Landowners object to proposed trail system

Gary Barker was one of several landowners who attended Tuesday’s Uinta County Commission meeting in Evanston to speak against a resolution brought by the Southwest Wyoming Off-road Trails (SWOT) group. Organizers with SWOT hope to use county roads and link trails throughout communities in southwest Wyoming to diversify the local economy through recreation. (HERALD PHOTOS/Sheila McGuire)

EVANSTON — Proponents of a plan to create a southwest Wyoming off-road vehicle trail system utilizing some existing roads in rural Uinta County faced some pushback from landowners when a resolution naming most of the county roads that would be available for riding came before the Uinta County Commissioners on Tuesday, Aug. 4. The trail system idea has been discussed at numerous public meetings over the past year after the SWOT (Southwest Wyoming Off-road Trails) group formed last fall.

Gary Welling, part of the Uinta County Economic Development Commission, presented a resolution to commissioners modeled off a similar resolution that was adopted in neighboring Lincoln County, where a system of trails is already in use. Welling said the resolution had been discussed with local law enforcement at the Uinta County Sheriff’s Office, as well as with Uinta County Attorney Loretta Howieson-Kallas, who drafted the resolution. He said the idea was just to pass a resolution demonstrating initial support for the proposal, while also acknowledging there were still many details to be worked out.

Some of those details became evident when multiple area landowners spoke out about their concerns surrounding the proposal. Rancher Kelly Guild said he has several concerns, including the increased traffic on rural county roads that he believes would result in increased accidents and injuries. Guild said many of the roads on a list of county roads provided by Welling that could be included in the trail system are in areas with poor cell service, numerous curves in the road, blind spots and more, and are far removed from emergency services that could respond in case of an accident.

Guild also expressed concerns about littering and garbage, damage to county roads, increased dust and damage to private property when law enforcement is unable to fully patrol the area. Guild said as a landowner and rancher, he is also concerned about the potential for riders to abuse livestock, resulting in individual financial losses.

Guild further said he doesn’t believe there is any evidence a trail system would bring increased revenues to the area in the form of increased tourism and he believes costs related to maintaining and repairing county roads that could be damaged by off-road vehicles would far exceed any possible revenues generated.

Other landowners agreed. Gary Barker shared many of the concerns expressed by Guild, and also mentioned how many children play near the county roads, saying kids wouldn’t be expecting ATVs and riders wouldn’t be expecting children, which could result in tragic accidents. Barker said there are few area road signs displaying the 35 mph speed limit, which he said is too fast for many of those roads anyway.

Also citing potential damage to both county roads and personal property, Barker said people on off-road vehicles are not taking leisurely tours but are there to “put the pedal to the metal and have fun.” He, too, said he didn’t see the proposal as economic development and said the idea to use county roads and cross private land to link trails on public lands was “slapping landowners right in the face.”

Rancher Shaun Sims said he thinks the plan is an “interesting endeavor,” but said there are many things that need to be “hashed out” first. Sims said there are many details that need to be clarified, including whether the proposal would encourage ATV riding on all county roads or just certain designated roads, as well as whether the trail system would be available year-round or if it would be a seasonal attraction.

Sims said he is concerned people would leave the roads and ride across private property, especially since there are few fences and numerous “attractants,” or things to lure people off the roadways. He also mentioned impacts on wildlife, including the sage grouse, which he said people in Wyoming have been working very hard to prevent being listed as an endangered species because of the multiple regulations and restrictions that would result from such a listing.

Sims also brought up the potential for fire danger, with ATVs being hot from hours of use in areas with dry vegetation, and said he can see the potential for some revenues to be brought in but he doesn’t believe they would be equal to the costs.

Richard Hamilton also spoke about the proposal and said he also believes the costs are greater than any potential benefits. Hamilton said dust suppression is a problem on county roads and that would be worsened by ATV traffic. He said dust from roads is already problematic because cattle don’t want to eat dust-covered vegetation. Hamilton said campgrounds in the Uintas and surrounding national forest areas are already full and he doesn’t think linking county roads and trails in the forests would bring in additional visitors or revenue.

Proponents of the plan, including Mark Tesoro (who is publisher of the Uinta County Herald) and Todd Jones, then spoke about their vision and what they hope to achieve. Tesoro said the group has absolutely always planned to work with local landowners to resolve any issues. Tesoro said there are numerous areas around the country that have similar trail systems that have brought additional visitors and tourism dollars, which he said Uinta County desperately needs as just one part of economic development and diversification as traditional industries continue to struggle.

“Forever, Evanston and southwest Wyoming have been pass-through communities,” Tesoro said. “People pass through going to the Uintas, to the Gorge, to Yellowstone, to Bear Lake. This could be something that people actually come here and stay [for].”

Tesoro said Lincoln County already has a trail system in place and folks there are eager to tie their system into one that could be developed in Uinta County, which could be utilized for visitors to see the Piedmont Kilns, Fort Bridger, Fossil Butte and more.

Tesoro also pointed out that people can already ride ATVs on all county roads as long as the machines are licensed. A designated trail system would allow for the county to register with the state and therefore receive some funding back from the purchase of OHV stickers that riders would be able to purchase as an alternative to full licensure, which would make the trails more appealing to tourists.

Jones also said the group has always wanted to work with local landowners and he and Tesoro both said the use of off-road vehicles has exploded in recent years as people want to recreate outdoors, which has only increased in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. Jones said it is something he personally has done for years and he pushed back on the idea that people riding ATVs would trash private property or the environment in general, noting that many people who participate in off-roading are retirees or families who take conservation seriously and are out to protect nature, not trash it.

Tesoro said he thinks having the designated trail system would lure people to stay in communities instead of in campgrounds in the forest, leading to increased revenues for RV parks, hotels, restaurants, gas stations and more. He referenced a trail system that had been developed in Garfield County, Utah, 20 years ago that has been very successful.

Guild pointed out the system in Garfield County is on land that is more than 90% public, while land in Uinta County is more than 50% private, making the situation very different. Tesoro reiterated that the group had “no intention whatsoever” of not working with landowners to find a way forward.

Uinta County Road and Bridge Manager Barney Brisko then shared his concerns about costs to the county in terms of dust suppression on county roads, as well as concerns that grant funding the county has received in recent years to help with dust suppression could dry up with budget cuts.

Uinta County Sheriff Doug Matthews addressed the issue of law enforcement and said he was under the impression that the idea was to start slowly with only designating a few roads as part of a trail system, which he believes law enforcement could manage.

Commission Chair Eric South then spoke and said he believes most people using such a system would be respectful, but the designation would invite more people onto roads and there would likely be increased accidents and damage. He also said the county needs to consider that revenues for municipalities may, in fact, go up with increased tourism; however, the county doesn’t receive revenues from sales tax and therefore county expenses would likely increase without the benefit of increased revenues.

Tesoro, Jones and Gary Welling then agreed perhaps it was best to take some time to meet with landowners and discuss and work out issues prior to voting on any resolution because, according to Tesoro, the “landowner part of the equation is really important.”

Commissioner Craig Welling motioned to table the issue, noting that, “When the landowners show up to a meeting, you know there’s an issue.” Commissioner Mark Anderson, who noted that he, too, recreates on ATVs, said it may be best to start small and to look into issues with signage, designated roadways, revenues and more before voting on the resolution, so the matter was tabled until a future meeting.

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