In what can only be described as a “game changer” for outdoor recreation opportunities in the Bighorn Mountains, the Sheridan Community Land Trust recently received two grant awards totaling almost $600,000 – all of which will be used to build 15 new trail miles and develop three parking areas in the Bighorn National Forest.

“This truly was a game-changing week for Red Grade Trails,” said Sheridan Community Land Trust Executive Director Brad Bauer, who noted the Wyoming Business Council awarded the project a $500,000 Community Enhancement grant at its Sept. 10 meeting, while the US Forest Service utilized remaining fiscal year funds to contribute $99,914.20 that is already being put to use prepping new trails in the Poverty Flats area.

“In both cases, overwhelming support from our Sheridan County community through trail visits, volunteers and donations is what secured these grants,” Bauer explained. “Thanks to our community and the funds they helped us secure, the majority of what was originally envisioned as a decade-long project will be built in 2021!” 

The new trails in the Bighorn National Forest will largely be shared use and open to all forms of non-motorized recreationists including hikers, mountain bikers, runners, walkers, equestrians, photographers, yoga practitioners, birders, wildlife watchers, flower fanciers, fungi finders, plant peepers and more. Some trails will be single use too, with some routes dedicated specifically to pedestrian, bike or horse use.

Building quality of life infrastructure

Shawn Parker, Executive Director of Sheridan County Travel & Tourism, told the Wyoming Business Council that SCLT’s Red Grade Trails are “a tremendous asset to Sheridan County.”

“From a local perspective, they add to our quality of life by offering access to outdoor recreation right on our doorstep,” Parker related, adding that trail systems like Red Grade Trails support the local economy through tourism and bring new businesses and the employees that work for them to the county.

“Thousands of requests come in each year from people looking for hiking trails, and it’s great to be able to send people out on a short drive to one of SCLT’s trailheads,” Parker explained, pointing out that when he’s asked to help develop business leads, SCLT trails are a first stop.

“I often begin local tours with an exploration of access to the outdoors and the Bighorn Mountains – often using our local trails as a gateway,” Parker closed.

That resonated with members of the Wyoming Business Council, who unanimously approved the Community Enhancement grant.

“The Red Grade Trails System is an economic attractor,” stated Mark Law, a Wyoming Business Council board member who resides in Sheridan.

Law said outdoor recreation opportunities like Red Grade Trails are key to developing this generation of Wyoming’s workforce.   

“Twentysomethings come here for outdoor recreation,” he reasoned. “The return on investment in terms of enhancing our community for a young workforce is a strength of this project.”

Both Parker and Law stressed the growth of outdoor recreation as key to Sheridan County’s future. They cited events like the Big Horn Trail Run and The Dead Swede mountain bike races growing in popularity each year and last year’s reopening of Antelope Butte Mountain Recreation Area.

“There’s a fundamental shift right now,” Law said. “We have a good, strong outdoor base with summer and winter sports. We have these Bighorn Mountains; we need to leverage them.”

That was confirmed by Bighorn National Forest Supervisor Andrew Johnson, who said visitors to the forest have continued to increase.

“Simply put, it’s been bonkers,” Johnson relayed, saying the Bighorns have had visitors from “places we don’t normally see. It’s a common experience across the West.”

“From the start, we’ve supported the development of trails,” he stated; however, sufficient funds to develop projects aren’t always available.

This year, though, was a different story. When there was an opportunity to utilize unspent funds this federal budget year Johnson said securing nearly $100,000 for Red Grade Trails was an easy decision.

“Public access direct to the forest from the foothills is not something we have a lot of here. Red Grade Trails is a unique spot that ties it all together,” he related. “We’re really excited about Red Grade Trails. We see it as a model for what can happen when we work together with the community.”

Community support is key

That community partnership is something that Sheridan County Administrative Director

Renee’ Obermueller said is so appealing about Red Grade Trails.

“The public/private piece is so wonderful,” she said. “It shows that we all can work together.”

That community partnership has been on full display going back nearly a decade to when Red Grade Trails was just an idea. Colin Betzler, a former SCLT Executive Director, said members of the community quickly zeroed in on the Red Grade area as an ideal spot for a community trail system because of its “access, proximity, varied terrain and varied ecosystems for education and outdoor experiences.”  

Soon enough, SCLT was able to secure funds to build six miles of trail and two parking areas at the base of Red Grade Road. Since then, he said, the community has claimed the area as its own.

“For people who call Sheridan County home, Red Grade Trails has become a go-to spot for their own recreation and a go-to spot for really showing off to friends, family and visitors why we love to call Sheridan County home,” Betzler asserted.

That community support has continued to grow like a snowball rolling down Red Grade Trails’ scenic overlooks. Last year, more than 20,000 visits were made to SCLT community trails, hundreds of people have attended events on trails, volunteers donated more than 3,500 hours of their time over the past two years, and more than $100,000 was raised locally as a match for the Wyoming Business Council Community Enhancement grant. That effort culminated in July where donors raised more than $33,000 for Red Grade Trails on the inaugural WyoGives Day.

An additional $18,000 grant from the National Forest Foundation from August augments efforts already underway.

“All of the reasons that launched us to the Red Grade Trails concept have come to fruition. Community has been a great steward in moving Red Grade Trails forward,” Betzler concluded.

Like Parker, Obermueller spoke on behalf of Red Grade Trails in front of the Wyoming Business Council. She, too, saw the trail system as key to the quality of life infrastructure that makes Sheridan County a tremendous place for people to live, work, play, stay and grow.

“I was hoping the Wyoming Business Council would step outside the box a little bit, rather than fund a project that was bricks and pipes,” she opined. “A lot of people use these trails, a lot of people love these trails and a lot of people appreciate these trails.”

Red Grade Trails, Obermueller reasoned, are “another way to be healthy and safer as a community.”

Both Bauer and Obermueller expressed their deep appreciation for the assistance of the Wyoming Business Council and staff, and the Bighorn National Forest for making a truly game-changing week for Red Grade Trails possible.

“The Wyoming Business Council and its staff gave us great advice as we worked on the application. They seemed just as excited about Red Grade Trails as we were,” Obermueller closed.

“This was truly a team effort,” Bauer said, “and the best is yet to come. We can’t wait to see everyone out enjoying our beautiful Bighorns backyard. Thanks to the support of the Wyoming Business Council, Bighorn National Forest and our community, it’ll happen sooner than we ever imagined.”