Wyoming's outdoor recreation numbers zoom into high gear

CASPER — Wyoming’s outdoor recreation is a sector to be reckoned with. New numbers from the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) show the outdoor recreation industry is comfortably outpacing the state’s overall economic growth.

From 2021 to 2022 the outdoor recreation economy in Wyoming leaped by 26% to become a $2 billion industry.

It’s boosted a diversity of businesses across the state — from local restaurants in Laramie, to R.V. dealers in Cheyenne, and gear shops in Cody — and it now accounts for more than 4% of the state’s GDP, the fourth highest ranking of all U.S. states.

Jobs in the outdoor economy during the period grew at a speedy 7.7% to more than 60,000 and now make up 5.6% of the state’s workforce.

Wyoming’s booming outdoor economy dovetails with a wider trend as the industry across the nation experiences major gains as well, vaulting to a new highwater mark at $563.7 billion, around 2.2% of U.S. GDP.

“When reports like this come out, it [shows] outdoor recreation isn’t just nice to have, it’s a core part of the American economy,” said Chris Perkins, Vice President of Programs at, of Outdoor Recreation Roundtable (ORR), the sector’s largest political action collaborative.

While the broader industry has grown at a healthy clip, a few sector standouts really zoomed ahead, including snow activities like snowmobiling, which gained by 48.6% in Wyoming.

“Last year and the year before were crazy,” said Dede Fales, owner of Fales Outfitting, a snowmobile guide service operating out of Park County since 1995. “It’s very steady work to where we’ve trained three extra guides so our other guides don’t wear out.”

Although as Wyoming’s outdoor recreation grows, it also invites new problems, and the industry’s expansion is raising concerns about the repercussions for ecosystems and wildlife as well as impacts on local communities and public resources.

Wes Allen, owner of Sunlight Sports gear shop in Cody, says he’s witnessed a swell of “boondockers,” or long-term car-campers, directed to the area by apps like Campendium that locate accessible public land to stay for free. The problem is some visitors leave behind more than mere tire tracks.

“Right on the outside of Cody, maybe half a mile from the rodeo grounds, you’d see seven or eight cars parked there, but there was none of the infrastructure that you needed to deal with campers. There was no bathroom, no garbage, and it was gross because people were going to the bathroom on the ground out there and all that kind of stuff,” said Allen.

The boondocker phenomenon is one of many implications Wyoming will need to address as outdoor rec grows in popularity, and its amongst a host of related issues cropping up across the country as a result of increased demand for access, including overcrowding and increased usage of public infrastructure.

“You look at the growth in recreation participation that we’ve seen over the past decade... and every state in the country is breaking records, both on federal public lands along with state public lands and waters,” said Perkins. “And yet the funding levels across the country in general that’s needed for infrastructure are out of step with the amount of visitation. If these places do not keep up by investing in their outdoor recreation infrastructure and assets to meet this new level of demand, they’re going to fall behind.”

The U.S. House and Senate are currently at work on an outdoor recreation bill package that would do just that.

The bicameral EXPLORE Act aims to shore up outdoor infrastructure, mitigate overcrowding and impacts to gateway communities while streamlining recreation business permitting.

EXPLORE will redouble similar state-led efforts in Wyoming, including House Bill 74, which was signed by Gov. Mark Gordon in March and provides a $6 million biannual trust fund for outdoor recreation and tourism initiatives.

That bill, funded through state-wide lodging taxes, aims to both manage and better capitalize on the industry’s growth in Wyoming and comes on the heels of federal money made available through the American Rescue Act for similar projects, indicating that leaders across the spectrum are paying attention to the ascendant industry.

Wyoming leaders say the state smartly anticipated the industry and is primed to make the most of the moment.

In 2017, for example, Gov. Matt Mead spearheaded the creation of the Wyoming Office of Outdoor Recreation, designed to coordinate the many moving pieces in the multi-faceted industry.

“Our job is to remove the boulder at the top of the hill and let it roll downhill,” said Patrick Harrington, Director of OOR.

In addition, the University of Wyoming is helping train a relevant workforce with its Tourism and Hospitality Initiative, and an outdoor business alliance is helping advance a local business perspective.

The city of Laramie is adding a personal touch with the Cowboy Character Challenge, a campaign to encourage responsible outdoor recreation through the fusion of Leave No Trace principles and the Cowboy Code of Ethics.

“I think what they’re all pointing at is that collectively outdoor recreation is a significant portion of the Wyoming economy, and you can’t say that one group is doing one thing and the other is doing another because there’s just so much general overlap in outdoor recreation,” Harrington said.

One testament to this work is BLM-Wyoming’s recently approved Outlaw Trails plan for a multi-use trail system in the northwest of the state. The plan came as the result of collaboration amongst user-groups and regional stakeholders, according to Harrington, who emphasized the role of local affiliates like the Park County Outdoor Recreation Collaborative.

Yet Harrington also admits that too much momentum and development could pose “a definite potential or a threat to kill the goose that lays the golden egg. So it all needs to be done carefully. Done with community input, and in a way that makes sense to those people that live next to it.”

The people who live next to outdoor access, however, are a quickly changing demographic as remote work has made gateway communities and typically small towns see an influx of new residents, which could be double edged for local communities.

For small business owners like Allen, though, the influx has so far been welcome.

“We’ve seen a surge of people moving here. Most people when they move to a new area the first thing they do is buy the toys to live there. If you move to the beach, you might buy a surfboard. If you move to Wyoming, you might buy hiking boots or an ATV,” said Allen.

Perkins sees the moment as an opportunity and says Wyoming’s leaders are ahead of the curve.

“I think the big take-home point when looking at this data is seeing the amazing returns that are coming from the outdoor recreation economy, and investing at a commensurate level to meet that demand. There’s an opportunity in front of us.”

By Zak SonntagCasper Star-TribuneVia Wyoming News Exchange


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