The Haub School of Environment and Natural Resources at the University of Wyoming is hoping to play in a role in helping Wyoming communities expand their outdoor recreation industries.
Within the Haub School, the Ruckelshaus Institute runs the Collaborative Solutions Program, which helps stakeholders work together as they wrestle with complex challenges in the arenas of environmental policy and natural resource management.
“Collaboration leads to more inclusive participation, more complete information, greater buy-in among diverse stakeholders, high-quality and supported decisions, and more enduring conservation, economic and community outcomes,” said Steve Smutko, who leads the Collaborative Solutions Program.
The program recently received a $50,000 grant from the UW Institute of Innovation and Entrepreneurship to help boost tourism in the state by working with civic leaders, residents, business and other organizations to expand recreational opportunities while protecting environmental resources.
Smutko said the Haub School’s new degree program in outdoor tourism and recreation management has brought faculty and staff with expertise in those areas to campus, allowing it to share that expertise with the state.
The effort will be undertaken in collaboration with the new Wyoming Office of Outdoor Recreation, which exists under the umbrella of Wyoming State Parks, Historic Sites and Trails.
Tourism in Wyoming is $3.57 billion industry and growing. According to the ENDOW initiative, which aims to diversify the state’s economy, tourism and outdoor recreation are ripe targets for economic growth.
“Growing tourism and recreation amenities and services will help retain and attract young, skilled workers — an important demographic of economic growth,” said Mindy Benson, dean of the Haub School.
At the city level, Smutko said communities looking to diversify their economies have picked up on the potential of outdoor recreation.
“Because of the beautiful settings in which these communities are located, there are a lot of opportunities to start to think about how they begin to capitalize on that,” he said.
Capitalizing on outdoor potential requires discussions about goals and priorities, which is where the Collaborative Solutions Program can help. Tourism is an economic driver, but it also brings environmental and quality-of-life challenges.
“Communities have choices, and often times it takes a community-wide effort to figure out what would be best for that community,” Smutko said.
Dan McCoy, a degree coordinator and lecturer in the Haub School, has already been talking with residents in Dubois about their outdoor recreation needs, and Smutko said there could be public meetings in that community this fall or winter.
McCoy said some residents see a need for an expanded trail system, especially since the lower elevation of Dubois could make it an attractive destination for trail users in the spring and fall, when trail access at other destinations such as Jackson is limited.
Dubois has nearby badlands that could have potential for trails, but residents are divided on their willingness to attract traffic to what some see as a fragile ecosystem.
“There’s stunningly beautiful terrain up there, but there are also wildlife and sensitive species up there,” he said.
Dubois has petroglyphs in the area, and while they could be a tourism draw, they’re also sacred to Native American tribes and might be vulnerable to vandalism if not protected. Deciding how to handle such assets is where collaboration becomes necessary.
“We’re trying to strike some balances in there,” McCoy said.
A collaborative process could also unearth business opportunities in a community. Dubois, for example, is at the crossroads of several different cross-country cycling routes, but it doesn’t have a bike shop.
Dubois has a handful of dude ranches in the area, which could provide a market for equipment rentals the ranches don’t want to invest in, such as stand-up paddleboards.
“There’s a business opportunity for somebody to potentially provide that equipment to different dude ranches for their guests,” McCoy said.
Smutko said the program is still in its infancy, and other communities might join soon.