Economic diversification—the words on everyone’s lips… As part of the effort to diversify Wyoming’s economy, there is a call for the outdoor recreation and tourism economy to grow. Growth is great. It brings new people to the state, helps retain those who want to stay, and gives us all more to do. However, when dealing with the out-of-doors, growth poses serious risks. We must be careful to define areas of the state with high tourism potential and under-utilized outdoor recreation opportunities. This will help decrease the overcrowding that a lot of us may define as, “Wyoming in ruin,” and spread new growth across Wyoming to reinforce smaller communities’ economies.
During the 2018 ENDOW: ENGAGE (Empowering the Next Generations to Advance and Grow the Economy) summit, a common thread in the Outdoor Recreation and Tourism breakout sessions was that every town in the state is on-the-way-to-Yellowstone. The flow of tourists is just like the flow of water in Wyoming. We have two options. One option is that we can do nothing. We can push tourists through the state like a flash flood allowing communities along the way to get just enough to survive. Our second option is to slow the flow and capture some of these tourist resources in communities along the way. While I may have significant reservations about damming a free river, it is what brought modern economies west and there are lessons to be learned in history and through metaphor.
The big question is, how do we slow this resource down? To me, it is straightforward. We should strive to spread our guests into all of Wyoming’s counties through projects that make the tourism experience better, while also improving the quality of life for local residents. In a nutshell, we must plan strategically the construction and maintenance of tourism and outdoor recreation infrastructure across Wyoming. And, lucky for us, a grassroots group of citizens in southeast Wyoming are showing us the way.
The Pilot Hill project is a perfect case study for how we can and should grow while still protecting the heritage so many Wyomingite’s are proud of. Pilot Hill is an important property for Albany County residents and recreationists. It stretches along the eastern edge of Laramie, filling the gaps between the summit of interstate 80, the city of Laramie and the United States Forest Service Pole Mountain Unit. Pilot Hill is a recharge zone for the Casper Aquifer, which waters most of Albany County’s residents. Being privately owned, the swath of land has stayed in nearly pristine condition. The landscape is an important winter range for wildlife in a part of Wyoming that can be desolate and barren. In recreation potential, the land connects the growing Schoolyard trails to the award-winning Pole Mountain trail system, allowing someone to ride from their house in town to the forest on a single-track trail.
Despite its importance to landscape and locals, there is bad news – Pilot Hill is for sale. The good news is that the current owners have given the community the first chance at purchasing the land. Preserving it as a public open space is an opportunity Laramie has been waiting on for years.
When I first moved to Laramie, I started hearing people talk of reviving a way to ride your bike from town to the Pole Mountain trail system on single-track trails. It was a consistent story across town that there had once been a way to make this trip, but no longer was. Every few years, someone would start to speculate that they thought an opportunity was right around the corner, or the resources were becoming available to redevelop this almost ethereal trail. In October of 2017, the Albany County Commissioners signed a purchase agreement for this piece of land with one year to complete the transaction. To some, this was more than a dream come true, and immediately the ball started to roll. A group of residents that had been working to organize the community around this once in a lifetime opportunity shifted gears and started fundraising the 10.5 million-dollar purchase price.
If successful, this monumental feat of community development will represent a positive shift in how Wyoming citizens are approaching their public land decisions. Our future is in thoughtful planning and preparation on public lands; it is not in sustainability, but in resiliency. We want our state to grow and be more vital, but protecting our public land heritage also matters. This is important for the health of Wyoming, and for all of us that live here.