December 21, 2003

Casper Star Tribune

Recreation top income producer in Bighorn forest

SHERIDAN (AP) -- Tourism dollars generated by the Bighorn National Forest far outweigh earnings from livestock grazing and timber harvesting, according to a University of Wyoming study.

However, timbering is the only industry among the three that could produce more income under proposed changes to the forest's management plan, said David "Tex" Taylor, a UW professor of agricultural and applied economics.

Taylor presented preliminary findings of the study Wednesday at a meeting of the Bighorn National Forest steering committee, which is advising forest officials on a new plan to guide management for the next 10 to 15 years.

The study shows tourism contributes $40 million in annual income to the four counties surrounding the forest, while cattle and sheep grazing generate an average of $5 million and timbering just under $1 million.

"The forest revision is not looking at changing the grazing levels either up or down, but timbering is required by law to be analyzed with different harvest levels," Tongue District Ranger Craig Yancey said.

The UW study shows that approximately 2.1 million board feet of timber has been harvested each of the past several years. But six alternatives under consideration propose annual harvests ranging from 2.2 million board feet to 10.1 million.

Annual income from jobs would jump from just under $1 million to $4 million if the latter alternative is approved, Taylor said.

Steering committee members as well as local residents said they are troubled by many aspects of the study.

For one, they said, figures detailing the economic impact of recreation and other tourism do not include residents of Sheridan, Johnson, Washakie and Big Horn counties.

Mike Watkins of Sheridan said if the local impact were considered, annual income from recreation would nearly double to almost $80 million.

"Recreation is far more valuable" to the four counties than timbering and grazing combined, he said, and that the forest-management plan should therefore emphasize recreation.

Sierra Club representative Kirk Koepsel agreed, saying he believes some people move to the area because of the Big Horn Mountains and their recreational and scenic values.

Taylor said he didn't include local recreation figures because local residents don't bring new dollars into the communities as other tourists do.

He also said that unlike timbering, the income generated from recreation is not expected to change based on the alternatives being considered.

Steering committee member and Sheridan County Commissioner Charley Whiton disagreed.

"There is no way in hell tourism stays the same in the alternatives," he said.

An alternative emphasizing new wilderness areas would limit the number of people who could access those areas, Whiton said. But forest officials said those areas are generally non-motorized anyway and that a wilderness designation would not likely affect use.

Taylor said the UW study is based on preliminary numbers from the Bighorn forest and that the report will undoubtedly change when more refined numbers are available.

Forest planner Bernie Bornong said the steering committee on Jan. 8-9 will discuss potential changes to the alternatives before releasing a draft document to the public.

He said the public can comment on that document before a revised management plan is approved.