EVANSTON — Southwest Wyoming Off-road Trails (SWOT) organizers held a public meeting at the Strand Theatre in Evanston on Thursday, June 11. Approximately 60 people attended, with at least 11 of those participating via videoconference.
Herald publisher Mark Tesoro, along with Rick Schuler, district ranger for the Evanston/Mountain View District for the U.S. Forest Service — both key organizers for the group — were joined by Evanston Mayor Kent Williams on the stage to open the meeting.
Tesoro gave the audience background information on SWOT.
“Our group is not a formal organization with officers and bylaws,” Tesoro said. “We are just interested in getting the outdoor trail system going and have been meeting with agencies that will be involved. We’ve met with the mayor and city council and with the county commissioners. We feel this could be an economic driver for the communities involved and would help southwest Wyoming become a destination for ATV enthusiasts and tourists.”
Tesoro said the group is looking at existing county roads and trails and wants to tie together the communities of Evanston, Bridger Valley, Kemmerer, Star Valley and Afton and eventually Sweetwater County. The slogan of SWOT is: “Connect the communities, connect the forests and connect to the historical sites.”
Tesoro said they have also met with the Uinta County Economic Development Commission (UCEDC), the Forest Service and are attempting to work with Union Pacific and local ranchers for access permission.
He then introduced Brian Bremner of Garfield County, Utah, who could be viewed on a stage screen via Zoom.
In Garfield County, Bremner said, there are 3,000 miles of ATV trails that encompass land going through national forests, and 90% over land owned by the federal government and public lands. Bremner said that the residents in his community of 5,000 are very aggressive about keeping public lands open.
“Panguitch, [Utah], was a resource-based community until the mines closed about 30 years ago and we struggled. Today, 44% of our income base comes from tourism and recreation. We have three national parks nearby and national forest and are a rural area. Years ago, you saw more boats come into our area, but now 60% of recreationists are ATV folks and only about 40% [bring] boats,” Bremner said.
Bremner said they had worked with the state highway trails administration, and the Utah Legislature had made ATVs street legal by requiring headlights, taillights and a horn. He said the ATVs are considered similar to a tractor and can travel on any public road in Utah. They put up signs for ATVs telling the driver to ride on the pavement instead of the borrow ditches to avoid causing drainage problems for landowners.
Bremner said it is most important to work with local governments and establish a good relationship. When asked if the group in Utah had any problems with landowners or ranchers, he said the only objection anyone had was if ATV riders chased cows on BLM grazing land.
Bremner said their organizing group started 15 years ago by picking the roads they wanted to use and made a point of keeping special hunting and fishing spots private. He said 50% of their trail networks are not usable by other types of vehicles and are marked as such. They dedicated a small percentage of trails to side-by-sides.
“You need to decide what you want to do and you can control it as a group,” Bremner told Tesoro and Schuler. “We get tourists from all over the world; some rent ATVs when they get here, which helps small business owners that deal with those. Some of our trails are also used by snowmobilers in the winter. The only big challenge we had was big rocks.”
One county in Utah, Bremner said, made $6 million off the ATV trails during a single event. The trails connect small communities, and small businesses benefit — fishing guides, special events, bars, rodeos, bands and cafes. Bremner said one person even started teaching classes on maintaining ATVs.
An audience member asked Bremner what kind of map they have and whether they have to get approval from all the different agencies.
Bremner said if they used a logo of an agency such as the Forest Service, then they had to get permission. He added that county roads are already open to the public, so they didn’t need permission for those unless they wanted to pave a certain portion that had an extreme amount of dust. Bremner said that if they had any problems, for example with a road interfering with an endangered species, they just “worked it out and found an area of common ground. It is all about developing relationships with agencies,” he added.
According to Bremner, there is a difference between a recreationist and a tourist. He said a tourist comes unprepared, brings money and asks what there is to do to spend that money; a recreationist comes prepared and goes out to do what he or she wants — fish, hunt, camp, etc. The recreationist doesn’t spend as much money and is more self-sustaining; however, Bremner said, a community needs both.
Forrest Kamminga, program manager for the Trails Program with the Division of State Parks, Historic Sites and Trails, spoke next.
Kamminga said the trails program is expanding and they are looking forward to working together with SWOT. According to Kamminga, there are 50,000 miles of motorized trails in the state including roads owned by the BLM, state and counties.
When he was asked how to work with private landowners — since 55% of land in Wyoming is private — Kamminga said, “Ask them what they would want from the parks department in order to let you use their land. I will give your group a copy of the resolutions we have used in Carbon, Fremont and Lincoln counties to use their county roads. The city [would require] a separate agreement for riding on streets.”
Kamminga said there are trail ranger grants available and the majority goes to the Forest Service for maintenance, construction and building. The grants require an up-front match, an EPA analysis and a planning E1-S.
Sen. Wendy Schuler, who is married to Rick Shuler, spoke next. “Mark and Rick have done a great job of reaching out to private landowners and agencies,” Shuler said. “Utah residents want to come here, and this trail system could be a home run for our county. I will be a cheerleader for it.”
Rep. Garry Pipparinen said, “I’m glad to see people are thinking outside the box to help the economy.”
Chris Floyd, manager of the Wyoming Office of Outdoor Recreation spoke next. Floyd said he met with Gov. Mark Gordon that day and the governor recognizes that we need to diversify our economy and is helping to facilitate the trails system.
“Wyoming state parks have seen a 160% increase in tourists this year over last year at this time,” Floyd said. “The outdoors is safe and good for public health. The SWOT group is doing a great job of promoting this effort.”
Mayor Williams told the audience that the city is preparing a resolution and ordinance to allow ATVs on city streets with a sticker registration.
Uinta County Commissioner Mark Anderson, who was participating via Zoom, said the county is also working on a resolution.
Tesoro asked Uinta County Attorney Loretta Howieson-Kallas to speak about any issues she might foresee. She said she is helping the commission draft a resolution for ATV access to all county roads. She said if people leave the designated trails, the county would have to work with the landowner or agency in control of the land regarding possible fines.
If land is posted with “no trespassing” signs, then the laws governing trespassing would be in effect. Howieson said the state’s Recreational Safety Act covers reasonable and recognized liability. People wouldn’t be able to sue except in extraordinary cases as the law protects the landowner.
“When an ATV owner purchases their registration sticker, they recognize personal liability,” Howieson-Kallas said. “As far as speed limits, the city and county can regulate those, and it depends on where you are at. The state regulates state highways.”
Rick Schuler said, “We still have issues, but we are working on them. We want to hear from all of you if you have specific issues or just want to help. We need good maps and signage.”
UCEDC chair Brent Hatch said, “Fort Bridger gets 94,000 visitors a year with 15,000 to 20,000 during their rendezvous. We need to capitalize on that.”
Tesoro said, “From Evanston to Bridger Valley and into the forest is the first leg of the trails we are working to get off the ground and the most viable to start with. Lincoln County Commissioner Kent Connelly is working to connect Kemmerer with us also. There is a push to have trails go across the entire state. We want to bring Utah people here to cool off in the summer and encourage lots of ATV tourists to come. Existing small businesses will be helped and maybe we can even attract new ones.”