Almost one year ago, when COVID-19 hit Wyoming, and the state went on lockdown, people headed outside. A lot.
Record numbers went fishing and applied for hunting licenses. More people visited Yellowstone National Park in October and November than any previous years in those months.
But it was Wyoming’s state parks that really felt the love of a state and region suddenly pining for the outdoors. Nearly 1.5 million more people visited Wyoming state parks and historic sites in 2020 than 2019.
Staff could barely keep up, said Nick Neylon, the state’s Outdoor Recreation Office and Division of State Parks deputy director. This year may see similar visitation — if not more.
But unlike last year, the Wyoming Department of State Parks and Cultural Resources’ budget has a $1.1 million shortfall to use on maintenance, park rangers and cleaning crews due to statewide cuts.
A wonky-sounding bill wending through the Legislature could fix their budget problems, Neylon said. And without it, they will likely need to shutter some of state parks or historic sites.
“We just don’t have the money,” said Dave Glenn, State Parks’ deputy director.
More people, less money
Wyoming’s state parks and historic sites, from the ever-popular Glendo State Park to the lesser-known Piedmont Charcoal Kilns State Historic Site, are often considered Wyoming’s outdoor jewels. They’re affordable — $7 for daily entrance for a Wyoming resident and $10 to camp — and scattered evenly around the state giving nearby access to almost everyone.
As with most outdoor recreation sites, they’ve also become increasingly popular. But no one predicted the surge that 2020 would bring.
Even with camping closed for a couple of months at the beginning of the COVID outbreak, and some historical sites closed until the middle of summer, state parks still saw a 36 percent visitor increase from 4.4 million in 2019 to 5.8 million in 2020.
“It put a lot of strain on our staff and our system,” Neylon said. “It put a lot of strain on the natural resources in some cases.”
Popular parks, like Curt Gowdy State Park sandwiched between Laramie and Cheyenne, were simply overwhelmed, Neylon said.
Visitors created erosion-prone side trails in an effort to stay six feet apart from one another. Parks staff mowed natural areas to accommodate for more parking. Dumpsters overflowed — potentially contributing to an increase in black bears in the park — and staff rushed to keep up with the increase in bathroom use.
“We want our visitors to have a good experience,” said Rep. Sandy Newsome, R-Cody.
Glendo State Park can sometimes house more than 20,000 visitors, she said, which makes it the equivalent of one of Wyoming’s largest cities. “We need law enforcement and people to empty trash cans. It’s important visitors continue to come.”
State parks needs more money to keep up with the influx, Neylon said. But with the state’s general fund budget cuts, the department faces $1.1 million less than previous years. That equates to a staffing reduction of three full-time positions and 17 seasonal positions.
“It’s not just hiring seasonal people, the budget cuts into buying toilet paper and mower blades and paying utility bills,” Neylon said. “It’s an across the board cut.”
Using user fees
Without some change in funding, Neylon and Glenn said they will need to close some lesser-used state parks or sites.
Which is why they are hoping the Legislature passes House Bill 58.
Up until 2015, all of those user fees that residents and nonresidents spend to camp and play at state parks were required to be used for capitol construction. That changed slightly in 2015, then again in 2017 when lawmakers voted to allow state parks to use 30 percent of its fees on maintenance and 70 percent on construction and capitol projects.
House Bill 58 changes that once again to allow the state parks department to spend up to 60 percent of user fees on maintenance and operations and sets aside 40 percent for construction.
That change, along with 2021’s increase in user fees will make up for that $1.1 million deficit, Neylon said.
The bill passed through the House and is headed to the Senate for consideration.
Newsome supported the bill on the House side, and hopes it becomes a reality.
“We want our state parks to remain the crown jewels, and part of that means we take care of what we build,” Newsome said. “We need to make sure when we build something new we have the funds to take care of it.”
State parks reservation system tweaked
In mid-2020, as the state slowly began opening back up after the sudden COVID shutdown, Wyoming State Parks and Historic Sites went to a full camping reservation system. Anyone interested in camping in nearly any campground in a Wyoming State Park needed a reservation, which came with a $7.75 processing fee.
A petition against the system drew tens of thousands of signatures, and state parks officials re-evaluated the requirement over the summer. What they found was that many users liked the security of having a reservation before showing up. As a result they loosened requirements in some areas — about 25 percent sites in Keyhole State Park are now first-come-first-served, and statewide about 17 percent now are off the reservation system.
The other complaint, said Nick Neylon, deputy director of the state’s Outdoor Recreation Office and Division of State Parks, was the reservation fee paid to Reserve America, the company contracted to run the reservations. To help allay that for Wyoming residents, in 2021 camping reservations — which are required from May 1 to Sept. 30 — will include a $4 reservation fee for residents and $8 for nonresidents.