Wyoming Doubles Down On Its Outdoor Recreation Economy
The country’s most uncrowded state is making big investments in growing its recreation economy.
Wyoming wants more people to know that it is a place for outdoor lovers. Yet, while driving through America’s least-populated state, for long stretches of miles, the only sign of human existence is the occasional oil rig affixed to a rolling expanse of greenery and rocky hills. Extraction has historically fueled the Cowboy State’s economy and remains its No. 1 industry, but outdoor recreation—its No. 2 industry—is proving a viable and far-more sustainable source of income than the famously boom-and-bust-prone oil-and-gas enterprise. Thus, Wyoming has begun to invest in outdoor recreation more than ever before.
To that end, Wyoming Governor Matt Mead (R) created the Wyoming Outdoor Recreation Taskforce—26 representatives from business, government, NGOs and outdoor recreation groups who work to identify strategies for growing the outdoor recreation economy.
It’s not that policymakers want to transform their state’s (almost) pristine landscape, nor do they necessarily want to do away with those oil rigs, but they want to share the appeal of their wide-open spaces with those who truly appreciate them, finding fresh means for economic growth in the process.
Enter the Wyoming Outdoor Expo, which returned in 2018 after a six-year hiatus. Casper, the state’s second-largest city, with about 60,000 residents, hosted the Expo, which was resurrected thanks to a $150,000 contribution from the state. The previous incarnation of the event was billed the Wyoming Hunting and Fishing Heritage Expo. Indeed, hunting- and fishing-related brands, products and organizations were dominant at this year’s Expo. But the event also featured a number of hands-on educational exhibits. Thousands of schoolchildren from throughout the state participated in educational activities. They learned how watersheds affect local wildlife, they pedaled bikes through obstacle courses and the learned about hunting. Organizers and policymakers hope the Expo will raise awareness and interest and help instill a lifelong passion for the outdoors in attendees. They also hope it will serve as a springboard to ramp up Wyoming’s outdoor recreation visitations as well as other local businesses.
Creating a Culture Change
“Concrete and steel don’t define what Wyoming is all about,” says Eric Aune, referring to the countless oil rigs and wells that dot the state. Aune, a Casper native, owns North Platte Lodge and The Reef Fly Shop, and he’s a member of the governor’s taskforce. “There’s an opportunity to grow not just an economy but a culture around outdoor recreation.” That culture, Aune explains, will draw people who aren’t just looking to earn fast money but who also want a sense of place and quality of life.
A portion of Casper’s population, like much of Wyoming’s as a whole, is highly transient due to the temporary nature of oilfield work. Aune sees this as an impediment to growing the outdoor recreation economy and the aforementioned culture.
Aune says that more often than not, oil and gas workers are “here to get what they can get.” He explains that the transient workers tend not to engage or participate in the community the way long-term residents do. Those workers come for the money, Aune says, and leave when the money or jobs dry up.
“We sacrifice a lot as long-term citizens who want to be here.”
Outdoor recreation already accounts for $5.6 billion in annual consumer spending in Wyoming, as well $1.6 billion in wages for 50,000 jobs—a considerable number when you consider that Wyoming’s entire population comes in at under 600,000 and that the extraction industries only account for about 27,000 jobs. Nearly 50 percent of Wyoming is comprised of public land. With iconic natural destinations such as Yellowstone National Park and the Grand Tetons, it’s not surprising that outdoor recreation is indeed one of the state’s key economic drivers.
But not everyone sees outdoor recreation as a silver bullet for diversifying Wyoming’s economy. Mead’s outdoor recreation taskforce has to contend with the fact that, interspersed among much of Wyoming’s public lands are swaths of private land. And private land owners are wary about the prospect of growth (read: development) and heavier traffic, especially as more and more events and headlines point to irresponsible and disrespectful visitors.
Taskforce members note a pervasive not-in-my-backyard attitude among some private land owners, who fear that economic and population growth that results from a growing outdoor recreation sector could encroach on and jeopardize the pristine nature of their private property.
“Smart growth” is a crucial component of Wyoming’s outdoor recreational economy development plan.
During a panel at the Expo, Wyoming Treasurer and taskforce member Mark Gordon, suggested the taskforce should leverage the ‘not-in-my-backyard’ sentiment in its messaging. “There has to be an opportunity to show visitors the respect we have for our land [and] wildlife.”
Rock Springs Parks and Recreation Superintendent Mark Lyon agrees: “We need to let visitors know that you don’t run out and take a selfie with a bear. We need to promote the fact that [these lands] are pristine, and there’s a way to act when you’re here. It’s the golden goose. It’s what we have and what we want to make sure we preserve.”
Another concern of private land owners: People knowingly or unknowingly crossing from public land onto private land. One of the creative solutions for outdoor recreation in areas that cross private land is developing an application that would allow visitors to pay a reasonable fee to land owners to access recreation opportunities on their land.
“We thought this was a great project with private land owners, an opportunity where a ranch looking at off season revenue doesn’t mind good stewards of the land – hunters or anglers, someone with a side by side, horse or mountain bike – to get online when they go on this property. They’d give the date, time, say they’re going through gate one, pay with an Apple card – $10 or whatever, and it would give landowner revenue and open more opportunities for outdoor recreation,” says Director of Wyoming State Parks and Cultural Resources Darin Westby. “We just need to make sure we’re doing our jobs to treat the lands accordingly so our great grandkids have the opportunity to do that same thing. These are win-win recommendations.”
Places such as Yellowstone, the Tetons and Jackson Hole are obvious facets of Wyoming’s “Golden Goose,” but part of the state’s efforts in growing its outdoor recreation economy can be seen in places like Casper, which offers many lesser-known marvels: a whitewater park on the North Platte River, a ski area including a one-of-a-kind lighted Nordic trail on Casper Mountain, a newly signed mountain non-motorized trail system, not to mention a downtown area that is undergoing a major face lift with new breweries, restaurants and festivals popping up rapidly. A major ingredient to Casper’s successful growth is the fact that so many interest groups, from hunting and fishing to skiing and biking, RV manufacturers to whitewater enthusiasts, have come together to promote their state’s cherished natural offerings.
“I’ve seen more collaborative efforts between the destinations and outdoor wild parks as far as promoting Casper and Wyoming as an outdoor destination,” says John Giantonio of Visit Casper. “We started off as a fractured bunch of people. This year we are moving forward together as a force and as a team.”
State policymakers are on board, too. In addition to resurrecting and supporting the Outdoor Expo in Casper, the Wyoming legislature has enlisted the Wyoming Commercial Air Service Improvement Act, a $15 million effort aimed at securing commercial air service to and from Cheyenne. The state’s largest city and airport has fallen into a sequence of bad luck in this department, especially after the recent pull out of Great Lakes Airlines. But Cheyenne Airport is home to a brand new $17.5-million terminal and is eager to put it to good use.
“I’m excited as an old-timer to see what the state is doing,” says Bruce Lamberson, who moved to Casper in 1973 and opened Mountain Sports, the city’s longest-running ski and bike shop. “I’ve looked at every economic development study this state has ever done back to the ’60s. Always, when energy prices are good, we can give a shit. Then [the economy] goes bad and we go, ‘What are we going to do?’” Lamberson hopes this most recent effort to diversify Wyoming’s economy will stick. The key, he says, is keeping the focus on the value of recreation to residents and to visitors. “Let’s keep the focus on our quality of life,” he says. “That’s the long haul.”
At Outdoor Retailer Winter Market 2018, we caught up with a few individuals who have been heavily involved in the national movement to create state offices of outdoor recreation. Two of those people are Dave Glenn and Domenic Bravo, who were tagged by that that state’s governor to lead the work outlined in the aforementioned task force’s report. Wyoming created its Office of Outdoor Recreation within its state parks department in 2016.