We put the canoes in on a state access area about 10 river miles above Saratoga. On a 90-degree Labor Day weekend, it was hard to think of a better way to spend the afternoon than floating down the North Platte River — mom, dad and two adult daughters, clear water over sun-tanned riffles, ospreys, eagles, killdeer and kingfishers sharing the last lazy day of summer.
We were a mile downstream when the first sign came into view. “Stay in your boat,” it read, in large, red block letters, “Trespassers will be prosecuted.” A neighborly tip of the hat from a local landholder, in the best tradition of what has become Wyoming’s idea of hospitality.
It was no surprise. I’d been down this stretch many times and contemplated the juxtaposition of water — which is, by state law, the property of all the people of Wyoming — and the riverbank and bottom — which are, by state law, the inviolable property of the folks who hold the deeds. No surprise, just abiding disappointment.
I grew up canoeing on the float streams of the Missouri Ozarks. On those exquisite, spring-fed rivers, a canoeist is free to stop to fish, have lunch, camp or just soak in the scene on any gravel bar or part of the bank lying below what the courts have called the “meander line.” When I went off to graduate school in Wisconsin, I found the same general arrangement, thanks to the 19th-century law that allowed timber companies to float their logs down any creek big enough to serve the purpose. What began as an accommodation for influential business became a guarantee of access for people who wanted to float the rivers and stop along the way.
Montana has recognized the demand for access to its streams by establishing two classes of flowing water. On Class I streams, the public is allowed to float with canoes, kayaks, drift boats or rafts. Floaters are allowed to portage around obstructions, anchor, picnic or camp overnight, hunt waterfowl and even set up temporary duck and goose blinds as long as they do so below the mean high water line and more than 500 yards from any occupied house. In 2009, the Montana legislature passed a law that allows floaters to launch their watercraft from any public bridge or county road right-of-way.
Wyoming law, on the other hand, does not allow a floater to anchor or beach on a gravel bar or touch the bottom or bank for any reason, except to get around an obstacle in the channel. Boaters may not launch their craft from any bridge or road without permission from the landholder involved.
The contrast in the regulations in these states came to mind a couple of days ago when I found a copy of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership’s new report on public lands that the public can’t reach. According to the TRCP analysis, Wyoming has established a dubious claim when it comes to closing state and federal land: 4.16 million acres of land held by the state, BLM and U.S. Forest Service in Wyoming are off-limits to the general public because adjacent landowners restrict passage. And I suspect that doesn’t include the ephemeral gravel bars on Wyoming’s rivers, the places a family or a boatful of fishermen might stop for lunch if the bottom of the stream weren’t jealously defended by the surrounding landholders.
It’s an astonishing number, one that should stick in the craw of any outdoor enthusiast in the state. But, for the moment, I’ll set aside the outrage and consider a broader consequence of Wyoming’s locked gates — its impact on the state’s second largest industry.
Up until two years ago, the federal government didn’t collect specific data on the economic impact of recreation in Wyoming or any other state in the West. For that reason, no one can calculate the importance of recreational outlays on the state’s domestic product.
But in 2016, then Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead assembled a task force to assess the importance of the outdoor recreation industry in the state. The following year, that group issued a report that included some startling figures: In 2017, the outdoor recreation industry generated $5.6 billion in consumer spending. It paid $1.6 billion in wages and salaries and $514 million in state and local taxes. Fifty thousand people were employed in the industry.
In 2018, the oil, gas, mining and quarrying sector in Wyoming — the backbone of the Wyoming economy over the last 50 years or more — contributed $7.9 billion to the state’s domestic product. Compare that to the $5.6 billion in recreational spending. And that recreational spending grew by nearly 22% between 2012 and 2017, while the energy industry’s share of our domestic product dropped 2.5% between 2017 and 2018.
I had always been under the impression that the energy industry dwarfed every other economic sector in the state, but as these numbers suggest, the recreational industry is very nearly as large, and growing, while the fossil fuel industries have come on hard times.
As the tax revenue from the energy sector has declined, there has been a renewed call for diversifying the state’s economy. One hears proposals for drastically improving broadband access in Wyoming, shoring up our commercial air service and, more recently, allowing the storage of nuclear waste. It seems state officials will entertain nearly any idea — except the ones that would shore up what is already the state’s second largest industry.
Just one example: The numbers of nonresident fishing licenses sold in Wyoming have risen by a little more than 17,000 in the last five years. I wonder how many more we might sell if we relaxed the most draconian of our stream access laws and allowed anglers and floaters to launch their watercraft at county bridges, drop an anchor now and then and possibly even pull out on a gravel bar to have lunch or camp.
And, on a much broader scale, I wonder how many more people we could attract to the state if we could find ways to open those 4 million acres of public land to public use. I know — these are radical proposals that will enrage several hundred landholders across the state. But, considering the trends in the energy sector of our economy, the alternative is a continued decline in tax revenue and government services. So, what will it be: More access or a state income tax?
I know which one I prefer.