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Film event highlights efforts to expand ecotourism through fly fishing on the Wind River Reservation

A man wearing a baseball hat that says “Game Warden: Wind River Reservation” holds up a big fish.
Arthur Lawson
Shoshone and Arapaho Fish and Game Director Arthur Lawson holds up a fish at Ray Lake on the Wind River Reservation.

For the last seven years, Shoshone and Arapaho Fish and Game director Arthur Lawson has been working to create more economic development and ecotourism on the Wind River Reservation through a bit of an unexpected avenue: fly fishing. Those efforts are the subject of a series of short films that will play at the Center for the Arts in Jackson on June 4.

Lawson is an enrolled member of the Northern Arapaho Tribe and has been collaborating on the project with Indifly, a nonprofit that supports conservation work in Indigenous communities. He said the goal is to help more tribal members become guides and start their own outfitting businesses, which will in turn have a ripple effect into the broader community.

“Hopefully that'll lead to other outdoor recreation businesses on the reservation and create more opportunities for tribal members to work in the outdoors,” he said. “What we're trying to do is bring more funding through outdoor activities for people to enjoy and to also enjoy the reservation at the same time.”

Lawson said there’ve been some hurdles in building up the ecotourism infrastructure, given that there are two tribal governments and complicated questions around development with state, federal and tribal jurisdictions – and the Wind River Reservation covers more than two million acres of land. But he said the appetite from tourists is there.

“Fly fishing is huge. It's grown every year since COVID and it's just a good way for conservationists to not do so much damage on fish and keep the populations growing,” he said.

According to Lawson, a lot of the folks visiting to fish are from Colorado, Utah and California. But in the years since the pandemic, he said people have been coming from all over the world to enjoy the remoteness and quiet on the reservation.

“It's an area where you can still go to the backcountry that still looks like the 1800s and that's what people love about it,” he said. “The biggest number of people we're seeing come in are probably fly fishing guides from other states that want to just fly fish and be by themselves, to be fishing in a spot where you're not rubbing elbows with somebody else.”

Creating economic development around a natural resource while also preserving that resource is no easy balancing act. Lawson said Tribal Fish and Game have been conducting studies at main trailheads to track user rates and better understand the impacts of tourism. While the numbers are increasing, they’re still relatively low.

“We're still not seeing even half the numbers that state places are getting,” he said. “It's not as overpopulated as most areas in the state of Wyoming.”

But Lawson’s focus isn’t just on tourism – it’s also on the community itself. Tribal Fish and Game has been working to bring fly fishing and other outdoor opportunities to tribal members through increased outreach and educational events. The agency hired a tribal youth coordinator to do programming in schools and has also started hosting womens-specific outdoor get-togethers, all in the service of making sure community members can enjoy the great outdoors, too.

“We want to create that passion in the outdoors for everybody and we want to start young,” said Lawson. “We also want females to get out there and also enjoy what we got. It's not just fly fishing or hiking or just being outdoors. When you're out there and you spend enough time outdoors, the environment is therapeutic.”

The free film screening starts at 7 p.m. and is part of Central Wyoming College’s Tribal Talks series.

Hannah Habermann is the rural and tribal reporter for Wyoming Public Radio. She has a degree in Environmental Studies and Non-Fiction Writing from Middlebury College and was the co-creator of the podcast Yonder Lies: Unpacking the Myths of Jackson Hole. Hannah also received the Pattie Layser Greater Yellowstone Creative Writing & Journalism Fellowship from the Wyoming Arts Council in 2021 and has taught backpacking and climbing courses throughout the West.

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