By RUFFIN PREVOST
Gazette Wyoming Bureau
CODY - Tourism professionals and policymakers from around the state on Monday put protection of wildlife and natural resources at the top of their priority list.
The Wyoming Hospitality and Tourism Summit, which continues today, also covered issues including improving roads, work-force development, immigration reform and employee health care.
Aside from attractions within Yellowstone National Park, only Jackson ranked higher than Cody among Wyoming's most popular spots for visitors, according to a report compiled for the state.
Wildlife and outdoor activities were the primary reasons tourists listed for visiting Wyoming. "People come here to see wildlife and to see Yellowstone and to experience a part of the natural world they can't get anywhere else," said Lee Haines, director of public relations for the Buffalo Bill Historical Center.
"That's why I personally think it's critical we figure out a way to maintain those resources for the long term," said Haines.
According to the report, tourism was the state's second-largest industry last year, with 30,000 full-time jobs providing a total of $584 million in earnings, and visitors spending $2.25 billion.
In Park County, that meant 3,870 jobs and nearly $67 million in earnings.
Despite those impressive numbers, the state's tourism businesses are finding it tough to compete with energy companies for workers and housing, said Gene Bryan, executive director of the Cody Country Chamber of Commerce.
And with the energy sector booming, its impact on habitat and wildlife is more likely to affect tourism in years ahead.
"With the projections for the growth of energy in the state over the next 10 to 15 years, we are concerned about the potential impact on wildlife habitat, water, air and viewsheds," said Bryan.
Energy companies are becoming more aware of their impact on tourism, said Bryan, "but we would like the travel industry to have a seat at the table when a lot of these development issues come up."
Terry Cleveland, director of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, said wildlife watching generated $300 million in spending last year, but hunters and fishermen were the principal source of funding for his agency.
"We have to have another income source," said Cleveland. "We can no longer do it on the backs of hunters and fishermen."
Cleveland advocated increasing Game and Fish Department funding through the state general fund and a 20 percent increase in license fees, based on inflation over the last five years.
He also called for increased funding of the newly created state Wildlife and Natural Resources Trust, which funds habitat projects from interest earned on a $40 million endowment.
Rep. Colin Simpson, R-Cody, said improving roads and training workers were also key concerns, as was developing affordable housing.
Simpson said the Wyoming Business Council has helped communities develop infrastructure for tourism, and the state must do more to create full-time tourism jobs with opportunity for advancement.
Contact Ruffin Prevost at email@example.com or 307-527-7250.