Outdoor recreation is a hot topic in the 2023 legislative session

Lawmakers gave state’s outdoor economy a boost last year. This year they’re primed to do even more.

If Utah’s legislative sessions were wines, 2022 would have been a very good year for those who like oaky, earthy blends with hints of pine, wildflowers and trail dust. In layperson’s terms, it was a good year for those who like to play outside.

Last year, state lawmakers passed two bills that provide continuous wells of funding for construction, maintenance and infrastructure for trails and recreation areas around the state. The money that feeds the Outdoor Adventure Infrastructure Restricted Account and the Recreational Infrastructure Grant Program comes from sales, use or transient taxes. According to the wording of the bills, they’ll exist in perpetuity and, theoretically, won’t be subject to the whims of legislators or the peaks and valleys of the economy.

“Having that consistent source of funding for recreation is a really, really big deal,” said Rebecca Gillis, the state and local government affairs manager for the Outdoor Industry Association. She noted it indicates the state is serious about investing in the outdoors and the recreation economy. It’s an economy that, according to the state-run Division of Outdoor Recreation, accounts for $6.1 billion of the state’s economy, employs more than 66,000 people, and is the primary driver behind Utah’s tourism industry.

“You can see that these legislators are slowly but surely becoming more educated on … what it takes to really build a successful outdoor rec economy, if that’s what they are, in fact, interested in doing,” Gillis said. “And it seems like many of them are.”

Are they, though? Plenty of work remains to be done — just ask the companies that boycotted last week’s Outdoor Retailer show in its return to Salt Lake City in part because of disagreements with the state’s land policies. Yet that also means plenty of opportunities exist. So, as the 2023 legislative session begins, here are some bills, issues and actions that could indicate whether state leaders are serious are about protecting and promoting Utah’s many outdoor assets or whether they’ll be throwing sour grapes at the state’s hikers, bikers, trail runners, boaters and off-roaders.

Building off last year’s wins

Rep. Carl Albrecht, R-Richfield, doesn’t just represent Beaver, Piute, Sevier and Iron counties, he likes to explore them. That time on the trails and in the community, he said, is what has led him to become one of the most prolific sponsors of bills pertaining to outdoor recreation over the past two legislative sessions.

“That’s why I get involved in these things,” Albrecht said. “I have an interest. I’m a rider. We enjoy riding both bicycles and motorized OHV.”

Albrecht last year sponsored the bill that not only prevented the funding for the Recreational Infrastructure Grant Program from sunsetting but extended it in perpetuity. He also sponsored a bill that, starting this year, requires off-highway vehicle (OHV) operators in Utah to obtain a “license” by watching a free, 30-minute online video. Both passed.

(Al Hartmann | Tribune file photo) OHV riders leave the parking lot at Tibble Fork Reservoir in American Fork Canyon for a ride.

This year, he’s sponsoring a couple of bills that build upon those measures.

In addition to exempting snowmobiles from needing the license, House Bill 55 would funnel funds from registration and license replacement fees into an account earmarked for OHV recreation purposes. Those include building and maintaining OHV areas and paying for search and rescue efforts for operators. Albrecht said the two OHV measures came about at the request of the off-road community because bad behavior by some operators were leading to the reduction of recreation areas available to the vehicles.

“They wanted to police things a little better and give people some more training,” he said, “because we were losing OHV trails to environmentalists and federal lands are taking them because people were riding off trail and crashing them and so forth.”

Another of Albrecht’s bills, HB93, will siphon even more money into the Recreation Restoration Infrastructure Grant Program. Under Albrecht’s proposal, the account would receive 15% of the state’s transient tax money, up from 5%. He said he believes having more state money in the coffers will help Utah leverage more federal dollars for trail maintenance and management. Meanwhile, a bill submitted by Rep. Jeff Stenquist, R-Draper, is purported to allow local, state and federal entities to better work together to build and maintain trails and parks.

Another bill to watch, HB32, calls for the state’s Division of Outdoor Recreation to create a management plan for Provo Canyon. Last year legislators endorsed a resolution to make Bridalveil Falls, the jewel of the canyon, a state monument. They also gave the DOR $400,000 to develop trails to and around the falls.

Potential setbacks

Not everyone wants to expand recreation options, however.

A bill offered up by Rep. Michael Petersen, R-North Logan, proposes further limits on the right of the state to take land through eminent domain, particularly when it comes to creating public parks. Legislators years ago prohibited the state from using the highly contentious tool to create “trails, paths or other ways for walking, hiking, bicycling, equestrian use, or other recreational uses, or whose primary purpose is as a footpath, equestrian trail, bicycle path, or walkway.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) People recreate on the Jordan River Parkway in South Jordan on Friday, Oct. 2, 2020.

West Valley lawmaker Mike Winder tried in 2019 to reverse some of those restrictions in order to extend the Jordan River Parkway. That effort failed in committee. Legislators appear to be more receptive to Petersen’s effort, which was introduced on the House floor last week.

Water’s where it’s at

The hot environmental topic at this year’s session, though, is water.

Gov. Spencer Cox has made it a priority to find ways to feed more water back into the Great Salt Lake — the demise of which would affect outdoor recreation in a multitude of ways, including degrading air quality and snowpack in the region — and several bills submitted during this year’s session take aim at that. They range from proposals to cut down more water-sucking trees to making public the amount of water golf courses use and beyond.

[RELATED: Tribune reporter Leia Larsen took a closer look at water-related bills in Monday’s edition.]

Gillis of the Outdoor Industry Association said if legislators aren’t moved to pass water conservation measures for environmental reasons, they should consider the economic ones.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Early powder enthusiasts ski at Snowbasin Resort, Nov. 21, 2022.

“Snow activities are the most lucrative sector of the outdoor rec industry in Utah,” she said, citing the Bureau of Economic Analysis. “Snow activities bring in the most economic return to the state of Utah outside of any other economic activity. And so, when you think about water, and drought, and all of those issues, you know, snow is also water and snow is also directly connected to climate mitigation and sustainability.”

TOUR Caucus takes off

Nothing has spurred interest in getting outside like the COVID-19 pandemic. So it seems serendipitous that, just weeks before the Jazz’s Rudy Gobert cast the virus into the spotlight in March 2020, Speaker of the House Brad Wilson pulled aside Rep. Jeff Stenquist and tasked the avid outdoorsman with formulating a statewide policy around outdoor recreation.

Stenquist, who represents District 46 and advocated for trails in Draper’s Corner Canyon, formed the Outdoor Adventure Commission that year. Then last year, with the help of the Institute of Outdoor Recreation and Tourism at Utah State University, it held several collaborative sessions throughout the state with land managers and local officials to form a strategy. Through those sessions, Stenquist said, his eyes were opened to how intertwined outdoor recreation is with other issues.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Mike Coleman of Millcreek takes in the view of the Salt Lake Valley during a ride on the Parley's Pointe Trail on Wednesday, Aug. 10, 2022. The 4.8-mile trail is part of the Bonneville Shoreline Trail and winds between the Parley's Trail bike path and the Arcadia trailhead on Lakeline Drive.

“I’ve learned outdoor recreation touches everything: public lands, the environment, different layers of government, even oil and gas and agriculture and all these different stakeholders that are interested,” he said. “It’s like a spiderweb which has all these different issues.”

Eager to spread that newfound understanding, Stenquist teamed with Sen. Jake Anderegg, R-Lehi, this session to create the Tourism Outdoor Utah Recreation Caucus. The purpose of the caucus, Steinquist said, is to provide education and broaden legislators’ understanding of how integral outdoor recreation is to the state and its economy.

He said it will “just help identify and discuss all the different issues and implications of outdoor recreation and what it brings to our state.”

The caucus could be a unique opportunity to bring together lawmakers from both sides of the aisle, Gillis said.

“Outdoor recreation,” she said, “is one of those very few areas where bipartisan collaboration is still possible.”

The caucus kicked off Saturday with a gathering at Snowbird Resort, the first of three planned meetings during the 2023 general session, which runs through March 3. Three more outings are scheduled throughout the year, including stops in central Utah in May and southwest Utah in September.