The Center for American Progress, a progressive public policy organization based in Washington, D.C., gave Wyoming a D in a recent report on outdoor recreation.
The report scored 11 western states in four categories: public lands recognition, including laws and legislation to protect or sell public lands, outdoor recreation funding, access and getting youth outdoors. Montana and Colorado each earned A’s, while Utah received the only F. Wyoming and Arizona received D’s.
“Wyoming’s lack of any clear recreation or public lands funding mechanism, compounded by its six public land sell-off bills in the past two years, caused the state to rank toward the bottom,” the report said.
It’s unclear whether the report accounted for the Wyoming Wildlife and Natural Resource Trust Account, which held more than $104 million as of October 2016. Income generated from that fund goes to a separate account, which the Legislature can spend on habitat improvement and conserving, protecting and developing Wyoming’s “natural resource heritage,” according to the Legislative Service Office’s 2017 Fiscal Data Book.
The report did note what it viewed as positive public land developments in Wyoming, including the creation of an outdoor recreation task force and the state parks’ participation in the federal Every Kid in a Park initiative.
Of the 11 western states Wyoming had the highest proportion of consumer spending going to outdoor recreation — 24 percent. It ranked fourth in the amount of time it takes for residents to access public lands for recreation. According to the report, Wyomingites are, on average, only 2.9 minutes from an outdoor recreation access point.
Recreation already influences Wyoming’s economy, but recent proposed legislation to help transfer public lands to state control hurts its score, said Jenny Rowland, a research and advocacy manager on the public lands team at the Center for American Progress and an author on the report. The report suggested Wyoming create stronger access laws and increase public lands funding to provide support to its already strong recreation economy.
“Wyoming really has a ton of potential,” she said.
Nephi Cole, policy advisor for Gov. Matt Mead, said the report had some valuable information, such as the percentage of consumer spending in outdoor recreation and the average time it takes for people to access public lands.
“That’s a powerful statement about our state and what our residents have and something we need to really hammer home when trying to get people to come here,” he said.
However, he thought the state’s overall grade was too low and the report too subjective when it came to weighing legislation to transfer federal lands to state management.
“To be frank, I think Wyoming is a very strong public lands state,” he said. “I think we have a track record in legislative leadership and executive leadership of being pro-public lands. A year ago, there was a trend of a lot of people talking about public lands falling under the purview of the state and I think that has really lost steam.”
Most efforts for states to take over public lands came because people felt they didn’t have a say in how federal lands were used and managed under President Barack Obama, Cole said. The change in administration has calmed those worries, he said.
Talking about transferring and selling public lands isn’t an important part of the discussion when it comes to recreation anymore, he said.
“I don’t know that this is the best point of discussion because I don’t think we are moving in that direction…as a state” he said.
But in the most recent legislative session elected officials were still proposing public land transfer bills, said Jeff Muratore, a Casper real estate agent and board member for Wyoming Backcountry Hunters and Anglers.
While a proposed constitutional amendment to ease transferring federal public lands to state management died before reaching committee, it rattled Muratore. The failed amendment would have largely prohibited selling land, but it didn’t guarantee current public land access would remain unchanged, Muratore said. It also was indicative of continued efforts to change access and management of public lands in the state, he said.
“We’re actually still dealing with that, wondering if there is going to be something in the next session,” he said.
Muratore said he didn’t know if he’d give Wyoming a grade quite as low as a D, but he also didn’t dispute the report’s reasoning.
While Gov. Mead is “sportsman-friendly,” when it comes to public lands, the state often manages land to maximize revenue, discounting the voices of recreationists over development, Muratore said.
The most controversial public lands issue, a proposed land trade that would have swapped more than 1,000 acres in the Laramie Range for about 300 acres in the Black Hills, was killed by a final vote by the State Board of Land Commissioners due to public outcry from those worried it would hinder access to federal public land.
“The fact that it went through the complete process was very disturbing,” Muratore said. “While it was a victory, it was a battle all the way to the end.”
And there always seems to be another one.
“Our access to state public lands is very dicey,” he said.
Muratore said he was curious about the recommendations the governor’s outdoor recreation task force will eventually make, but even that is about revenue, not necessarily about public access, he said. Muratore is worried that could mean increasing opportunities for nonresident hunters, or finding ways to lure out-of-state visitors, without also considering those who already live in Wyoming.
Muratore has lived in Wyoming for 55 years and hunting is an important family tradition.
“Hunting is a part of our family that came down from my father to me and I’ve passed it along to my daughters and now our grandchildren,” he said. “It’s a big deal in our family. With that, public lands are very valuable.”
The report’s goal was to identify policies that foster outdoor recreation and the economy, as well as laws that stifle it. According to data from the Outdoor Industry Association, outdoor recreation generates $887 billion in consumer spending annually.
“States ignore the outdoor industry at their peril,” the report said.