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CHEYENNE — West Virginia could be one example of how to replace, at least partially, the revenue from a declining coal market.

To use a very familiar phrase, the state could diversify the economy by boosting tourism and recreation.

West Virginia, which never really was prosperous despite a vibrant coal industry, has lost ground since coal demand dropped and mines closed.

Per capita income is now $14,000 a year in one county while life expectancy is akin to that of Third World African countries largely because of the opioid and methamphetamine epidemic.

The problems and lifestyle of residents in Appalachian states like West Virginia was the topic of a 2017 bestseller, “Hillbilly Elegy; A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis.”

Like many impoverished locales that lost industry and people, some areas are blighted with abandoned buildings, vehicles and broken-down trailers.

The state could change this picture by taking advantage of the picturesque small cities and towns to attract tourists and outdoor recreationists and their wallets.

Despite the development in certain areas that offer bluegrass festivals, charming bed and breakfasts and lively downtowns, the state overall is not using its natural beauty as a potential attraction, said a recent article on Governing.com.

A recent documentary showed the “overwhelming political dialogue” in McDowell County was about bringing back coal.

With an unemployment rate of 8.6 percent, the county needs to quit thinking of itself as a coal hub, the writer concluded, and fully employ its real advantages through government and business coalitions and changing laws and incentives to increase tourism and other new economic sectors.

That’s good advice.

Wyoming, a leading coal production state, is ahead of West Virginia, or at least McDowell County, in pumping up its tourism and outdoor recreation offerings.

A survey released last month showed the U.S. outdoor recreation economy accounted for 2.2 percent, or $427.2 billion, of urgent-dollar gross domestic production in 2017, according to statistics from the Bureau of Economic Analysis.

The percentage grew 3.9 percent faster than the 2.4 percent growth of the overall U.S. economy.

Wyoming outdoor recreation represented 4.4 percent of the state’s gross domestic product (GDP). This was the highest value in the Western states after Montana with 5.1 percent GDP.

Eight percent of Wyoming jobs are in those economic sectors, said David Glenn, deputy administrator of the Outdoor Recreation Office in the state Department of State Parks and Cultural Resources.

West Virginia outdoor recreation, in contrast, represented 2.1 percent of that state’s GDP.

The outdoor recreation movement in Wyoming increased with the work of a task force appointed in 2017 by former Gov. Matt Mead and resulted in a number of recommendations.

One was the creation of an outdoor recreation trust account. A bill creating an account modeled after the Wildlife Trust fund and Cultural Trust fund is being considered by a legislative committee.

The Outdoor Recreation Office was also created.

Collaboration with local, state and federal entities and agencies is an integral part of the program.

A pilot project in the Bighorn Basin seems to exemplify how the new program will help smaller communities that don’t have their own offices or programs to promote recreation and tourism.

The Bighorn Basin Outdoor Recreation Collaborative is a group of committed outdoor enthusiasts and volunteers with a mission to promote, enhance and develop sustainable outdoor recreation that encourages responsible use, personal well-being and economic benefit in the Bighorn Basin.

Collaborative members represent organizations and interest groups from the Lovell, Greybull, Shell, Basin, Manderson, Hyattville, Worland, Ten Sleep and Thermopolis.

Wyoming already has robust tourism and outdoor recreation programs.

The new program is designed to provide better access and other means to improve them further.

Putting it all together with all the players involved takes time.

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Joan Barron is a former longtime capitol bureau reporter. Contact her at 307-632-2534 or jmbarron@bresnan.net.

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