Trails bill hits 4-4 speed bump at legislature

ATVS line a dirt road near the Piedmont kilns in Uinta County during a 2021 ride organized by Southwest Wyoming Off-road Trails (SWOT). (HERALD PHOTO/Mark Tesoro)

EVANSTON — Supporters of Southwest Wyoming Off-road Trails (SWOT) received a setback on Wednesday, Feb. 16, when the House side of the Transportation, Highways and Military Affairs Committee met at the legislature in Cheyenne last week. HB13 died in a 4-4 vote with Reps. Marshall Burt (Libertarian-Green River), Mark Baker (R-Green River), Kevin O’Hearn (R-Mills) and Joe MacGuire (R-Casper) voting for the bill, while Chair Donald Burkhart Jr. (R-Rawlins), Reps. Bill Henderson (R-Laramie), Jerry Obermueller (R-Casper) and Clarence Styvar (R-Laramie) opposed the bill. Rep. Landon Brown (R-Laramie) was out sick and did not vote.

The Trails Bill was the culmination of more than two years’ work by the SWOT board, Wyoming State Trails and the Wyoming Department of Transportation (WYDOT) in an effort to connect Evanston to the county road system at Exit 10. WYDOT received federal approval early last year to use the interstate right-of-way for a limited recreational trail along the highway fence for 3.5 miles in order for OHVs to make it through the county enrolled trail system.

SWOT worked with county officials last year and had 13 county roads enrolled in order to make connections from Evanston to Bridger Valley and to the forest. The other part of HB13 was for communities to allow OHV access to limited state highway sections with the state’s $15 Off-road sticker. SWOT’s efforts to connect communities of southwest Wyoming with motorized trails was viewed as a way to support economic development in the region and started in 2020.

Testifying at the hearing before the Interim Committee were WYDOT Director Luke Reiner, Chief Engineer Mark Gillette and Support Services Administrator Taylor Rossetti. Committee Chairman Burkhart directed the testimonies and questions.

“WYDOT has a commitment to assist communities in their endeavors for economic development and that is the reason we support this bill,” Director Reiner said. “There are some challenges with the plan but we think the solution outlined in this bill fits our mission to support the states and communities’ economic development.”

Rossetti then covered all of the individual amendments and explained that a physical barrier would separate the off-road trail and the interstate.  The trail is not a paved surface, Rossetti said, and he added that the off-road vehicles would never be on the interstate. 

“The terrain will determine the type of barricade that is used,” Rossetti said. “It could be concrete or a wire fence. The main purpose is to keep the recreational vehicles off of the interstate.” 

When asked who would pick up the cost of constructing a barrier, Gillette responded that Parks & Cultural Resources would be responsible to work with local entities on funding.

Chairman Burkhart said he was troubled that another agency would be in charge of designing the barrier and Gillette said that all of the entities involved will work together.

Burkhart then asked for the distance measurements from the interstate for the barrier and for the off-road trail.  Gillette could not give specific measurements and said it depended on the terrain. Rossetti added that the owner of a road has to work with the State Parks department though WYDOT would still maintain design and control.

Concerns were raised regarding how the vehicles would cross to the other side without using the interstate.  Reiner explained that at the East end of the section of road there is an underpass crossing that connects with the other side.  He added they had looked at multiple options and this was the safest. 

The main concerns from the members of the committee involved safety and setting a precedence for other communities across the state to gain access across the interstate and other highways.

Reiner said they had not received any other inquiries from other communities and didn’t think it would become a problem. He added that SWOT had already attempted to deal with the landowner and was met with a refusal.

Chairman Burkhart called for public testimony and Senator Wendy Schuler was next to testify in support of SWOT.

“This is a bill I am passionate about.  As a matter of self-disclosure, I am a member of the SWOT board. I think the chair of SWOT is a visionary for the community of Evanston,” Schuler said. “Mark Tesoro realized that recreational vehicle owners come through here every summer when it is too hot to ride in southern states.  They don’t stop as we don’t have the trails available. It would be a great economic opportunity to get them to stay over in Uinta County and shop, eat, and spend money.”

Schuler said the SWOT board has looked at a variety of options and this seemed to be the safest. SWOT members have worked hard for approximately two years in organizing local and surrounding communities to support the concept of the trails that could provide connection and economic opportunities for all. They have also gained support from local governments, federal, and state agencies, Schuler added.

SWOT chair Mark Tesoro, who is also the publisher of the Uinta County Herald and Bridger Valley Pioneer, traveled to Cheyenne to participate in a public hearing.

“SWOT has gained the support of many communities in southwest Wyoming; Evanston, Lyman, Mountain View, Big Piney, Kemmerer, LaBarge, and Marbleton. And others have passed ordinances to allow off-road vehicles on city streets and we have lots of support from city and county officials, WYDOT, Parks and Cultural Affairs.”

Tesoro explained that the 3.5-mile road ends at the frontage road to the interstate and there will be 50 feet between the road and the barrier to the interstate and in some places, it could be 100 yards between them.  The trail itself would only need to be wide enough for a couple of ATVs to pass, Tesoro said.

Other people, testifying via video in support of the bill included: Uinta County Commissioner Mark Anderson; Evanston Police Chief Mike Vranish; and Kemmerer Mayor Bill Thek.  All three urged the committee to support the bill and echoed the statements of the previous testimonies.

Three other people, via video, spoke with concerns and in opposition. A weed and pest agent expressed a concern that their off-road vehicles involved in spraying the roadways might clash with recreationists; another concern voiced was the possibility of accidents, with it being so close to an interstate; and a liability question if there is a wreck on private land. 

Last week, WYDOT Director Luke Reiner spoke with the Herald.

“We worked very hard to get to a yes vote and I think we had our case laid out very well,” he said. “I hesitate to speculate on what happened but I respect the decision of the legislators. For the road ahead, we fundamentally support State Parks and SWOT, and our team will continue to work together to find a solution.”

Reiner said he liked to end any public interview by thanking the men and women patrolling the highways to keep residents safe.

Sen. Wendy Schuler, R-Evanston, told the Herald, “I was fairly certain the bill would go to the Senate because the House passed it with a vote of 59 in favor to one opposed. I think some ‘back door politics’ happened, and chairman Burkhart got to others before the vote. It is sad, because now SWOT is back to square one and will have to find another option or wait until next year to submit a bill again.”

Evanston Police Chief Mike Vranish agreed that he, too, thought prior contacts had been made and some of the committee members had their minds made up in advance of the meeting.

“I do agree that landowners are important, and we need to be in partnership with them if possible,” Vranish said. “This trail system would be good for the community and [would] not only help the economy, but would give local people another recreational opportunity.”

Uinta County Commissioner Mark Anderson said he also thought Burkhart was against the bill even before the hearing based on his tone of voice and actions during the supportive testimonies.

Kemmerer Mayor Bill Thek told the Herald he was very disappointed in the outcome and he thought the opposition statements were nonsensical.

“I thought we had it all well planned and had crossed many hurdles with WYDOT and had their support,” Thek said. “I really thought it was going to work.”

Tesoro commented on the committee’s decision to kill the bill.

“Well, this is our first attempt at any legislation so we can’t be too disappointed,” Tesoro said. “Our partnership with the State Trails Office and WYDOT has really helped to move this project forward, and with the communities of Evanston, Lyman, Mountain View, Kemmerer, LaBarge, Marbleton and Big Piney enrolling their city streets into the trails program, legislators will have to get on board at some point.”

Tesoro reminded the committee of the motivation behind the founding of SWOT and the trails bill.

“After all,” he said, “this is an economic development project for the communities and for the state. Having Senate President Dockstader and Sen. Schuler helping to push the project for the region speaks volumes. People have talked forever about diversifying the economy in Wyoming. We don’t have to look further than our neighboring states to see the positive economic impact OHV trails have had connecting communities.”

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