide rental housing for the seasonals, but they’ve had to give that rental housing now to the year-round employees,” she said.

Hoebelheinrich and Olson both reported that some larger employers in their respective communities have their own on-site employee housing. But that isn’t the case for most small businesses that hire a handful of foreign workers to round out staff numbers in the summer.

Which is why Hoebelheinrich said Cody is looking to boost the workforce from within the community – focusing on young people just getting started in the job market.

“We implemented our first ‘Work-Ready Bootcamp’ (this spring),” she said. “We will finish 10 kids, ages 14 to 16, who will be certified workforce-ready. That means that they have studied customer service, critical thinking, workplace etiquette, just those soft skills that a lot of first-time-into-the-workforce young people don’t have. And oftentimes, in an economy like ours, where we absolutely hit the ground running, it’s hard for employers, and especially sole proprietors, to have the time to invest in those soft skills.”

Hoebelheinrich expressed some concern about other challenges facing businesses this tourist season, such as high gas prices that might deter some would-be travelers from making the trek to Wyoming.

“Campground bookings have slowed down a little bit,” she said. “You know, this time last year we had several campgrounds that were full for the year. But we’re not seeing that, and you can attribute that, I’m sure, to high gas prices. 

You know, it doesn’t matter how good your vehicle is when you’re towing a big camper or you’re driving a big RV and you’re looking at 15 miles to the gallon, probably,” she continued. “And when diesel is over $5 a gallon, that really changes what is practical for people to do.”

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Wyoming Tourism: Foreign Workers Are Back, But Hurdles Still Exist

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By Wendy Corr, Cowboy State Daily

After two difficult years for the hospitality industry, the summer of 2022 is expected to be somewhat “normal” for Wyoming’s tourism industry.

But the industry continues to be hampered by a lack of workers, making foreign workers more important to the industry than ever.

Fortunately, more doors are opening for employers who hire staff from foreign countries.

“With the visa process opening back up, allowing more workers to be able to work, we’re able to see less job openings, because they’re being filled,” said Morryah McCurdy, Vice President of Business Development for Advance Casper, the city’s economic development arm. “We definitely utilize them in whatever capacity they’re able to legally.” 

There are primarily two types of work visas used by foreign workers and their potential employers in Wyoming’s tourism industry – the “J1” visas, which are applied for, and paid for, by students and workers looking for an experience abroad; and the “H2B” visas, which employers pay for and arrange for from their end.

“In 2020, we didn’t have visa workers because of the pandemic,” said Tina Hoebelheinrich, the executive director for the Cody Country Chamber of Commerce. “So that was just not a possibility. And the challenge last year, in 2021, was that many of our U.S. embassies were still on restricted hours or not open to the public. And one of the requirements of the visa work program is that they have an in-country interview at an American consulate.”

This year, Hoebelheinrich told Cowboy State Daily, the hurdles are fewer – but the federal government is fielding an an unprecedented number of applications for foreign worker visas.

“The good news is, that earlier than ever before, the Biden administration has released an additional quota of H2B and J1 visas,” she said. “But you know, the truth of the matter is, it’s still not going to be enough.” 

In communities such as Cody, which is located near the east entrance to Yellowstone National Park, foreign workers are essential to businesses, particularly in the hospitality industry.

“(Without foreign workers) we’d have to shut down a bunch of rooms,” said Bill Garlow, owner of the two Best Western hotels in Cody. “Our gross would nosedive, it would really go down. We have maybe 8 or 10 that are local, that live in Cody and they work all during the winter when the H2Bs aren’t here, and so we can keep some of the hotel open. But (without them) we would probably close for the entire summer. We could not operate without them.” 

Garlow has owned and operated hotels in Cody for decades – his great-grandfather was the town’s founder, Buffalo Bill Cody. Garlow told Cowboy State Daily that he has relied for many years on workers from Jamaica utilizing the H2B visa process, and when COVID began to impact overseas travel, it forced a shift in the hotel’s workforce.

“When we’re short like that, like in 2020, we had a lot of overtime,” Garlow said. “This year, we have an application for 40 workers, and I think we’ve got about 11. But we’re pretty sure that another application is going to get approved, which would bring another 17.”

Garlow explained that most of the workers from Jamaica who come to Cody are returning employees.

“About 90% have been here before,” he said. “They’re great people and they work hard, and we really appreciate them.”

Garlow’s two hotels offer a total of 190 rooms – for smaller operators, like Brenda O’Shea and her husband, Mark, who own A Western Rose Motel, they just need two or three extra hands to keep their 24-room motel running. But even that has been a challenge.

“In the past, we’ve generally worked with Chinese because they can stay later, they can stay until the end of September,” Brenda told Cowboy State Daily. “So once China was off the board, we opened it up, but there are only certain countries you can choose from.”

O’Shea said she had been hoping to hire four girls from Kazakhstan this summer, but she just found out that two of them had been denied their visas, and she is still waiting to hear about the other girls.

“Two of them have their visa appointments on the 12th of May, and they are due to be here June 1,” O’Shea said, expressing her frustration at the situation. 

She said she does have a few locals to help, but without the additional hands, O’Shea and her husband will be working many extra hours themselves this summer.

“My husband is ready to drive to the border and pick people up,” she said. “I even contacted Senator Barrasso’s office and said, ‘Listen, I’ll take Ukrainians, I provide jobs and housing, it’s a beautiful city, it’s very safe.’ And their office said, ‘We are not accepting refugees at this point.’”

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No Airport, No Problem. Jackson Business Owners Not Worried About Airport Closure

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Photo by AaronP/Bauer-Griffin/GC Images
18829

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By Jimmy Orr, Cowboy State Daily

One might think the closure of an area’s only airport would be of some concern to a major U.S. tourist destination.

Not so in Jackson.

Jackson Hole Airport closed down for repairs on April 11 and won’t be reopening until June 27. While the temporary halt to air traffic is a big deal, business owners are taking it in stride.

Anna Olson, the director of the Jackson Chamber of Commerce, said April is the slowest month of the year for Jackson tourism, so the closure was scheduled at the right time.

And although visitor interest usually picks up in May, it is still consider shoulder season.

June is another story, Olson said. But most tourists who visit the Jackson area in the summer come by car, not plane.

“We are, by far, a drive market in the summer,” Olson said. “Ninety percent of visitors arrive in a vehicle as opposed to a plane in the summer.”

She added there appeared to be a lag in hotel bookings for the month of June, but it is not concerning because of the way hotels in Jackson control their inventory of available rooms.

If the lag continues — which Olson does not expect — hotels can drop their rates, she said, which will likely lead to increased occupancy.

“It’s a pretty sophisticated system,” she said. “We know that the visitor demand is there and while the early booking pattern is slower than last year, there is a general consensus that people will be here.”

Shoulder season is covering less time in Jackson than it used to, Olson said. While April, May, October, and November used to be considered the shoulder seasons, there has been an uptick in visits recently in the second half of May and the first half of October.

Now the shoulder season covers six weeks in the spring and six weeks in the fall, she said.

“The Great American Drive”

Jason Williams, a Jackson businessman who owned a guide service for 15 years and owns an art gallery now, said COVID was responsible for a shift in travelers’ thinking. It’s more of a driving culture now, he said

“People’s mentality shifted to the great American road trip,” Williams said. “And there’s still a lot of forward momentum there with people taking these extended trips by car or R.V.”

He, like Olson, believes the airport’s closure was scheduled for the right time and he credited the director of the Jackson Hole Airport Authority for the good timing.

“The leadership of the airport, under Jim Elwood, is the reason for this,” Williams said. “He was extremely involved with our community and really looked closely on how to mitigate the impacts.”

“The timing of the project was carefully chosen to have the least amount of impact,” he said.

Williams said his art gallery, Gallery Wild, is having a strong April so far. It is more difficult, he said, to predict the future with the art gallery business than with his former guide service.

“I had a better indication of future bookings with the safari business,” he said. “But all indications seem like we’re on track to have a good season.”

Drive vs Fly

Olson did caution that making any predictions for the season based solely on hotel bookings comes with a degree of peril. That’s because air travelers make their reservations much further in advance than drivers.

“Drivers may make their reservations a week or two out, where those traveling by air generally lock in 60 to 90 days out,” she said.

Olson said hotel bookings for the month of May are down about 11%.

Those wishing to travel by air do have other airport options, although it takes some time to drive from the closest alternative airports.

Beginning on May 5, Cody’s airport will be open and, with good traffic, can be a 2.5-hour drive.

Idaho Falls Regional airport is about a two hour drive from Jackson.

The largest airport near Jackson is Salt Lake City International, which is a 4.5-hour drive.

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Cody Builds Six 150mph Wind-Proof Geodesic Domes

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By Wendy Corr, Cowboy State Daily

Cody is a western town. 

Every step through the community reveals a town steeped in western history — including the Chamber of Commerce building modeled after the home of western showman William “Buffalo Bill” Cody.

So a collection of clear geodesic domes poses a stark contrast to the rustic log cabin the rest beside.

The other-worldly “Cody Visitor Center Domes” are the result of efforts by the Park County Travel Council to create attractive public spaces and entice visitors to stay in Cody a little longer. 

“We’re always looking for ways to keep people more overnights in Cody-Yellowstone,” said Ryan Hauck, the executive director for the Park County Travel Council (PCTC). “Our goal is to always try to bring people either in shoulder season, or get them to come for multiple nights, or whatever that looks like.”

One way to do that, Hauck said, is to create more evening activities, which encourage visitors to stay more than one night. 

The domes that have taken up residence on the Chamber’s property will allow people to gather outside in the evenings and remain sheltered from the elements.

“I kind of envisioned, maybe we have a food truck night once a month, or something like that,” Hauck said. “They honestly work perfectly for food trucks. Also, a lot of destinations do what’s called a restaurant week, in which maybe in a shoulder season we could feature restaurants every day for a week straight.”

The domes also encourage the use of outdoor public spaces, which Hauck said is how the idea for the project came up in the first place.

“I think it was the WCDA (Wyoming Community Development Authority) that has a grant for public spaces that comes out every single year,” he said. “And they ran a study to see what communities really need public spaces, and honestly, Cody came up as one of the top ones in all of Wyoming that really need public spaces.” 

“There’s just not a lot of places where people can go to hang out, and enjoy what we have, other than a few places downtown,” he added.



Hauck said the project was funded with federal money from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act or “CARES” and to that end, addressed social distancing concerns.

“This does give another option to enjoy a public space in a COVID friendly way if that’s something that people are actively looking for,” Hauck said. “And people still are actively looking for those options.”

In deciding to utilize the CARES Act money for this project, Hauck said local leaders supported the idea completely.

“These were federal dollars for destinations like us, and everybody else throughout the state, to help us recover,” he said. 

A company called HypeDome provided the materials, which Hauck said should withstand all that the Wyoming weather can throw at them, from sub-zero winter temperatures and snow to the state’s ever-present wind.

“Also, we do live in Wyoming, and we have wind here,” he said. “And so, going off memory here, I believe we had to have a structure that could withstand 85-mile-an-hour wind and 150-mile-an-hour gusts up to three seconds. And these can do that.”

Hauck pointed out that these permanent structures are perfect setups for social media posts.

“People are going to be looking for that ‘Instagrammable’ moment, just like they have been for the last few years,” he said. “And they’re going to look awesome. I think it’s going to be something that will help draw people in that way.”

But he pointed out that the project isn’t quite finished yet.

“There are going to be some accessories like cement tables, vases, things like that,” Hauck said. 

“Every single one of them will also have rope lights around the base of them, and fairy lights all throughout the top part of the dome.” He continued. “So you know, at dusk and nighttime, they’re going to look pretty phenomenal.” 

The chamber asks that users finish up in the domes by 10 p.m., but at this point, there are no locks to keep people out.

Hauck added that there is no plan to ever charge to use the domes.

“Whether it’s locals that want to enjoy the outdoors and stay away from the 60-mile-an hour wind, or it’s tourists looking for that fun Instagrammable moment – or if they just want a fun place where they could stop and read a book or eat a quick lunch before they head into the park. It’s an option, really, for anybody and everybody,” he said.

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Wyoming On Verge Of Joining National Bike Touring Path

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By Wendy Corr, Cowboy State Daily

U.S. Bike Route 76, which currently runs from the western border of Kansas to the east coast in Virginia, is just a dotted line across a map of Wyoming right now. 

But that could soon change, making Wyoming part of a national bicycle route that runs from Oregon to Vermont.

Kerry Irons, the U.S. Bike Route Volunteer Coordinator for the Adventure Cycling Association, said plans are in place to make 76 a designated bicycling route through Wyoming.

“The route in Wyoming is based on an Adventure Cycling route,” Irons told Cowboy State Daily. “We have created maps around the country for major rides. We found what we felt were good bike routes for long distance travel. And that is the target audience here – this is not 8-to-80, or mom and dad and the kids on Sunday. This is people who are out on the road for weeks on end, doing long distance.”

The Adventure Cycling Association (which was established in 1976 as a resource for serious bicyclists) is responsible for mapping the first bicycle touring route to cross the U.S., known as the TransAmerica Bicycle Trail. The route runs from Astoria, Oregon, to Yorktown, Virginia, mostly along rural, two-lane highways.

The association also serves as a technical support agency to the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO). AASHTO has published a national corridor plan for bicycle routes. So far, 18,000 miles of highways have been designated as bicycle touring routes.

Irons said the designation of a bicycle route through Wyoming could provide an economic benefit to small towns.

“U.S. bike routes are not a construction project,” Irons said. “They’re a mapping project. The TransAmerica trail has been in business for 45 years. It’s a well-known route and lots of people ride it. With this designation as a U.S. bike route, we’ll put it on the map, so if somebody wants to come to Wyoming from someplace else in the U.S. or the world, they’ll be able to find this route easily. It’s not creating new infrastructure; it’s not starting from scratch on bicycle tourism in Wyoming. But it’s one more layer of visibility for this route – one more way to get more people in Wyoming, doing long-distance bicycle trips.”

The Town of Jackson recently submitted a letter to WYDOT expressing support for U.S. Bike Route 76 and its proposed path through town. 

Brian Schilling, Pathways and Trails Coordinator for Teton County, said the town has made significant investments in a safe pathway system, and the proposed bike route would take advantage of that infrastructure.

“In Jackson, and in Teton County, we have this very robust network of separated bicycle and pedestrian pathways that offer a great opportunity for cyclists of all abilities to not have to ride on the roadway, on the highway shoulder, and so provides for a much more comfortable, enjoyable and safe experience for cyclists of all ages and abilities,” Schilling said.

The Wyoming Department of Transportation (WYDOT) is part of the U.S. Bike Route planning process, according to Director Luke Reiner. Reiner told Cowboy State Daily that the goal is to establish safe routes for bicyclists.

“Our responsibility is, to the extent possible, to ensure that the route is as bicycle-friendly as it can be,” Reiner said. “So for example, if it goes over Teton pass, we make sure we sweep that pass on the shoulders to make sure there’s no gravel. I mean, if there’s sand or gravel on the road, it can make for a bad deal, especially if you’re rolling fast down the hill.”

Part of WYDOT’s role in designating the U.S. Bike Route is choosing the safest path – which means keeping bicyclists off major interstates.

“We’d look at the proposed route, and just make sure we’re not intermingling bikes with a large amount of trucks or vehicles,” said Keith Fulton, WYDOT’s Assistant Chief Engineer for Engineering and Planning. “They  may not always go on the state highways – they may be using bike paths or city streets.”

Reiner explained that the proposed path comes from Idaho over Teton pass, goes into Jackson and then over Togwotee pass into Dubois; then down to Lander and across to Muddy Gap. From Muddy Gap it heads northeast toward Casper, and then south into Shirley Basin until it intersects Highway 30 and heads to Wolcott Junction – from there the route goes south into Colorado.

“Now, you might think, oh, that’s sort of a circuitous route,” Reiner noted. “And you would be correct. The original proposal, when you hit Muddy Gap, came south to Rawlins, and then took the interstate over to Wolcott Junction and went south. And really, our focus on safety said, ‘Hey, listen, we think it’s a bad idea to put that many bikes on the interstate.’”

Both Irons and Reiner explained that once the state receives approval from neighboring states, where the route connects, it will be up to AASHTO to approve this section of U.S. Bike Route 76 as a designated corridor.

“We have essentially all the local agencies that need to sign off,” said Irons. “And Brian (in Jackson) has kind of been the last key to that puzzle. And so now we’re waiting for Colorado and Idaho to tell Wyoming DOT that they support the connection. And then in early April, Wyoming DOT can submit an application to the Feds, and that gets reviewed at a meeting in late May – and that’s where the route could then be approved at the National Special Committee on route numbering. And then it’s designated.”

Schilling noted that the town of Jackson doesn’t expect a huge influx of tourism from this designation.

“At this point we’re so inundated, the addition of 20 cyclists a week, which would be, I think, a high-end estimate, no one will even notice that,” Schilling said. “But having said that, Jackson and Teton County and Grand Teton National Park have in the past five to 10 years really started to develop a reputation as a great destination for cycling, and it’s primarily because of our pathway system. So we are seeing a lot of use of our pathways by tourists.”

From a statewide standpoint, Director Reiner said having this designated bike route would be a boon to Wyoming’s tourism industry.

“It’s a chance to see a beautiful part of the state, see some wildlife,” Reiner said. “know, part of our task is supporting our state’s economy. And certainly, this fits into the aspect of supporting bicycle tourism.”

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2023 International Airstream Rally To Be Held At Sweetwater Events Complex in Rock Springs

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By Rock Springs Rocket Miner, Cowboy State Daily

ROCK SPRINGS — For the first time in 66 years, an international rally dedicated to devotees of the Airstream travel trailer will be held in the will be held in Sweetwater County.

This isn’t some podunk event where people gather in a parking lot and look at an RV.

This is huge. The International Airstream Rally is expected to bring over 1,800 people and hundreds of Airstreams from 49 states and Canadian provinces to Rock Springs in June, 2023.

Executives of Airstream Club International on Tuesday signed the contract solidifying the Sweetwater Events Complex as the site for the annual get-together.

It means a lot of money too. Conservative estimates project that over $1 million will be spent in Sweetwater County during the event.

“Our visit with the executive team members was extremely successful. We were able to brainstorm how to set up the rally around the grounds and activities in Sweetwater County for rally attendees to participate in,” said Sweetwater Events Complex executive director, Larry Lloyd. 

During the rally attendees will meet fellow Airstream members, learn about the Airstream lifestyle and explore all the activities, local businesses and restaurants Sweetwater County has to offer. 

“There is a certain comradery among Airstream owners. Our rallies are a great opportunity to meet and bond with fellow Airstream owners. We also love to support the communities we visit and are planning a community service opportunity for our members to participate in,” said Airstream Club International corporate manager and rally organizer, Lori Plummer. 

Airstream International Club and the Sweetwater Events Complex are partnering with the Rock Springs Chamber of Commerce, the City of Rock Springs, and Downtown URA to ensure the community and local businesses are involved. As part of the rally, there will be a parade of vintage Airstreams through town for residents to enjoy.

There will be an open house during the rally where locals can tour vintage Airstreams, browse products from vendors and view Airstreams for sale. The City of Rock Springs will be hosting a special downtown event for rally attendees and the community at large to mingle and enjoy the town. 

Local food trucks will be featured at the rally and associated events throughout the week, local vendors will be invited to participate in the vendor fair, restaurants and business will be bustling with activity and gas stations will have increased traffic. 

“A motto of the Airstream International Club founder, Wally Byam, was ‘Fun, Fellowship & Adventure.’ We look forward to living that motto to the fullest by meeting and making new friends, learning about the Airstream lifestyle, and exploring all Sweetwater County has to offer at our 2023 rally,” said Plummer.

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Record Visitation Puts Strain On Yellowstone Resources

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By Wendy Corr, Cowboy State Daily

Record visitor numbers in Yellowstone National Park in July have strained the park’s staff and services in ways not seen in the Park’s 149-year history, according to officials. 

Last month, the park reported a record 1,080,000 visitors.

Mike Keller, general manager for Xanterra Parks and Resorts in Yellowstone, said his staff was largely prepared for high visitation numbers throughout the summer.

“This isn’t just a July situation,” he said. “You know, really, ever since travel started opening up again in the country, this spring, Yellowstone’s been a very popular destination. Because, you know, Americans can’t travel internationally, domestic travel is really kind of driving what’s happening here. And we’ve just seen high, high levels of visitation here in the park — higher than we’ve historically had in the past.” 

For Xanterra, which operates all the lodging and restaurants in the park, that means that not only are the crowds larger, tempers can be shorter.

“We’ve all been on those long family vacations where it may not be the most pleasant time in the car for eight days, from place to place, but it’s still hard when we have a guest throw food in an employee’s face, or poked him in the chest, or started swearing at him,” he said. 

“So, I’ve witnessed some very unpleasant interactions between customers and our employees; but I’ve also witnessed some customers go out of their way to really thank our staff, and be appreciative that they’re even there to try to assist them and help them,” he added. “But some people have come in here and could have exercised better behavior.”

Keller noted other parks besides Yellowstone are experiencing the issues associated with overcrowding.

“This is kind of a nationwide trend,” he said. “All national parks are reporting strong visitation, strong interest in coming to see these national treasures.”

Keller added that the high volume of people in parks, coupled with pandemic-related supply chain issues, means further complications in an already stressful summer.

“It’s been very challenging,” he said. “As part of the supply chain challenges, there’s not enough truck drivers, so there’s merchandise and product, but nobody can drive from point A to point B. And then from there, get it to us so that we can actually sell it within our operations, within the park.” 

“We’ve had to change menus almost on a day by day basis at some operations, just because we’re unable to get a steady supply of the products we need to provide certain meals for our guests,” he said.

And just like at businesses across the rest of the country, staffing is a problem in the national parks as well.

“We’ve increased wages,” he said. “We’ve offered free housing this year, we’ve tried to do things to help make the awesome experiences a little more enticing for somebody to want to come work for us here in the park. But staffing has been a challenge.” 

And that means that for visitors, some services are limited.



“We have about 80% of our services open this year,” he said. “Some things we just didn’t open – so that’s kind of helped with our staffing, because we don’t need that extra 200 or 300 employees to fill those gaps. But having said that, we are still seeing challenges, especially in food and food (preparation). And as a result, we haven’t opened some restaurants; sit-down dining is very limited here in the park. Some restaurants are open, but they’re buffet only, they’re not a full menu. 

“But you know, there’s times where the lines can back up – when you’re the only restaurant open, you’re trying to feed 1,000 people at a location at seven o’clock at night, it can get backed up pretty fast,” he continued. “So we’re doing the best we can to try to keep recruiting employees and trying to streamline our menu process so visitors aren’t having to wait too long.”

Keller said the record-setting pace for visitors does not appear to be ending soon.

“You know, our record-ever visitation was about 4.2 million visitors; we’re on pace for about 4.7, 4.8 million visitors this year,” he said. “So we’re talking a 10% to 15% increase over the last year from our biggest year, which was 2017.”

But on the bright side, Keller said, Wyoming is a big place.

“Yellowstone is big, Wyoming is big,” he said. “There’s a lot of great places to go to, and kind of spread out, but at the same time, that’s a lot of people in a small area where there’s very limited infrastructure, I think, to support all the demand that’s happening in this region.”

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Help Wanted: Industry Relations Specialist for Sweetwater Travel & Tourism Board

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Job Title: Industry Relations Specialist
Open Date: Immediate
Reports To: Executive Director
Location: Rock Springs, Wyoming

Summary
The Sweetwater County Joint Travel and Tourism Board (SWCTTB) Industry Relations Specialist is based in Rock Springs, Wyoming for the purpose of executing initiatives defined by the Board of Directors and Executive Director specific to the enhancement of visitor and local business relations and operational standards.

Essential Duties and Responsibilities

  • Act as an ambassador for all visitor-related services and the strategic executor of any pre-determined initiatives established by the Executive Director.
  • Promote destination highlights to stakeholders, ensure adequate inventory of display materials, and ensure awareness of seasonal events and tourism products.
  • Represents the SWCTTB to local committees/organizations, and acts as the liaison for interested community partners.
  • Lead meetings with hospitality partners and local stakeholders and help to promote events and packages in the community.
  • Work closely with event grant applicants and execute and enhance the grant program.
  • Assist the Marketing Specialist in keeping the website’s community pages up to date.
  • Collaborate with local stakeholders, special interest groups, community coalitions and event managers as it pertains to the seasonal and annual promotions of destination features.
  • Build and maintain working relationships and be a liaison between the community and the SWCTTB.
  • Train and educate frontline workers and local volunteers through the Certified Tourism Ambassador Program and share tourism resources in the community.

Requirements

  • The candidate will be passionate about Sweetwater County and the world-class tourism features in the area, be an ambassador of the SWCTTB’s values and mission and possess the following qualities:
  • Previous experience with a Destination Marketing Organization (DMO) or Convention & Visitors Bureau (CVB) or relevant customer/visitor service experience is highly preferred.
  • Bachelor’s Degree in Business, Communications, Marketing, Tourism, English, Hospitality Management, or equivalent experience.
  • Demonstrated ability to build excitement in the community for destination highlights, features, and events.
  • Excellent verbal and written communication skills.
  • Attention to detail and the ability to multi-task.
  • The ideal candidate will have a genuine interest in working with community members, local businesses, and hospitality partners to build and maintain working relationships.
  • Ability to work independently in a fast-paced, sometimes ambiguous, environment and manage multiple deadlines and tasks.
  • Well organized and trustworthy with a high level of discretion.
  • Solution-finder/problem-solver.
  • Ability and desire to travel for site visits, community information events and meetings with local officials as needed.
  • Perform other duties as assigned.

Work Environment/Physical Requirements

Requires working in an office area with frequent interruptions and noise from telephones, voices, and office machines. Physical activities include climbing stairs, driving, standing, talking, hearing, seeing, sitting, lifting (up to 40 pounds) and bending. Considerable repetitive motion of hands and wrists as relates to the use of computer keyboards is possible.

The candidate must be based in Sweetwater County Wyoming and be able to commute around the county and state.

Compensation and Benefits

Salary Range | $45,000 to $49,000 (DOE)

Benefits Package

To apply, send a cover letter and resume to jmeredith@tourwyoming.com by September 1st

NOTE: This job description is not intended to be all-inclusive. The employee may perform other related duties as established to meet the ongoing needs of the organization. SWCTTB is an equal opportunity employer.

Federal Unemployment Benefits End, But Wyoming Tourism Worker Shortage Persists

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By Elyse Kelly, The Center Square

As Wyoming gears up for another summer of increased visitation, tourism-reliant businesses are still struggling to find enough workers to operate fully.

Many business owners attribute the predicament to unemployment benefits people are receiving, Wyoming Public Media reported.

Domenic Bravo, CEO of Visit Cheyenne, echoed that thought.

“I think there were some unintended consequences when some of the benefits that were there during COVID got extended,” he told The Center Square.

Gov. Mark Gordon decided to stop accepting the federal unemployment supplement in the state starting June 19. But Bravo said the timing may have been too late.

“The timing of when some of those benefits were either ended at the federal level or states ended them early: if it’s mid-season by then, those that were actually seeking jobs may have found them in other sectors,” he said.

David Bullard, a senior economist at the Wyoming Department of Workforce Services, Research and Planning, said that those benefits definitely make a difference in labor supply, WPM reported. But he believes the governor’s decision to end them should make a difference.

“I expect that will cause some kind of shift in the labor supply curve and more people will be willing to work at that point,” Bullard told WPM.

Since COVID-19, however, the landscape has altered, Bravo said.

“After COVID, things have changed just in terms of how to recruit,” he said. “I think beforehand in the hospitality/tourism area we were really hard-pressed to find folks who really understood the great benefits of working in that industry: a lot of good training, upward momentum and just a fun work environment. In Cheyenne here, we call it the ‘Cool Jobs Website.’”

Now it’s even harder.

Bravo said the industry is going to have to work really hard to make these kinds of jobs desirable and back in the mainstream.

Before the benefits started, Bravo said many unemployed tourism workers were forced to find jobs elsewhere outside the industry. He said it will be a struggle tracking that demographic down and enticing them back to work in their previous field.

Wyoming business owners told WPM that their attempts to offer bonuses for employees who stick out the summer aren’t working; however, Bravo expressed optimism that efforts by employers like hiring bonuses, increased pay, and added benefits will make a difference in building up Wyoming tourism’s workforce.

Until that happens, he asks visitors to the state to be patient with businesses — whether they order at a restaurant and the food takes longer or it isn’t open certain days.

“I think employers and employees are doing the best they can, and as long as we understand and try to help each other, my hope is, in the end, it will be successful,” he said.

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Wyoming State Parks Visitation Numbers Heading Into Summer Are ‘Encouraging’

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By Elyse Kelly, The Center Square, Cowboy State Daily

Wyoming’s state parks system is preparing for a busy summer.

Last year was a record-breaker for the state in terms of visitation, with parking lots overflowing and campsites booking out solid as people sought respite from strict lockdowns in other states.

Gary Schoene, public information office manager for Wyoming State Parks, said park officials don’t know if this year will be quite that busy, but they are expecting plenty of visitors.

“Our numbers reservation-wise are a little bit lower than last year, but not much, which is encouraging since there’s quite a bit more competition for the consumer dollar right now because things are starting to open up a little bit,” he told The Center Square. “So if [Memorial Day Weekend] is any judge, it looks like we should have a fairly decent summer visitor-wise which is encouraging.”

Learning from last year, Schoene said the department converted a few more campsites into first-come-first-serve sites rather than reservation only after feedback from visitors.

“Some people they don’t know until the day before or whatever that they are going to be able to camp so hopefully the first-come-first-served sites help those people in that regard,” he said.

More visitors generate more revenue for the parks which they can then use to make improvements, Schoene pointed out. 

The state parks funding this year was workable, but he said they can always use more money. 

“We can always use more money in terms of maintenance and operations, that type thing,” Schoene said. “There was a bill this last year, House Bill 58, which did allow us to do that with the money we generate with reservations and other user fees so that helps some, but you always feel like you could use some more.”

Schoene said the department is planning to hold as many events as they safely can this year. All facilities will be open this year as the state returns to operations as usual, he said.

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Thursday Tourism: Cowboy Carnival Back On In Hyattville

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By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily

A full day of old-fashioned family fun, complete with live music, foot races, a pie contest, a barbecue and a sharpshooter contest is on tap in Hyattville on Sunday as the town’s community center sponsors its annual Cowboy Carnival.

Canceled last year because of the coronavirus pandemic, this weekend’s event is the 17th annual holding of the carnival.

“After suspending our 2020 Hyatteville Cowboy Carnival as an abundance of caution due to COVID-19, now Cowboy Carnival is back,” the Hyattville Community Center said on its website. “We look forward to resuming this annual tradition.”

In an interview with Cowboy State Daily in 2019, Linda Hamilton, the community center’s treasurer, said many members of the community southeast of Basin help out with the event.

“We have a good community that steps forward to do this,” Hamilton said. “It’s quite an event and it’s amazing that we can pull a community together and have them do this much.”

Proceeds from the event, including money raised by the beef, lamb and pork barbecue, will be used to support the community center, a former elementary school that is now used as a hub for a variety of events such as weddings and funerals. The center also has a small library and exercise room.

Sunday’s events kick off with a “sharpshooter contest” at 10 a.m. at the old airstrip south of Hyattville, along with a 5K run/walk, book sale, quilt show and photo contest.

A kids’ race through Hyattville will be held at 11 a.m. and live music by “songteller” Dave Munsick will begin at noon.

Lunch will be served at 12:30 p.m., followed by a sheep dog competition at 1 p.m.

The day will end with a live auction featuring items donated from throughout the region.

For more information, visit the community center’s website at: https://www.hyattville.org/

Other events scheduled for the long Memorial Day weekend include:

The grand opening of the Military Memorial Museum at Nelson’s Museum of the West in Cheyenne on Monday;
Casper’s annual “Cruizin’ with the Oldies” car show at the Yellowstone Garage Bar, Grill and Venue on Saturday;
The Buffalo Lions Club Fishing Derby at Lake DeSmet Saturday through Monday;
The Wyoming State Cup and Championship and United Cup soccer tournament, Friday through Sunday at the North Casper Soccer Complex;
The “Pit Digger” mud rally in Saratoga on Saturday, and
The “Canyon to Curve” Fun Run/Walk on Monday at the Casper Boat Club.

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Park County Will Continue Upkeep For Road to Ghost Town of Kirwin

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By CJ Baker, Powell Tribune

Park County road and bridge crews will continue to maintain a Shoshone National Forest road leading to the ghost town of Kirwin.

On Tuesday, county commissioners renewed a five-year agreement with the Forest Service to maintain that route west of Meeteetse, plus two county roads in the Sunlight area that also lie within the Shoshone. In exchange for that work, the Forest Service will pay the county up to $15,000 a year.

Commissioner Lloyd Thiel cast the lone vote against the cooperative agreement, saying he wanted the maintenance of the Kirwin road to be turned over to a private contractor.

“I realize a lot of this is working with you guys and everything,” Thiel told Shoshone representatives, “but I’m also representing all the taxpayers out here in the county that might be employed privately by doing this.”

He also said the county was losing money on the arrangement; in 2019, county officials said the Forest Service’s payment covered about 37.5% of the roughly $47,500 cost to maintain 25.3 miles of the Hunter Creek, Sunlight and Kirwin roads.

However, the Hunter Creek and Sunlight roads are owned by the county and would be maintained by county crews regardless of whether the Shoshone was helping pay for the work. And as for the road to Kirwin, Park County Engineer Brian Edwards has previously suggested that the route — which is used by local recreationists — could potentially be closed if the county didn’t maintain it. He noted that the county also plows the Beartooth Highway to the Pilot Creek snowmobiling parking area in the Shoshone each winter.

“We have a relationship [with the Shoshone] to where it’s in the public good to try to work together to take care of some of these things that would be kind of costly to contract out,” Edwards said.

The Shoshone’s district engineer, Beau Batista, said it’s better for taxpayers if the forest can maintain the roads at a lower cost. He also said that, out of the three private contractors that currently maintain other Shoshone roads, only one has ties to Park County.

Hoping to find cost savings last year, Shoshone officials had asked the county to consider taking on 28 additional miles of forest roads that are now maintained by contractors.

However, commissioners balked at taking work away from the private sector — and Shoshone officials were ultimately unsure they would save any money; forest officials said they pay an average of $1,100 to $2,000 per mile, while Edwards estimated the county would want to charge $1,800 to $2,000.

While commissioners gave no indication Tuesday that they were interested in taking on any other roads in the Shoshone, the board voted 3-1 to continue maintaining the Kirwin route and renew the entire agreement.

In supporting the arrangement, Commissioner Scott Mangold wondered whether the Forest Service could make other federal funding contingent on the county maintaining the Kirwin Road for free.

“… I think for [$15,000], we’re getting a pretty good deal,” he said.

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Wyoming Tourism: Wildlife On Display At Taxidermy Artists Event This Weekend in Pinedale

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By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily

Some of the best wildlife art in the state can be seen in Pinedale this weekend as Wyoming’s top taxidermy artists put their work on display as part of their annual meeting.

Taxidermy displays from around Wyoming will be open for the public’s viewing at the Sublette County Ice Arena as part of the annual meeting of the Wyoming Association of Taxidermy Artists.

While some may not think of taxidermy as art, there is a considerable amount of artistic thinking that goes into each piece, said Susan Orcutt, secretary of the WATA.

“You’ve got to know how to paint, how to blend colors,” said Orcutt, who runs High Country Taxidermy in Pinedale. “When you do a habitat scene, you’ve got to have a little bit of artistic ability, you can’t just slap it together.”

Orcutt said about 60 taxidermy artists from around the state, along with some from Utah and other states, are expected to attend the annual meeting, which begins Thursday with the set up of the display of entries for the WATA contest.

The display will then be closed to allow for judging and will be reopened Friday night after WATA’s banquet.

During Friday, members will take part in their annual business meeting, attend seminars and share taxidermy tips.

“I’ve been doing taxidermy for 20 years and I learn something new every year,” Orcutt said. “Normally taxidermists don’t give you a lot of information, but when you go to the shows, they do.”

The display will open for public viewing at 8 a.m. Saturday, with a $5 admission fee for adults. Proceeds will be used to help pay for next year’s meeting.

Entry is free for children age 12 and under.

The public will see a special kind of taxidermy when they visit the display, Ocrutt said.

“These are all spiffed up,” she said. “When you go into competition, there are certain things you have that you don’t normally worry about so much in a normal everyday consumer piece. These competition pieces, people spend days and days, weeks and weeks on them.”

The show will be particularly educational for anyone interested in having taxidermy work done in the future, she added.

“When you start looking at things, you start realizing there is a difference between a good mount and a bad mount,” she said. 

Other events scheduled for the weekend around the state include include:

The Cody Country Horse Sale, an annual sale that takes place in front of Cody’s Irma Hotel. Begins at 1 p.m. Saturday.
Mother’s Day Tea at the Historic Governor’s Mansion in Cheyenne on Saturday.
The Rough Stock Rodeo School at the Central Wyoming Fairgrounds in Casper. Friday through Sunday.
The Spring Bazaar at Gillette’s Cam-Plex on Saturday.
The Up in Arms Gun Show at the Central Wyoming Fairgrounds in Casper, Friday through Sunday.
Forever West XTreme Bull Riding, Johnson County Fairgrounds in Buffalo on Saturday.
A “Taco Fest” at David Street Station in Casper on Saturday.

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Full Buses Back at Yellowstone (If Tourists Are Vaccinated or Tested Immediately Before Trip)

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By Wendy Corr, Cowboy State Daily

The tourism industry received some welcome news Thursday from Yellowstone National Park as officials announced the lifting of some restrictions on tour bus passenger numbers.

Park officials announced that there will be no restrictions on group sizes for tour buses whose passengers have either been vaccinated or tested for coronavirus immediately before their trip.

An email to industry partners sent by the park’s Concession Management office also said restrictions will be lifted in the case of bus passengers who have recovered from COVID-19 within three months of tour departure.

For operators who aren’t able to attest to having all passengers vaccinated or otherwise safe from COVID-19, passenger numbers will be limited to 10 people or 50% of vehicle capacity, whichever is greater.

Elaine Dejong, a group tour planner for Allied Tour and Travel in Iowa, said her company is relieved and happy to be able to resume touring in Wyoming’s national parks.

“The past year (plus) has been difficult on travelers, especially our senior and adult clientele,” she said. 

Dejong went on to compliment the National Park Service for putting together a plan to allow motorcoach travel to resume.

“What better way to celebrate our country than visiting a couple of our favorite national parks,” she said.

The National Park Service email noted that the new rules had been created in collaboration with the motorcoach industry and the U.S. Public Health Service in an effort to increase access to the park. 

And there’s really nowhere to go but up, when one takes a look at the statistics.

In 2019, more than 300,000 of the park’s roughly 4 million visitors arrived via motorcoach. Last year, there were fewer than 500.

So from the perspective of Rick Hoeninghausen, marketing director for Xanterra, the concessionaire in Yellowstone National Park, the lifting of the restrictions is a step closer to “normal.”

“Parks are a huge piece of the motorcoach industry and the packaged group tour business,” Hoeninghausen said. “They’ve also been really struggling through this pandemic, when you go from, you know, a strong business, perhaps to none. So this is big for them.”

Hoeninghausen does caution, however, that “normal” is still some time away.

“Bus companies can’t quite resume full operations, because the rooms and the locations they would have had access to are not yet available,” he said, citing the Park Service’s decision to delay the opening of some lodging and restaurants in Yellowstone. 

But Hoeninghausen is said he was pleased to see steps been taken to encourage motorcoach travel to northwest Wyoming. 

He added that because tour buses to Yellowstone typically run longer routes, the ripple effects will make a difference for the communities outside the park as well. 

As a result, the news was also good for businesses such as the Irma Hotel in downtown Cody.

Mike Darby, the Irma’s co-owner, said tour buses make a huge difference for gateway communities like Cody.

“Tour buses are the backbone of our business in Cody,” Darby said. “They not only take up mass blocks of rooms, they also add a buffer and a foundation to our restaurant  infrastructure, and just totally help everything move smoothly, and give us a guaranteed income, so to speak. So the rest of it ebbs and flows, but the tour buses keep going. And we’re glad to have the opportunity to serve them.”

Darby is also on the board of the Cody Stampede Rodeo, which operates Cody’s nightly rodeo June, July and August. 

“As far as the rodeo is concerned, it’s going to basically ensure that we get 50 to 100 people extra per night, which is another, say, 10% business,” Darby explained. “And that’s just icing on the cake.”

Another popular tourist attraction, Dan Miller’s Cowboy Music Revue in Cody, saw almost a 70% drop in business last year because group tours were canceled during the pandemic. So Miller also welcomed the tour bus news.

“That’s all we have to say, isn’t it?,” he said, smiling. “Buses are back. To me that’s the best news we’ve heard since a year ago this time, when they said ‘The buses are gone’.”

Miller pointed out that from his perspective, tour buses level the playing field.

“It lets everybody go back to business,” he said. “I won’t say ‘back to normal,’ because it’s not perfect. But boy, from where we stand, it’s pretty close.”

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Wyoming Will Use A $2.5 Million Federal Grant To Boost Tourism Marketing

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Elyse Kelly, The Center Square

Wyoming will put $2.5 million of a federal grant toward marketing the Cowboy State’s tourism opportunities this year.

As a separate part of the CARES Act, the grant is from the U.S. Department of Commerce and earmarked for tourism marketing to help states’ tourism economies recover. Last year, the bottom dropped out of the national tourism economy as stay-at-home orders to reduce the spread of COVID-19 diminished travel.

Wyoming’s tourism economy contracted by about 25% last year, less than the national average of about 45%, thanks to its voluminous outdoor attractions and open space.

“We didn’t have to reinvent ourselves, and that’s a fortunate thing for the state of Wyoming in terms of the visitor economy,” Diane Shober, executive director of the Wyoming Office of Tourism (WOT), told The Center Square. “What we’re doing is actually broadening our footprint. We’re casting a wider net with our messaging.”

Shober said the money will go toward a fully integrated, layered marketing approach that will use research to target demographics most likely to act upon a marketing message. Individuals who have already been identified as interested in the outdoors and cowboy culture will see ads promoting Wyoming as a destination show up when using social platforms including YouTube, Facebook and Instagram. Print ads in magazines like Outside Magazine and TV spots are another facet to the approach, Shober said.

One of the most popular ways to visit the Cowboy State is via road trips, and last year was no exception, yet many of those visitors spent fewer dollars within the borders. WOT wants that to be different this year.

Shober said reasons for the reduced spending connect back to COVID-19. Many went camping, which is fairly self-contained and keeps visitors out of areas where they might spend money at a restaurant or on activities, she said.

“There were a lot of attractions and activities that did not operate or could not operate at full capacity last year,” Shober said. “So therefore, large events like a lot of our major rodeos and festivals across Wyoming didn’t operate last year. If you were running a sightseeing business, you were limited in the number of guests that you could take with you.”

There was also a large increase in day-trippers, who spend less as they don’t spend time in accommodations, Shober said.

Much of this will be self-correcting, Shober said. With restrictions being lifted or lightened and all of Wyoming’s rodeos and festivals on the calendar in 2021, in conjunction with the targeting marketing, Shober expects spending to increase.

Indicators that signal intent to travel are pointing toward a successful year of tourism, she said. Organic search on Wyoming Travel’s website, which Shober points out is a very strong indicator, is up anywhere from 27% to 70% ahead of last year.

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Wyoming’s Hospitality Industry Can’t Find Workers; Especially Dire in Northwest Wyoming

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By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily

While Wyoming’s hospitality industry is gearing up for what promises to be a busy summer tourism season, restaurants and hotels are finding themselves very short of workers to care for visitors to the state.

The problem is especially dire in northwestern Wyoming, where a lack of housing is leaving employers unable to recruit workers.

“What continues to be a huge, huge issue in Teton County is housing,” said Colleen Dubbe, manager of the state Workforce Centers in Jackson and Afton. “Whether it’s foreign workers or college students or young adults or even older workers, it’s across the board. Not only is it incredibly expensive, there’s none available and there’s none available in the region.”

The housing shortage in northwest Wyoming, along with federal unemployment policies, immigration rules and travel restrictions, have created a “perfect storm” for a challenging hiring environment for hospitality businesses, said Chris Brown, executive director of the Wyoming Lodging and Restaurant Association.

“The hospitality industry is labor intensive to begin with,” said Brown. “This year has by far been the toughest year for staffing I’ve ever seen.”

Part of the problem stems from federal regulations and COVID-related travel bans that are sometimes slowing the arrival of foreign workers to staff hospitality businesses such as hotels and restaurants, said Brown, whose association represents more than 500 members of Wyoming’s hospitality industry.

Many employers apply for a special visa to bring employees from other countries to the United States, but the process can be very involved, he said.

“The process for businesses to apply for and get those employees is insanely arduous,” he said. “But the need for additional legal foreign workers is significant. There are not enough people here to step in and fill all those roles.”

Complicating the issue is the fact that the extension of federal unemployment benefits through September has allowed some people to collect an income without working, Brown said.

“Certainly the extension was warranted when businesses were closed last year and people were out of work,” he said. “But the extension of unemployment benefits through September is incentivizing some workers to simply stay home and not worry about going back to work.”

In Jackson, those problems are exacerbated by the lack of housing, Dubbe said.

Dubbe said many of Jackson’s workers actually live in surrounding communities in the Star Valley and Idaho, but housing is short throughout the region.

She added apartments in Jackson can often cost more than $2,000 per month.

“I know businesses are worried,” she said. “They are very concerned about what is going to happen this summer. Consistently the one thing they mention is housing.”

Some businesses have gone so far as to buy old hotels to use as employee housing. In past years, the town of Jackson has allowed people to sleep in their cars overnight to deal with the issue.

Northwest Wyoming is expecting a busy season as people get out following the coronavirus lockdowns of 2020, Dubbe said.

“The good news is the bookings for the summer are up, and we anticipate a good year as it relates to the tourist industry,” she said. “But with the housing market being so tight, it has limited their ability to recruit employees.”

The tourism industry is Wyoming’s second largest, behind energy production. Between hotels, food service, arts, entertainment and recreation, the industry accounted for 44,835 jobs in 2019, slightly more than 11% of the state’s total jobs.

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Wyoming’s Open Spaces And Schools Are Attracting Travelers, Job Seekers

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By Bob Pepalis, The Center Square

Unlike many other states during the pandemic, Wyoming attracted visitors seeking the great outdoors with its national parks, and was also successful in attracting job seekers and business interests.

“Overall, the U.S. travel economy declined nearly 45%, whereas Wyoming’s travel economy only declined 25%. In the year ahead, we anticipate a rise in popularity for destinations such as Wyoming that offer wide-open spaces and an abundance of outdoor adventure opportunities,” Diane Shober, executive director of the Wyoming Office of Tourism, told The Center Square.

Travel spending in Wyoming declined from $3.96 billion in 2019 to $2.96 billion in 2020, “The Economic Impact of Travel” report prepared for the Wyoming Office of Tourism said. Total direct job loss was estimated at 6,030 jobs, with accommodation and food services accounting for 3,600 of those.

Remote workers were the focus of a two-month targeted national marketing campaign last fall by the Business Council, Wyoming Department of Workforce Services and Wyoming Office of Tourism, Ron Gullberg, Strategic Partnerships director for the Wyoming Business Council, told The Center Square.

“From the Business Council’s perspective, we are seeing heightened interest from remote workers looking to relocate, job seekers and business recruitment and expansion inquiries. Wyoming’s open spaces, opportunity for an adventurous lifestyle, business-friendly environment, open schools and less restrictive health orders are among the driving factors we’re hearing,” Gullberg said.

“The intake form housed on the tourism website generated 3,200 inquiries and not just remote workers. They included job seekers and business recruitment and expansion inquiries. Even after the two-month campaign ended, we’ve received more than 200 additional inquiries,” Gullberg said.

The three agencies are dividing the inquiries and addressing them, Gallberg said.

Wyoming state parks saw the revival of the “Great American road trip,” the Wyoming Office of Tourism reported, and strong indicators show an intent to travel this year.

“Wyoming’s State Parks saw a record-breaking year with 4,878,765 visitors, more than a million more than last year’s record season of 3,876,039, an increase of 34%,” Shober said.

Curt Gowdy State Park was one park with visitor increases more than 200% above the five-year average. For 2020, it was 231% above that average, but the increase was more dramatic in March, which had a 581% increase in visitors and April with a 474% increase in visitation.

The state is made up of almost 50% public land, including the 12 state parks with more than 100,000 square acres, Yellowstone and Grand Teton National parks.

The state does not have reservation or booking data available that would help in projecting travel spending in 2021.

“However, Visit Wyoming’s Official Travel Guide orders are up 46%, while travelwyoming.com traffic is also up 36% – all strong indicators of intent to travel,” Shober said.

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Visit This Goshen County Treasure: Fort Laramie Center Of The West For 50 Years

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By Randy Wagner

FORT LARAMIE – For more than five decades, Fort Laramie, in Goshen County, was the center of the western frontier universe.

In today’s modern life, it might be hard to imagine this high-plains location as the center of anything. But it sure was. Its history makes it one of the most significant places in Wyoming.

Its beginning was a small operation in the middle of a gigantic and empty frontier populated by Native Americans and mountain men. 

The original fur trading post was established near the junction of the Laramie and North Platte rivers in 1934 by mountain men William Sublette and Robert Campbell.  Named Fort William in honor of Sublette, the establishment was soon sold to Tom Fitzpatrick’s Rocky Mountain Fur Company and again, in 1836, to John Jacob Astor’s American Fur Company. 

The cottonwood log structure was replaced with a more substantial adobe brick walled construction and renamed Fort John on the Laramie.  It became the hub of the fur trade industry east of the Rocky Mountains and the social and economic center for members of the Sioux Nation. 

It was known to all as simply Fort Laramie.

In the spring 1841 the first emigrant wagon train of westering pioneers arrived at Fort Laramie.  They were following the older fur trade trail from the Missouri River and were a third of the way into their six-month journey to Oregon and California. 

Fort Laramie was the first hint of civilization they had seen since leaving “the states,” and they used the opportunity to rest and re-supply.  A few hundred-thousand more, following what would become popularly known as The Oregon Trail, would do the same in the years to come.

The United States Government purchased Fort Laramie in 1849, turning it into a military post for the “protection and refurbishment” of the emigrants. 

Army engineers immediately set to work re-building Fort Laramie for the third, and final, time, deconstructing old Fort John in the process. 

During the 1850s and 1860s Fort Laramie became a key link in the California Gold Rush, the Overland Stage Line, the Pony Express and the Transcontinental Telegraph.  It was the jumping-off point for gold seekers on the Bozeman Trail and hosted major treaty councils between the Government and the Plains Indian tribes.

When the treaties failed, or were broken, Fort Laramie became the staging area for the major campaigns in Red Cloud’s War and the broader High Plains Indian War that raged throughout the region during the 1870’s. 

The ultimate refusal of Red Cloud and Sitting Bull to give up the Black Hills and submit to the Government’s reservation system led to the Great Sioux Campaign of 1876, based out of Fort Laramie.  The Fort also became a home station on, and protector of, the Cheyenne-Deadwood Stage Road that connected the gold fields in the Black Hills with the new transcontinental railroad in Cheyenne.

As the High Plains Indian Wars were resolved and traffic on the old emigrant trails faded away in favor of the railroad, Fort Laramie’s long and colorful day in the sun grew dim.  By 1890 the western frontier was just about closed and Wyoming Territory became the 44th State of the Union.  The post was decommissioned, abandoned and sold at public auction.

For the next 37 years Fort Laramie was more or less forgotten as the new town of Fort Laramie grew up beside the railroad several miles to the north. 

In 1927 the Wyoming Historic Landmark Commission re-discovered the old Fort and purchased the land and the remaining buildings.  Ten years later the place was donated to the Federal Government.  On July 16, 1938, President Franklin Roosevelt designated Fort Laramie as a National Monument. 

Today it is a National Historic Site administered by the National Park Service.  Many of its historic structures have either been stabilized or restored to their mid-19th century condition.  It is open daily but closes at 4:30 p.m.

America’s western frontier comes alive and is well presented at Fort Laramie.

(Note: Randy Wagner is a nationally-known photographer and historian. He is also a former director of the Wyoming Travel Commission. He lives in Cheyenne.)

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Wyoming Tourism Focuses on In-State Citizens First

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The best way to prime the tourism pump? It might be to focus internally first.

That’s the strategy the Wyoming Office of Tourism is taking.

Instead of a broader appeal to out-of-state citizens who — in many, many cases — would still be hunkered down at home, the office is luring in-staters to enjoy their home state with a new video advertisement.

Diane Shober, the executive director of the Office of Tourism, said this campaign is focused on urging residents to “get out and support all local businesses.”

The 30-second ad has a youthful feel to it featuring a mixture of hipsters, cowboys, baristas, and brewers.

It’s more of a soft-sell spot. You won’t see many car dealerships doing something like this.

No spoken words. Soft music. Slow-motion. Gentle lighting. All with reassuring words superimposed on the screen.

“We’ve all been keeping our distance,” it says. “But now it’s time to strap on our boots. To reunite our communities and reawaken the economy.”

As for the more easily identifiable locations in the video, the town of Saratoga and Buffalo are present as well as more iconic scenes such a river, a hiking trail, and a barn.

“Wyomingites should be the first to return to the main streets and mainstays,” Josh Dorrell, from the Wyoming Business Council said.  “[It’s] an important step in reclaiming our local economy.”

Don’t worry, the wonderfully effective #ThatsWY isn’t going anywhere. Shober said this is an “interim approach” to the overall #ThatsWY brand platform.

The campaign, which also features radio spots and a social media component, is scheduled to run for a month.

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