By Hannah Romero
Green River Star
Via- Wyoming News Exchange
GREEN RIVER — When it comes to creating a system of trails connecting communities all across Southwest Wyoming, Sweetwater County wants to be on the map.
The Sweetwater County Commissioners heard an update from Mark Tesoro, the president of Southwest Wyoming Off-road Trails (SWOT) during their January 16 meeting.
Tesoro first presented the idea of SWOT to the Board of County Commissioners at the end of 2021, and progress on the project has been made since. Now both Tesoro and the commissioners are hoping to start taking the next steps to bring Sweetwater County into the project.
Tesoro’s vision started in 2019 when he approached Uinta County about an economic development project.
“I brought the idea to them of connecting the communities of Southwest Wyoming with a series of motorized trails in order to bring riders into the region,” Tesoro explained.
The original goal was to connect Evanston to Bridger Valley and then Bridger Valley to Kemmerer. Tesoro was asked to spearhead the project, and he began working with other groups like the National Forest Service, the Wyoming Department of Transportation, and Wyoming State Trails, who was on board with the project since the beginning.
“They said they would like to eventually see a network of trails traveling throughout the whole state,” Tesoro said.
Over the past four years, the idea has continued to grow and gain momentum. It has also faced some obstacles, which Tesoro and his team have been working through.
The challenges to the plan have included needing to figure out access to right of ways and giving people the ability to bring their off-road vehicles onto city streets so they can connect directly to the communities.
Some of the solutions to these challenges that SWOT has pursued culminated in two bills that went to the legislature last year. House Bill 42 and Senate File 17 both passed and were signed by the governor.
Tesoro explained that House Bill 42 was a rights of way bill in order to give access to communities through state highways and other rights of way, and Senate File 17 was a safety bill regarding vehicles meeting requirements for things like insurance and safety features.
SWOT has also been working with counties and cities on adopting ordinances to designate county roads for the project and make rules allowing off-road vehicles on city streets.
In 2022, Evanston, Kemmerer, Lyman, Labarge, Marbleton and Big Piney all adopted ordinances connected to the project. Superior also came on board last year.
“This is an opportunity that the state hasn’t really seen before,” Tesoro said of the program.
He pointed out that other states, including Utah, have similar trail systems and have reported significant economic impact. Garfield County in Southern Utah, for example, reported that the trail system’s economic impact from ATVs and side by sides was more than $33 million in the county, according to Tesoro.
“There’s just a lot of opportunity for us to get on board with something that other states have done and have benefitted from,” he said. “When it’s 110 down in Southern Utah, what better time to ask people to come up to Southwest Wyoming and visit all that we have to see up here?”
Tesoro added that the trail system would be a good way to attract people to come to Southwest Wyoming and take advantage of all the local history, sightseeing, and recreation opportunities.
“It’s really like boating on dirt,” he said, pointing out that Southwest Wyoming offers “an almost unlimited landscape that people can come and ride and explore.”
This would also bring people in to spend money on things like hotels, food, gas, shopping, and more. And since many off-road vehicles like side-by-sides can hold full families, the impact expands.
Commissioner Taylor Jones, who asked Tesoro to come give another presentation on the project, pointed out that off-road generates hundreds of millions of dollars for the state every year and “we’ve just scratched the surface.”
Jones believes connecting the trails would bring in even more revenue.
“I don’t see the downside,” he said.
Wyoming State Trails Manager Forrest Kamminga also spoke to the commissioners and explained that enrolling county roads for the project also makes counties eligible to apply for grant funding through the State Trails Program.
“We do have a significant amount of revenue generated by the ORV registrations sold, and that could benefit Sweetwater County and provide them the funding necessary to help manage this project as it comes through,” Kamminga said.
During the discussion, the topic of the Bureau of Land Management’s Resource Management Plan Draft for the Rock Springs Field Office came up, particularly regarding the potential impacts on motorized access.
Tesoro said he has worked with the BLM in developing SWOT and was “a little dismayed and surprised” when the RMP draft was released, and the thought of limited access to public lands is frightening.
Commission Chairman Keaton West admitted that discussion SWOT felt a little weird in light of the RMP discussions, but didn’t want it to be a deterrent.
“I don’t think that should halt any of our progress here and what we all find important and specific to Sweetwater and what we all enjoy here,” he said.
The commissioners all expressed their approval of SWOT and their desire to move forward with making Sweetwater County a part of it.
Tesoro also brought letters of support for the project from Sweetwater County Sheriff John Grossnickle, TATA Chemicals, Rocky Mountain Power, Little America, and others. Commissioners Robb Slaughter and Island Richards recommended having the county work on a resolution to adopt county roads to be part of SWOT.
“I see nothing but benefit to our citizens in doing so,” Slaughter said.