Feb 12, 2015

Legislature: No free access to Buffalo Bill Park

A local lawmaker’s attempt to give residents free access to undeveloped parts of Buffalo Bill State Park was shot down by some of his colleagues last week.

Rep. Sam Krone, R-Cody, sponsored House Bill 148, which would have given the director of the state’s parks the discretion to waive fees in undeveloped areas.

The measure stemmed from the concerns of Park County commissioners and some area residents who were upset with Buffalo Bill State Park’s recent decision to start enforcing access fees on the generally amenity-less South Fork side of the Buffalo Bill Reservoir. But Wyoming Department of State Parks and Cultural Resources Director Milward Simpson didn’t want the power to waive fees and helped convince the House Travel, Recreation and Wildlife Committee to shoot down the bill on Feb. 2.

“I don’t disagree the (state) fees are reasonable, but at the same time, I don’t think they should charge when it’s an open, undeveloped area,” said Rep. Krone.

Simpson, a Cody native who now lives in Cheyenne, argued in part that the state’s use fees (as low as $27 a year or $4 a day) are inexpensive, that waiving fees in one area could lead to many more requests and lost revenue, and he wondered how his agency would go about isolating free undeveloped areas from paid ones.

“It could be a problem and very difficult to even kind of administer in some of our larger parks,” Simpson said in a Tuesday interview.

Further, he had concerns about the logistics of the bill: as one example, what would happen if the agency wanted to develop an undeveloped area? Simpson said the department can work with local residents and officials to address their concerns at Buffalo Bill, suggesting the agency could craft a specific agreement to waive fees for the homeowners near the South Fork end of the reservoir.

The recreation committee sided with Simpson’s position, with eight of the nine members voting against House Bill 148.

That included the committee chairman, Rep. Ruth Ann Petroff, R-Jackson, who had originally co-sponsored the bill.
Rep. Ruth Ann Petroff, R-Jackson, and Rep. Dan Laursen, R-Powell, chat following a Jan. 16 meeting of the House’s Travel, Recreation and Wildlife Committee. Laursen and Petroff were among the eight committee members (of nine) who voted to kill a bill that could have led to free access to some parts of Buffalo Bill State Park. Photo by CJ Baker

Petroff told the Tribune she’d wanted a response to the situation at Buffalo Bill State Park. After hearing from Simpson, she was convinced the department will work with local residents.

“I would say the feeling of the committee seemed to be that we wanted to give that process an opportunity to work before we make a change that could open up a lot of other parks to requests for exemption of fees,” Petroff said in an email.

Krone, who was not expecting the opposition from Simpson, said in a Tuesday interview that it was a frustrating process. The legislator noted that he, commissioners and others have been discussing a lot of options with park administrators over the past eight months or so.

“I want to hold him (Simpson) to it: If he really believes that we can get this solved agency-to-agency, then I’m all for it,” Krone said. “But it’s going to take some action on their end, for sure.”

Simpson said the agency could start meeting with the park’s nearby homeowners in the spring or summer.

“I would say the feeling of the committee seemed to be that we wanted to give that process an opportunity to work before we make a change that could open up a lot of other parks to requests for exemption of fees,” Rep. Petroff said.

Commissioners, some residents and Krone have said anyone should be able to freely use the South Fork area of the park — as they did before the department began enforcing the fee schedule last year.

“I don’t disagree the (state) fees are reasonable, but at the same time, I don’t think they should charge when it’s an open, undeveloped area,” Krone said.

Rep. Dan Laursen, R-Powell, was among the committee members who voted against Krone’s proposal.

Laursen’s nay vote didn’t sit well with Park County Commission Chairman Joe Tilden, a South Fork resident who had championed the “very important bill.”

Tilden singled out Laursen for criticism during the commission’s Feb. 3 meeting, saying Laursen had “assured me that we had his support on it.”

“It’s important to residents of Park County,” Tilden said. “And when somebody tells me they’re going to support it and don’t, it kind of upsets me.”

Tilden told Laursen in an email that “I don’t believe you voted with the best interest of the people in mind.”

In response to that email, Laursen said he’d actually been undecided going into the committee meeting and if he’d led Tilden astray on his views, he hadn’t meant to.

“After hearing the discussion, I believe I made the correct vote,” Laursen added in the email chain, which he provided to the Tribune.

He said the state’s annual pass “is very cheap” and noted the money goes towards maintaining the state’s “quality” recreation areas and historic sites.

“After hearing the discussion, I believe I made the correct vote,” said Rep. Laursen of his no vote.

Laursen also said separating out undeveloped areas from developed ones “would be pretty ugly” and an enforcement issue. He also had concerns that not collecting fees might have affected state parks’ relationship with the federal Bureau of Reclamation, which owns the reservoir.

“I can say right now that changing my vote would have not changed the outcome and I could have done that easily and you would never know if you were not present,” Laursen told Tilden in the email.

Actually, while failed Senate committee votes are not reported on the Legislature’s website, failed House committee votes are — in near-real time. Other sponsors of the bill included Rep. David Northrup, R-Powell, and Sen. Hank Coe, R-Cody.

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