Wyoming's Outdoor Recreation Can Become an Economic Powerhouse

Wyoming's Outdoor Recreation Can Become an Economic Powerhouse

Written By: Mark Heinz of Cowboy State Daily

Wyoming's Outdoor Recreation Can Become An Economic Powerhouse

Outdoor recreation accounts for about 4% of Wyoming's gross domestic product and has contributed $2 billion to Wyoming's economy in 2022 and is set to grow. Nationwide, outdoor rec revenues top $1 trillion.

As a broad and deep sector of Wyoming’s economy, outdoor recreation already has a huge presence in the Cowboy State, but some focus could turn it into a powerhouse, some advocates and business owners said.

Outdoor recreation is frequently lumped in with tourism, and it shares many strong ties with that industry. But it’s also its own entity, with threads running deep in many Wyoming towns.

“We can’t leave out the importance of (outdoor-related) manufacturing. Wyoming has attracted a number of gun manufactures, as well as outdoor gear, optics and compass manufacturers,” Steff Kessler of Lander told Cowboy State Daily.

She’s a consultant who’s been charged with organizing and promoting the Wyoming Outdoor Recreation Business Alliance.

And if it gels, the alliance will represent no small thing. It’s estimated that outdoor recreation contributed $2 billion to Wyoming’s economy in 2022, she said. And nationwide, outdoor rec revenues top $1 trillion.

Outdoor recreation accounts for about 4% of Wyoming’s gross domestic product (GDP), Wyoming Pathways Executive Director Michael Kusiek told Cowboy State Daily. That’s compared to roughly 2.8% from agriculture, 7% from tourism and about 9% from oil and gas.

Because outdoor recreation represents such a large slice of the tourism industry economy, Kusiek said “it’s odd” that such an important economic sector doesn’t have any focused organization or representation. The Wyoming Outdoor Recreation Business Alliance aims to change that.

There’s already plenty of business-to-business cooperation at local levels, Lauren Heerschap of Lander told Cowboy State Daily.

She and her husband David were longtime employees of the Brunton optics company. About two years ago, they became the company’s co-owners. They oversee manufacturing operation in Riverton, which has switched to exclusively making compasses.

Brunton said she’s hardly the only outdoor-oriented manufacturing company in the Riverton-Lander area, which has quietly become an outdoors industry hub.

“It’s a cool and almost hidden thing about central Wyoming, how much manufacturing there is here,” she said.

And many of the businesses help each other out, Heerschap said.

Legacy Molding is literally right down the street from us in Riverton, and they make many of our plastic parts,” she said.

Even so, the business alliance could kick the networking, and representation, of Wyoming’s outdoor industry to the next level, Heerschap said.

“By forming a network and knowing who else exists in the state, that will help us lean on each other and have some more cross-manufacturing,” she said.

Follow Thermopolis’ Lead

Thermopolis offers a prime example of how outdoor recreation can change and grow, Kusiek said.

A new mountain biking, trail running and hiking path network was started there in 2020 and was completed in 2022. There’s now a trail system running from town into the nearby countryside and back for a total of 13 miles, and there’s plans to expand it beyond that.

“They way they did that is the gold standard, because you don’t have to drive a long way out of town to get to a trailhead. You can just leave right from town, and then come right back and grab some food and a beer when you’re done,” he said.

Thermopolis already had a solid base of outdoor recreation with boating and angling, as well as bird hunting.

The trail system has added an entirely new layer to that by attracting crowds of mountain bikers and trail runners from Wyoming and out-of-staters, he said.

Wyoming Pathways would like to work with the Wyoming Outdoor Business Alliance to help promote trail systems in other Wyoming towns, he said.

They’re a great return on investment and can even serve local needs, such as providing children safer routes to walk to school, Kusiek said.

“This is an amenity that a community can build for very little money. And when trails are built professionally, they require very little maintenance,” he said.

So, the potential is there for low upfront and ongoing costs, with huge potential for ongoing profits by drawing more customers into local businesses, he said.

He said he hopes that the Outdoor Business Alliance succeeds, because as big as recreation already is, the untapped potential is vast — and it could be developed on Wyoming’s terms, he said.

“Wyoming is one be outdoor recreation opportunity waiting to happen, and we don’t need to build that much to make it happen,” he said.

Many areas of the Red Desert in southwest Wyoming make up an outdoor recreation playground.Many areas of the Red Desert in southwest Wyoming make up an outdoor recreation playground. (Wyoming Office of Tourism)

Mark Heinz can be reached at mark@cowboystatedaily.com.

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