Over the last few months, citizens across the state have been hotly debating the future of Wyoming’s Wilderness Study Areas. These landscapes are intact, untrammeled, typically arid, have unique natural features, and are managed by the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service to preserve their primitive qualities until Congress decides their fate. On the surface, the debate over these areas is about wilderness, mining, and other uses for these lands. But at a deeper level, the conversations are less about land management and more about the visions stakeholders have for Wyoming’s economic future.
In Lander, home of NOLS and a burgeoning outdoor recreation economy, the role these landscapes play in our sense of place and our economic prosperity is well understood. Wilderness Study Areas like Split Rock, Lankin Dome, Sweetwater Canyon and the Oregon Buttes are destinations for locals and their guests in search of quiet, sweeping landscapes to reflect and enjoy time on the land and in the sun. At NOLS and in Lander, we understand that wild landscapes are valuable not just because of what we can take off them, but because of the experiences and lifestyles that are generated upon them.
Around our community, new outdoor stores are popping up to provide the gear for residents and tourists who enjoy our blue-ribbon trout streams and miles of trails for horseback riding, biking, and hiking. Lander’s globally-renowned rock climbing sites draw thousands of people to the area to climb routes in Sinks Canyon, Wild Iris and Sweetwater Rocks. Guides and outfitters take clients into the mountains and the desert, while hunters and anglers frequent areas like Sweetwater Canyon for incredible hunting and fishing opportunities. Our local economy has resiliency because of its access to pristine public lands that surround it.
This economic model is catching on in communities across the state. Mountain biking, climbing, trail running, four-wheeling, snowmobiling, fishing and other opportunities are gaining prominence in towns like Cody, Casper, Rock Springs, and Ten Sleep. Wyoming citizens spend $5.6 billion dollars on outdoor recreation and 73 percent say they participate in outdoor recreation activities. Given who we are, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that this is one of the highest participation rates in the country, corresponding to almost 50,000 jobs and $514 million in tax revenues for the state.
Wilderness Study Areas in particular hold a high value for local communities, and locals want to see them protected. The Dubois Badlands and Whiskey Mountain are frequented and cherished by people in Dubois looking to see bighorn sheep and escape for an afternoon jog or hike. Rock Springs denizens make their way to the Honeycomb Buttes and the Pinnacles to explore the Red Desert and ride along the Oregon and Mormon trails that haven’t changed in generations. Folks from Rawlins slip out to Adobe Town to explore alien landscapes and unique geology. Casperites head to the Sweetwater Rocks near Independence Rock and Devil’s Gate to fish and hunt, and in the process stumble upon one of the most historic and sweeping landscapes Wyoming has to offer.
If Wyoming’s elected officials are prescient enough to protect them, Wilderness Study Areas will play a key role in diversifying our state’s economy. Our last wild landscapes need protection and recognition for the role they play as economic drivers in our communities now and the role they will play in the future. Congresswoman Cheney and a subset of Wyoming’s County Commissioners are angling hard to release these pristine landscapes for industrial development in the form of hard rock mining and oil and gas development. In these isolated landscapes, representing a fraction of the total public lands across the state, any economic benefit from extractive industries would be nominal compared to the losses of the recreation economy and identity of the surrounding communities.
Wyoming’s future economy will need protected landscapes. Our local elected officials can be visionary if they recognize that our public lands are rich not just in minerals, but in the lasting experiences and lifestyles they provide for Wyoming residents. As we develop solutions for the last remaining wild landscapes in the state, let’s make sure we are managing for their true future value.
John Gans has served as the president of NOLS in Lander, WY since 1995. He is responsible for strategic planning, mission leadership, and community building among a staff of more than 1,200 employees worldwide.