Dubois council opts out of Continental Divide Trail-town designation

WYOMING -- Dubois has declined to back an effort to obtain Continental Divide Trail gateway community status, which advocates say would raise the town’s profile as an outdoor recreation destination and help connect CDT trail users with its services. 

The Dubois Town Council on April 13 decided not to formally support the effort with a letter. The Wind River Visitors Council sought the letter as part of its application to secure the status, arguing Dubois would benefit from marketing itself as friendly to outdoor recreation and users of the nearby trail.

Council members cited stories of problematic hiker behavior in town establishments, raised worries the effort could lead to loss of multi-use trails and expressed displeasure with the timeline — those spearheading the effort hoped designation could be achieved by early May. 

“We don’t live here so that people tell us what to do,” Mayor John Meyer said. “In fact if somebody wants to come in and tell us what to do, more than likely we show them the door very quickly.”

The town council can perhaps revisit the proposal, he said, but it needs to better understand the designation first. “So I just think that what I’m hearing is we need some more information to help us maybe change some minds.”

The body’s refusal to support the effort could spell its defeat. According to the Continental Divide Trail Coalition, which administers the gateway program, the town or county government of the community that is applying must approve the designation. 

The Lander City Council took the opposite tack when the visitors council approached it with a similar request this spring, embracing the effort to apply for gateway designation for Lander and South Pass City (which is not a municipality). Fremont County, several agencies and individuals supported gateway status for all three communities.

If the CDTC anoints Lander/South Pass as gateway communities, they will join 19 towns along the 3,100-mile trail and three in Wyoming — Pinedale, Rawlins and Riverside/Encampment. 

Most communities consider the status an achievement, citizen Beth Estes, remarked at the meeting. 

“Are other communities looking at this as an honor to be designated as a gateway community, and Dubois is looking at it as a problem?” she asked. “Somehow it seems like that this should be an honor that we’re being designated, as opposed to us looking as though we don’t want this…”

The conflict underscores the state’s varied attitudes toward tourism, as some see the industry as a necessary piece of Wyoming’s economic diversification but others meet outdoor recreation proposals with skepticism.

The CDT hews close to the backbone of the Rocky Mountains from Canada to Mexico, with some 550 miles unfurling through Wyoming. Users include thru-hikers who tackle the entire length, as well as day hikers, mountain bikers, horseback riders and more. 

Obtaining gateway status for the well-known route has long been on the Wind River Visitors Council’s wishlist, Executive Director Helen Wilson said. The trail cuts directly through South Pass and hugs close to Lander and Dubois as it wends through the Wind River Range. Considering the trail’s proximity, the designation “seems obvious.”

The WRVC has been coordinating the effort with the help of three University of Wyoming students in the Outdoor Recreation & Tourism Management program. The group seeks separate designations: one that lumps Lander with South Pass City and one for Dubois. It submitted applications in late March to the Continental Divide Trail Coalition — an organization that promotes, protects and advocates for the trail — with hope the communities will be designated before the students graduate in May. 

A designation helps flag communities as friendly destinations with amenities for hikers. It also aims to engender trail support among locals, said Andrea Kurth, the CDTC’s gateway community program manager. An estimated 600-700 people are expected to attempt thru-hikes this season, she said, and the activity is gaining popularity. 

If designation is granted, the coalition partners with communities to give them a marketing boost. The CDTC also offers funding and networking opportunities, it says. A gateway community is on the hook to host at least one annual event tied to the trail.

When the WRVC toured through Fremont County boardrooms to pitch its effort this spring, it mostly met friendly support. The City of Lander and Fremont County submitted support letters along with Wyoming State Parks, the U.S. Forest Service, the National Museum of Military Vehicles in Dubois, Dubois Regional Initiative for a Vital Economy and several individuals.

But when Wilson presented to the Dubois Town Council on March 23, councilors and citizens were more skeptical. Some said hikers don’t spend much money but do smell bad, and others raised worries about the bustling town’s ability to handle even more summer visitors. It was the group’s first and only speedbump, Wilson said. 

The body decided to revisit the issue on April 13.

When they convened, a conversation unfolded about the preservation of trails, the necessity of a designation, the town’s autonomy to dictate its own fate and the desire of the municipality to invite in more visitors. 

Resident Patrick Neary researched the trail, gateway status program and groups involved with the CDTC body that administers it, he told the council.

“And in contrast to some of the rumors you see around town, there’s no environmental groups associated,” he said. Apart from some national outdoor companies, he said “what I see here is a whole bunch of small businessmen on main street.”

The designation can bolster these local businesses, he said. “To me this is about business development.”

Others saw it differently. Council members Bruce Thompson and Rick Lee said they worry the designation could lead to loss of motorized travel on nearby multi-use trails. 

The town’s grocery store and post office are overwhelmed as is, longtime resident Mike Neubauer said. “So how are we going to cope with everything that’s coming in?”

Booming demand, Neary countered, “is a good business problem to have.”

Wilson stressed that gateway status has zero impact on the historic trail, which Congress established 1978. Rather, it applies to the town, better tying it to the internationally known trail. 

“From a tourism perspective, why not put Dubois in the center of that?” Wilson asked.

Council member Randy Lahr said based on past council discussion, “it sounds like these people have three heads and eight legs and they all smell miles away. I don’t like pigeonholing people … and to say that everybody that goes on that trail is a laggard or unclean or uncaring for people’s property, I’d have a hard time generalizing like that.”

Ian Watson manages a hiker/biker shelter through a church, and said his experience has been overwhelmingly positive. When the travelers leave town and spread the word about Dubois, he said, it’s priceless advertising. 

“They’re … very nice people. I love to talk to them. And they love the magic of Dubois,” he said, recommending status support. 

The council wasn’t convinced. Lee said the proposed timeline was rushed — “the government don’t work that way.” Members appeared wary of creating local advisory committee — necessary for designation. 

When resident Sandy Neubauer heard about the proposal, she told the council, “I went to probably 10 business people in this town, most did not know anything about this, and they were all against it.”

Mayor Meyer wants more information on things like how designation has affected other gateway towns, he said. “I just don’t know that right now is the time,” he said. 

In the end, only Lahr voted in support of the letter. 

Wilson expects to hear back on the Lander/South Pass designation soon.

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