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Updating recreational trails in rural Wyoming: a way to spur tourism or build local community?

A person digs on a trail in a wooded area.
Caitlin Tan
/
Wyoming Public Media
Sublette Trails Association President Ryan Grove works on re-establishing an overgrown trail.

On a recent weekday evening, a few members of the Sublette County Trails Association were updating some old mountain bike trails just outside of Pinedale.

"Try and curve it back, and just kind of sneak in," Ryan Grove explained to Paul Swenson. "So it's not fall line the whole way, and then we'll put some drains into it."

They were deciding the best way to reestablish a trail that had partly given way to Mother Nature with overgrown foliage.

These specific trails were built for downhill mountain biking back in the late 90s.

"Maybe a little too early for downhill mountain biking in the West, which is now exploding in popularity," said member Alex Artz. "These trails are still used and usable, but they definitely need a lot of improvements."

A person digs with a hoe in a trail.
Caitlin Tan
/
Wyoming Public Media
Sublette Trails Association member Alex Artz digs into an old mountain bike trail.

In places like Jackson or Laramie, there are many purposefully built trails for activities like biking and hiking, and while there are endless trails all over more rural parts of Wyoming, a lot of them are from cattle, wildlife, logging roads or are just rugged.

So making those old, steep trails more user friendly for biking, hiking and horseback riding is the Sublette County trail group's goal.

Grove said well maintained trails that include switchbacks and water drainage can make a huge difference in someone's outdoor adventure.

"Lots of people get hurt just coming down trails that are too steep and whether they step on a rock or rocks get loose because the trail's eroding," he said. "So it's more fun, it's more accessible and it's safer for everybody."

Tim Farris, the Jackson Ranger District trails and wilderness specialist for the U.S. Forest Service, said the agency oversees about 750 miles of trails in the Pinedale area.

"A lot of the trails just simply weren't designed, you know, they were basically the shortest distance between two points," he said.

Farris added that collaborating with trail organizations is helpful.

"We don't have the workforce to really be able to fix all those trails," he said.

Two people dig in a trail in a wooded area.
Caitlin Tan
/
Wyoming Public Media
Trail group members Paul Swenson (right) and Alex Artz work on trail outside of Pinedale.

Even on the state level, Pinedale is recognized as a place ripe for updated trails.

"Pinedale is this semi-undiscovered outdoor recreation heaven," said Patrick Harrington, the manager of the Wyoming Office of Outdoor Recreation.

Harrington said in the near future, his office hopes to work with Pinedale locals on trail development, adding that trail systems and tourism go hand-in-hand.

In the last couple of years, a record number of visitors have explored Wyoming's public lands.

"I think my office is sort of coming of age at a really important time in Wyoming history, and that we're looking at development at a grand scale and what the future of our state is going to be," he said.

Harrington's office has created ' collaboratives ' with seven different communities in the state. They focus on creating more access to outdoor recreation.

Harrington said building and updating trails for newcomers is crucial for sustainability.

"The option is to get in front of it now in a way that doesn't damage the resources, doesn't hurt wildlife, and is considerate of the community in which it's in," he said.

Harrington said he recognizes that a lot of locals in Pinedale live there because it is remote, and the mountains and trails are rugged.

"My office is really careful about that perspective," he said. "And not coming in with that we have a cooked idea that we want you guys to do in your community. Instead, we want to hear from y'all what is important for you."

It seems rural places like Pinedale are at a crossroads. The state is looking for economic growth, as its main industry of coal mining is declining and tourism continues to grow.

While members of the trails group expressed they know growth in Pinedale is inevitable, they are more interested in updating the trails for the local community, not really to spur tourism.

Alex Artz said they are just trying to improve what is already there and make recreating more fun.

"We don't want to turn into Jackson Hole. We don't want to be anyone else," said Artz. "We just want to be Pinedale."

Caitlin Tan is the Energy and Natural Resources reporter based in Sublette County, Wyoming. Since graduating from the University of Wyoming in 2017, she’s reported on salmon in Alaska, folkways in Appalachia and helped produce 'All Things Considered' in Washington D.C. She formerly co-hosted the podcast ‘Inside Appalachia.' You can typically find her outside in the mountains with her two dogs.
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