EVANSTON — An effort to establish a system of off-road trails linking communities, historical sites and forest service trails took a significant step forward last week when the Uinta County Commissioners approved a resolution designating all or part of 13 county roads for enrollment in the state’s off-road trails program. At the Tuesday, Jan. 19 meeting, commissioners heard from those who have been involved in the SWOT (Southwest Wyoming Off-Road Trails) project for several months as local organizers work to make their vision a reality.
In what has been an approximately year-long process thus far, members of the SWOT group have held public meetings, met with local officials and reached out to those involved with off-road trail systems in other communities. It has also coordinated with staff of the U.S. Forest Service and the Wyoming State Trails agency and recently elected executive officers and established a board as a primary step in becoming an officially-designated nonprofit organization. President of the group is Herald publisher Mark Tesoro, vice president is Todd Griffith and secretary is Todd Jones; other elected members are Cycle City owner Mark Black, Uinta County Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy Rowdy Dean and landowner representative Kelly Guild. The SWOT advisory board is also made up of representatives from the Evanston Police Department, the USFS, county search and rescue, other county staff, state legislators, state staff and local businesses.
A similar resolution to designate county roads to enroll in a trail system was presented to the county commission several months ago; however, at that time, multiple area landowners attended the meeting to voice their concerns over issues they didn’t believe were being adequately addressed and the decision was made to table the resolution. Since that time, SWOT representatives have met with landowners to discuss those concerns related to land usage, livestock, law enforcement, public safety, maintenance costs and more.
While the initial resolution included all or part of some 90 county roads, the resolution approved on Jan. 19 focused on only 13 roads. Those roads include county roads 151, 153, 180, 202, 207, 212, 218, 271, and parts of county roads 173, 204, 217, 219 and 224.
Uinta County Geographic Information Systems Coordinator Gary Welling spoke at the commission meeting and said approval of the resolution was only one step in a lengthy process to enroll the roads into Wyoming’s off-road trail and OHV sticker program. Having roads enrolled, along with the creation of an official SWOT nonprofit organization, will allow the group to apply for and, hopefully, receive grant funding to help with things like road maintenance, signage, law enforcement and promotion of the trail system. Additionally, enrollment in the state trails program means some of the funds the state receives from the purchase of OHV stickers can help with law enforcement, and some funds from off-road vehicle licenses and tags will be paid to the county.
Area landowner Shaun Sims also spoke at the meeting about concerns he still has about the project, including the establishment of parking areas to be used for unloading off-road vehicles to access the trails. Sims said he’s “not necessarily opposed” to the project but does still have concerns. Tesoro, who was also present at the meeting, said SWOT members are committed to working out the details and working to address concerns and noted that the ability to receive funding related to the trail designations and the nonprofit formation will help to create a parking area complete with signage regarding rules, safety, maps and more. He also referenced the support expressed for the project by the Evanston City Council, which has adopted resolutions regarding the use of off-road vehicles on city streets, provided they have OHV stickers.
Tesoro stressed, as he has at other meetings regarding the project, that SWOT members believe the trail system will help make Uinta County and southwest Wyoming a destination for recreation instead of just a place to make a brief stop to get gas, which would bring additional dollars into the community when visitors stay at hotels, eat in restaurants, shop in local stores, etc. Eventually, SWOT members have said they hope a trail system ultimately connects Uinta County to forest service trails and scenic and historic locations in Lincoln County and other neighboring areas.
Chris Floyd, manager of the Wyoming Office of Outdoor Recreation, who has been at multiple meetings and involved with the project, said, “Our main goal is to grow and diversify the Wyoming economy through responsible recreation opportunities. SWOT has great potential to boost the local economy. We can’t stop change from happening, but we can help direct and manage it.”
“Enrolling county roads in the State Trails OHV (off-highway vehicles) program provides a potential funding source for maintenance, law enforcement, signage and education,” said Floyd. “The enrollment alone will not result in an influx of OHV riders in Uinta County. It merely provides a way to manage the growth once it occurs. A marketing campaign will be needed to attract riders to come and enjoy the scenery, the history and the hospitality of the local community.”
Floyd said he’s impressed with what has been accomplished thus far by SWOT. “Mark Tesoro and the SWOT working group have done an amazing job working with stakeholders, elected officials and landowners over the last year. They did things the right way, with transparency, trust and frequent communication. We also appreciate local landowners for voicing any concerns and giving SWOT the opportunity to address them.”
Floyd also recognized local officials for supporting the project. “We recognize the county commissioners for being receptive to the SWOT concept and being proactive in managing the growth of OHV use by enrolling in the state trails program.”
State Sen. Wendy Schuler (SD-15) said Tesoro and other members of the SWOT board “have done a heavy lift to involve stakeholders and set up a nonprofit for the future success of this economic development project.” She continued, “I hope we can involve even more folks who have similar goals of connecting our communities and providing a positive ‘shot in the arm’ for our economy as we face some challenges ahead. Thanks also for Chris Floyd and his agency for all of their help as we move forward.”
Tesoro said approval of the resolution by the county commission was clearing “a major hurdle for Southwest Wyoming Off-road Trails (SWOT)” and was “a testament to the hard work and dedication of the board.” He said, “The approved county roads would connect Evanston to Bridger Valley along the old Lincoln Highway and from there to the forest. In addition, another leg was created from Evanston toward Yellow Creek and into the forest from that direction. Approximately 80 miles were requested for the loop connection.”
He too shared his appreciation for all those involved in the project to this point, including Floyd and Welling. “This is another exciting piece of the puzzle to get the trail system off the ground,” he said.