Lake deal makes waves

Bulletin file photo

The conversation around government funding and outdoor recreation has been percolating for years. 

A task force launched in 2016 by former Gov. Matt Mead led to the formation of the state’s Office of Outdoor Recreation, which aims to expand and promote Wyoming’s outdoor activities.

Finding a funding mechanism for Wyoming’s growing outdoor recreation sector continues to vex lawmakers.

Legislators mulled choices anew last week during a meeting of the Joint Travel, Recreation, Wildlife & Cultural Resources committee in Thermopolis. Members shot down a draft bill to use revenue generated by scratch-off lottery tickets to help fund the sector, but noted the longstanding issue cannot be kicked down the road indefinitely. 

“Somehow we have to address this outdoor issue,” Sen. Bill Landen (R-Casper) said. “Somehow we’ve got to share with our colleagues when we go to work this winter [during the legislative session], that we’ve got a legitimate policy challenge.”

Three members of the committee volunteered to independently research more palatable options for the group, and will likely look to other states, which employ everything from user fees to taxes and interest earnings to bolster outdoor recreation. 

“We do want to have a revenue source for the Office of Outdoor Recreation, but we need to find that money elsewhere [from the lottery legislation],” committee co-chair Rep. Sandy Newsome (R-Cody), said, summarizing the group’s sentiment. 

The conversation around government funding and outdoor recreation has been percolating for years. 

A task force launched in 2016 by former Gov. Matt Mead led to the formation of the state’s Office of Outdoor Recreation, which aims to expand and promote Wyoming’s outdoor activities.

Meanwhile, visitation and use have grown significantly, a trend only accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Destinations as large as Yellowstone National Park and as small as Curt Gowdy State Park reported record visitation in recent years, while national forests have struggled to keep up with maintenance and infrastructure needs in the face of growing demand. 

Outdoor recreation added $1.25 billion in value to Wyoming’s GDP in 2020, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis. At 3.4%, that ranked Wyoming fourth among the 50 states for the share of its economy driven by outdoor rec.

But pinning down a mechanism to permanently support outdoor recreation — through funding the OOR, investing in infrastructure like trails and campgrounds or maintaining existing resources — has proven elusive. 

It costs roughly $1.4 million a biennium to operate the OOR, according to Manager Patrick Harrington. That funding has been so far cobbled together with support from the Division of State Parks and Cultural Resources as well as one-time funding from the Wyoming Office of Tourism — but the OOR has a budget shortfall of about $800,000, Harrington wrote in an email. 

Jerimiah Rieman, an avid mountain biker, executive director of the Wyoming County Commissioners Association and former Mead administration policy advisor, presented the committee with a spreadsheet detailing how other states generate outdoor-rec revenue. Rieman was spurred to compile and share the data as an individual with a desire for Wyoming to find a “long-term, sustainable solution,” he said. He believes a concept to raise money through biker user fees, for example, is too narrowly focused. 

Wyoming, he said, can consider options implemented in other states, such as: 

• Colorado Springs, Colorado, imposes a $4 excise tax on each bicycle that’s sold within the city to fund bikeway improvements throughout the community. 

• Oregon has mandated that a small percentage of state highway funds goes to footpaths and bicycle trails whenever a highway road or street is being constructed, reconstructed or relocated.

• Alabama passed a constitutional amendment that requires a percentage of the interest earnings from offshore natural gas royalties goes toward outdoor recreation and conservation purposes.

“I ultimately think there is something that is in there, that could go to one or all the purposes that I’ve mentioned or even purposes that you might have,” Rieman said.

The draft legislation the committee considered would have legalized the sale of scratch-off lottery tickets, revenue from which would have funded outdoor recreation sector investments. 

Reception to the proposal was lukewarm at best. 

Rep. Jeremy Haroldson (R-Wheatland) supports bolstering outdoor recreation, he said. But he isn’t convinced that promoting gambling is the way to do it. 

“As a pastor, I have the opportunity to see probably the dysfunction of this industry, so I’m jaded in one aspect,” he said. “And so is this the answer moving forward? I believe it isn’t.” 

“I don’t think this is the vehicle either,” said Sen. Mike Gierau (D-Jackson). “The bottom-line message is you’re not thinking big enough.”

The conservation group Wyoming Outdoor Council, meanwhile, was neutral on the “mechanism itself,” WOC representative Kristen Gunther told the committee. “Our interest in this bill is mainly to support meaningful, dedicated permanent funding to support outdoor recreation in Wyoming,” she said. 

Steff Kessler, who has worked in Wyoming conservation for decades, warned the committee that it can’t keep doing nothing. 

“The outdoor recreation boom is here already,” Kessler said. “It may not be in every town, but it’s here. And we have a choice to either put ourselves in the driver’s seat of this boom and guide it for our Wyoming ways, or we can be run over by it.”

While members weren’t keen on the lottery proposal, they still wanted to pursue solutions. Haroldson, Newsome and Gierau volunteered to come back to the committee with new options at its next meeting.

Landen acknowledged that it’s a big challenge, but said solving challenges is what lawmakers signed up for.

“We’ve got to do better and we’ve got to think a little more globally,” Landen said. 

Instead of a “silver bullet” solution, Kessler said, “there’s probably many silver BBs that we need to pull together.”

The COVID-fueled visitation spike is easing across Wyoming, land managers report. 

Yellowstone National Park, which was dealt a blow by severe flooding in June, saw 596,562 recreation visits in July 2022 — a 45% decrease from July 2021, when it logged over 1 million visits. 

Wyoming’s State Parks are also seeing fewer visits this year, agency Director Darin Westby said. Visitation numbers have gone from a record high of 5.8 million visitors in 2020 to 5.7 million in 2021, and this year the system is on track to see a projected 5.3 million, Westby told the committee.

Still, visitation to the state continues an overall upward trend, and other numbers indicate that interest in the sector hasn’t cooled. 

The nonprofit Wyoming Pathways has circulated a survey in the state to gauge interest in, and need for, pathways and safety projects, its Executive Director Michael Kusiek told the committee.

“We’ve had roughly $100 million in projects requested through our survey from over 40 communities,” he said. “So there’s great demand for this.” 

The State Parks and Cultural Resources Department, meanwhile, is overseeing the work of doling out $14 million in federal stimulus and other monies earmarked for outdoor recreation. 

State Parks just closed the first round of grant applications, Westby said, and the response was significant. 

There were “83 applications that came in at over $37.5 million,” he said. “If you add in any of the projects that the state parks are going to bring to the table, we’ll probably sit above 100 projects and about $50 million worth of requests.” 

OOR Manager Harrington said his office takes the funding it has developed seriously, and is “looking at it as our opportunity to show proof of concept. We believe we are delivering on that every day.” 

WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.

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