WY Legislature Considers Recreational Trail Fee Bill

The Wyoming State Legislature is considering new a bill that would create the nation’s first nonmotorized trail user fee. If enacted, the funds generated from the proposed $10 annual fee would go into a dedicated account to be used to support the maintenance and construction of nonmotorized trails in Wyoming.

As currently proposed, the $10 fee would apply to all adult nonmotorized trail users, so walkers, hikers, runners, mountain bikers, equestrians, snowshoers, XC skiers, fat bikers, and wheelchair users would all be required to pay the fee to use any “Enrolled Trail”. Its a user-based system, so one pass would covers one person for any type of trail use. The public land agencies would each decide what trails were Enrolled Trails, and that could include nearly all Forest Service and BLM trail systems in Wyoming. The concept of “enrolled trails” is similar to the one used for snowmobile and ATV trails, where a trail sticker is required.

The Joint Travel Recreation Wildlife Cultural Resources (TRW) committee started discussion on the draft bill [https://www.wyoleg.gov/InterimCommittee/2018/06-2018083019LSO-0081v0.4.pdf] at their meeting the end of August. While there was interest in the concept, so many questions were raised by the Committee members and the public that the discussion was tabled and a sub-committee formed to try to address the questions and concerns. The TRW Committee intends to pick up discussion of the bill at their next meeting November 8-9 in Cheyenne.

The need for better trail maintenance is well established in Wyoming; its how to address it that’s the question. Most of Wyoming’s 10,000 miles of public land nonmotorized trails suffer from poor maintenance and a lack of trail planning. In addition, there is a need for new and improved front country trail systems in many Wyoming communities for more close to home recreational trails. 

In a recent report to Congress, the US Forest Service estimated that 75% of total FS trail miles are not being maintained and many are in bad condition. The majority of National Forests and BLM lands in Wyoming lack nonmotorized trail plans entirely or they are out of date. Agency trail maps are notoriously out of date. Years of declining federal budgets have decimated trail crews, and combined with increased public trail use, its not sustainable. In order to effectively promote outdoor recreation, Wyoming will need some method to help address the severe backlog of public trail maintenance and new trail construction needed.

Wyoming Pathways supports the general concept of a nonmotorized trail user fee, but there are a number of changes and clarifications needed to the draft bill. We 

would also like to see more public outreach on the concept, like holding listening sessions around the state, and more opportunities for public input. We recognize there are trail users that do not support paying any fee such as this, and we’d like to learn more about the public concerns and other possible solutions to address trail maintenance needs in Wyoming.

On the benefits side, the return on investment for addressing Wyoming’s nonmotorized trail system needs would be significant. The WY Bicycle Pedestrian System Report documented that there are three significant benefits to the activities of bicycling and walking – the economic benefits, the improvements to people’s physical and mental health, and the enhanced quality of community life – connecting people and public lands.

This Trail User Fee would be a big change for everyone that enjoys public lands around Wyoming for hiking, biking, hunting, fishing, horseback riding, and more. As such, there is a need for more public outreach and input. As part of that conversation, Wyoming Pathways offers the following ideas.

State and Federal cost share necessary. In combination with a nonmotorized recreational trail user fee, the TRW Committee should propose leveraging the user fee with State of Wyoming funds. By combining the user fees with a state funding contribution, the Legislature could create an annual investment in a trail grant program through the Wyoming State Parks and the new Outdoor Recreation program Governor Mead initiated.

In addition, Wyoming’s efforts should be matched with restored federal trail budgets. The State of Wyoming must communicate with the federal land agencies and the Wyoming Delegation on the crucial need for matching federal investments. The federal land agencies have a responsibility to help build and maintain the public trail systems they manage – and the public needs the Legislature, Governor, and Delegation to coordinate efforts to secure a fair federal share of resources needed.

Nonmotorized Recreational Trail User Fee Estimate. The trail fee should be as low as possible, but enough to make the effort worthwhile. It would help for TRW to develop some type of estimate on what this new fee program would raise and what the administrative expenses would be. That could help set the fee at the right level. For example, if 120,000 permits were sold, it might net $1 million for trails, a good target goal.

User Fee must cover all Nonmotorized Trail Users. The user fee will only be supported if it applies fairly to all the user groups, which include hikers, runners, walkers, mountain bikers, equestrians, wheelchair users, and winter users on groomed trails. The Trail Fee should apply to residents and visitors, and would need to apply to hunters and anglers using the enrolled trails. No one group should be allowed to opt out. The only exceptions should be if the users already are paying a similar fee, such as Outfitters and Guides fees which do help support trail maintenance, or Nordic Trails that already charge grooming fees.

Fee collection. The new trail fee program needs to provide people with easy methods to pay the fee, including vendors like outdoor shops and an online option where they can pay the user fee – so users could easily pay, carry and show. There should be an option for the vendors to elect to donate their sellers fee back to trail maintenance. Those outdoor businesses stand to benefit from improved trails, and they may elect to give back if given the opportunity.

Administrative Costs. The legislation should set a cap on administrative overhead that can be taken from raised funds, perhaps 5%. We would like to see as much money go to the trails as possible. This would also make the fee more palatable to the public.

User Fee Grant Funding Match Requirement. The Bill should be revised to include a federal lands match requirement, so WY can leverage user fees with federal contributions. The federal land agencies should be required to participate financially in projects to access the Trail User Fee grants. The Nonmotorized Trail Grants should require at least a 20% federal match for projects on federal lands. The program should also require a 20% match for County, City and Town trail projects. The match will leverage the fees that trail users pay, and help increase public support.

Eligible Grantees. The Wyoming nonmotorized user fee needs to better describe the grant program that the user fees would fund, and what entities can apply for the future grants. We recommend that this include the federal land managing agencies, Wyoming Cities, Towns and Counties, nonprofit 501c3 trail groups, and private entities (like a Ski Area), provided that grants could only be for public trails open to all users without any additional fee.

Clarify volunteer component to earn a pass. The legislation proposes a way to earn a pass, but this concept needs further development. A fair level of volunteer work to earn a pass should be established. We recommend that a minimum of 2 hours volunteer work be required. Trail volunteers should be able to apply the previous seasons volunteer work and earn a pass for the next year.

Enforcement. The current draft bill is silent on the issue of enforcement and potential fines for not paying the required trail user fee. If the program is to raise enough to be worthwhile, there needs to be discussion of how to address the enforcement of the state law.

Trail System Maps where User Fee Required. There needs to be an online map available showing all the enrolled trails, and notice needs to be posted on trailheads by land managers. Long term, the public land printed maps and the online trail maps will need to be updated to include the fee information, so the public understands their responsibility to pay the user fee.

Trail System Updates to match actual trails.​ The Recreational Trail User Fee bill could help get some of the non-system trails on federal lands moved into the system. Wyoming has hundreds of miles of well-used public trails that are not in the system. This is largely due to a lack of map updates by the agencies. Many of the USFS and BLM trail maps are out of date and poorly maintained. The more trails that are in the system, the more revenue potential for trail maintenance.

Nonmotorized Grant Distribution Committee Needed. The legislature needs to create a fair and transparent system to review grants to distribute the Nonmotorized Recreational Trail User Fees raised. This will require a new Trail User Fee grant review committee that represents all the nonmotorized users that pay into it. The existing Wyoming Trails Advisory Council is not adequate because it primarily represents motorized interests, with limited knowledge on nonmotorized issues.

Education and User Conflicts. Wyoming Pathways would support a portion of a trail fee going to trail user education, to help address the impacts of nonmotorized use and to help address user conflicts and promote sharing the trails.

Clearly more work is needed on this concept before its ready to go. But the effort has merit, and Wyoming Pathways supports the TRW effort to further explore this legislation. If the questions can be addressed, the outcome would be a win for Wyoming. Not only is access to quality nonmotorized recreation critical to the travel and tourism industry, as Governor Mead’s ENDOW initiative shows, these are fundamental components of a future that will recruit new businesses, create jobs, and support healthy people living in prosperous Wyoming communities.

Please send along your thoughts and comments on this to help inform the Legislature and the TRW committee work on the bill.  You can email us directly at [email protected] (or whatever address you would like to use).  We will keep you posted on the progress of the bill and once it is more defined, we will provide a way for you to comment on it.