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Like it or not, change is coming to Wyoming

(Opinion) — Everyone here has a different perspective on what it’s like to live in Wyoming. I wish I could claim native status, but my family moved to Cheyenne in 1969, when my Dad returned from Vietnam. I was in junior high and didn’t know what to expect.

I eventually discovered I loved Wyoming and really had no desire to be anywhere else. My jobs frequently took me to other parts of the state, and I was captivated by how varied the landscape is. You can find diverse beauty everywhere you look, from the Red Desert to the Tetons and from the Wind River to the Bighorns.

Sometimes I wonder why more people don’t move here. Then, like many natives I know, I think they should stay right where they’re at — we can get along just fine without them. But Wyoming has changed a lot in the 46 years I’ve lived here, and it will change even more in the next few years, whether or not we see much of a population boost.

For all of its positives, Wyoming has some negatives that bind us together. We all complain about the weather and its wondrous ability to change from a bright sunny day to a blizzard. You can sit in Laramie’s War Memorial Stadium and almost magically experience all four seasons in one afternoon.

The fact that so many young people leave the state right after high school or college is a shared source of frustration, but what else should we expect? Part of it may just be the need to explore outside Wyoming. But people naturally go to where the jobs are, and there have never been that many here that pay well except for those willing to accept the hard labor and safety risks that go hand-in-hand with working in the minerals industry.

I’ve listened to our community and state leaders talk about the need for economic diversification since I moved here, yet the health of our economy remains steadfastly tied to the ups and downs of fossil fuel prices and production. The state government’s current $1.3 billion budget shortfall through 2018 is the result of downturns in energy development, which we never seem to see coming or prepare for, no matter how many times the boom-and-bust cycle repeats itself.

But we seem to be at an economic crossroads: Circumstances far beyond Wyoming’s control have finally brought us to the point where fossil fuels no longer represent the future. Coal will stay in our nation’s energy mix at some level, and drilling for oil won’t completely disappear. Fracking will likely be more closely regulated as science learns more about the dangers of the process to the environment and human health, but we’ll keep pumping natural gas.

No matter how hard our politicians try to save the minerals industry, Wyoming will be dragged — kicking and screaming if necessary — into the 21st century. The rewards of renewable energy like wind and solar that won’t pollute the planet can no longer be denied, and our state has an abundance of both resources.

For those who say we need to leave the earth a better place for our children and grandchildren, why don’t some of them act like it? We’re not doing any generation a favor by insisting that those who want to better regulate greenhouse gas emissions are the enemy.

Other states that get their electricity from Wyoming power plants and from Wyoming-derived fuel simply don’t care that fossil fuels are the lifeblood of our state’s economy. If they were concerned about our economy, the Pacific Northwest would have opened up its ports for the export of our coal to the Pacific Rim. Our officials who act like Wyoming has an inherent right to do anything it wants to expand our markets were passionately dismissed by an entire region.

The rest of the nation looks at states like Iowa, where more than 40 percent of its electricity is expected to be supplied by wind power by 2020, and is confounded that we don’t seem to be willing or able to adapt to new circumstances. A lesser reliance on fossil fuels doesn’t mean the end of jobs in Wyoming, because there will be plenty of employment in the renewable energy industry. At least there will be if we quit putting regulatory and tax hurdles in the way of wind and solar power and quit protecting coal, oil and gas by all means necessary.

Wyoming citizens value the money fossil fuels bring to the state, but they also value our wildlife and want to protect the environment. Several of our governors have maintained we can develop the heck out of energy resources while keeping our land pristine, but we must do it on our terms.

“Our terms,” though, are starting to wither as the nation and rest of the world grapple with the effects of climate change. Politicians can deny the scientific evidence of man’s role in global warming and even try to keep it out of our children’s textbooks, but the world is quickly passing them by in a remarkable burst of sanity.

Wyoming will have to deal with a lot of changes many won’t like. Some, like the legalization of same-sex marriage, are already here. Others, like the legalization of medical marijuana, will be coming soon. It’s difficult to imagine Wyoming being anything but a red state within the lifetime of anyone reading this, but I expect we’ll start to see fewer far-right conservatives elected, replaced by more moderate and progressive candidates.

Politics naturally ebbs and flows, and I think Wyoming has flowed about as far right as it can. Nationally, Republican politics is in disarray, and if the party’s base continues its love affair with the craziness of Donald Trump, this could be the year the GOP implodes.

I was with other potential jurors at the federal courthouse in Casper a few months ago, and during a break one man started to rant about how the nation would be absolutely destroyed by a Hillary Clinton presidency. He finally paused, confidently waiting for us to agree with his decree.

The guy next to me, who certainly didn’t look like one of the liberal elitists that Fox News warns everyone about 24/7, said matter-of-factly, “Well, I like Hillary. I think she’d make a good president.”

“That makes two of us,” I chimed in. Then another man said he didn’t think the world would collapse if Hillary was in charge.

I couldn’t tell if the Hillary-hater’s face indicated he was mad or just totally perplexed. I imagine it was a combination of the two and he stomped off, probably hoping to find a more politically astute group of real Wyomingites.

The times are indeed changing in Wyoming.

— Columns are the signed perspective of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of WyoFile’s staff, board of directors or its supporters. WyoFile welcomes guest columns and op-ed pieces from all points of view. If you’d like to write a guest column for WyoFile, please contact WyoFile editor-in-chief Dustin Bleizeffer at [email protected]

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About the Author

[email protected]

Kerry Drake is a veteran Wyoming journalist, and a contributor to WyoHistory.org. He also moderates the WyPols blog. He has more than 30 years experience at the Wyoming Eagle and Casper Star-Tribune as a reporter, editor and editorial writer. He lives in Casper.

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4 Responses to Like it or not, change is coming to Wyoming

  1. Anirban (aka Abner) Bhattacharya February 24, 2016 at 5:38 pm #

    We must use nuclear/atomic power, hydroelectric dams & geothermal for energy. Environmental groups such as Wildlife Habitat Council support nuclear energy. American Lung Association supports nuclear/atomic energy esp. as it’s better for the lungs for asthmatics. Also our energy demands are rising. We need to expand nuclear/atomic energy & smaller reactors which can be put underground which don’t pose much risk in worst case accident. Nuclear/atomic energy has advanced greatly since Chernobyl-they already use less Uranium which lasts longer & more energy. Thorium needs to be perfect. Physicist Kirk F. Sorensen is working to perfect the Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor. Coal kills more people worldwide esp. in mining accidents. We need to save fossil fuels for other uses.

    Lansing, Michigan

  2. Mary Grant December 22, 2015 at 2:14 pm #

    I am one of the numerous native Wyomingites who left due to lack of opportunity. Since then, some 50 years ago, I’ve lived and worked in San Francisco, where I found infinitely better job opportunities and a liberal philosophy more akin to my personal beliefs. It saddens me greatly to see that Wyoming hasn’t progressed either socially or politically since I left those many years ago. I am particularly distressed that its governmental policies continue to discriminate against the less fortunate by denying access to healthcare to 18,000 residents, not to mention the treatment of indigenous populations both on and off the reservation. When the governor, with Heart Mountain over his shoulder, states that refugees are not welcome in the Equality State, I see that nothing has changed in any meaningful way. The stubborn grasp on old technologies and the status quo, the boom/bust way of running the state, and the most expensive healthcare in the nation mean that the state will continue to bleed talent while relying upon regressive policies that are socially and politically bankrupt. this makes me very sad.

    Mary Grant

    San Francisco, California

  3. Richard Grayson December 22, 2015 at 7:03 am #

    P.S. – As a Democrat, I take comfort in the man who’s afraid Hillary Clinton would be a disaster as President. Evidently he’s more comfortable with things as they are — which means he thinks Barack Obama isn’t that bad!

    Richard Grayson

    Brooklyn, New York

  4. Richard Grayson December 22, 2015 at 6:53 am #

    The first time I came to Wyoming, in 1998, the state’s slogan was “Wyoming Is What America Was.” It’s a great line to draw in tourists from all over looking to experience the past, but it’s hard to run a contemporary economy on past-based tourism. I went to cattle auctions and rodeos and historical sites and saw some of the magnificent scenery and landscapes, and I even went on a tour of a mine in Gillette. Things actually were not very good then. I was staying as a fellow at the Ucross Foundation, which was a wonderful place paid for with oil company money.

    On May 23, 1998, while I was still in Wyoming, The New York Times (a diehard reader since my 9th-grade English teacher told us that reading that paper was what civilized people did, I got it by postal mail back then — about a week late) published a story with the headline, “Wyoming Is Left Out Of the Rockies’ Boom; Population, Already Smallest, Is Falling.”

    By James Brooke, here are some excerpts from that article 17 years ago:

    >While neighboring Colorado, Utah and Idaho are experiencing some of the fastest population growth rates in the nation, Wyoming, which has only 481,000 people, actually lost population last year as 3,000 residents moved away. Its population of young families dropped by about 20 percent in the 1990’s.

    >At the University of Wyoming in Laramie, about half of this year’s graduates plan to move out of state, according to a recent survey. ”Frankly, I don’t know of any of them that are going to stay in state,” said William Lindberg, chairman of the department of mechanical engineering, one of the areas hit hardest by the exodus of graduates. ”We are educating them to go out of state. We are a marvelous exporter of talent.”

    >While the rest of the Rocky Mountain region has become an envied example of job creation and income growth, Wyoming recently ranked 50th in the nation for creating jobs that add value to a product. In the last 15 years, wages in the state have slumped, to 21 percent below the national average from 11 percent above the national average.

    >”Everywhere else is blossoming — but we are just blah,” said Gus Fleischli, a mining supplier whose three children have moved out of state for jobs…

    >Officials also have to deal with Wyoming’s standoffishness about change. In a survey conducted last fall for the Wyoming Heritage Foundation, a leading business group, one-quarter of respondents did not want the state to spend more money on economic development, and 8 percent described the biggest threat to the state economy as ”people moving here.” …

    >Wyoming is also the state most dependent on the energy industry — a Venezuela on the high plains. Oil, gas, coal and mineral taxes account for about 40 percent of the state budget — one of the nation’s highest ratios. In 1996, these taxes added up to $862 million, the equivalent of $1,800 for every state resident. These cash cows allowed the state to enshrine in its constitution a ban on any personal income tax.

    >Yet over the last 15 years, the total dollar value of Wyoming’s oil and gas production dropped in half, hitting $2.2 billion last year. In the kind of calculus made in all oil exporting nations, for each $1 drop in oil prices, Wyoming loses $10 million in tax revenues. In the last year, oil prices dropped roughly in half. Energy companies are wary of population growth because they fear that they will pay the bills for new schools and roads.

    If you recall, in 1998, oil prices were at lows comparable to today’s lows. The article ends on a somewhat hopeful note:
    >Now a small reverse migration may be starting, as businesses start crossing from northern Colorado into Cheyenne, already Wyoming’s most populous city. Mr. Fleischli, who grew up in Cheyenne, a city of 55,000, said, ”I went to the Chamber of Commerce meeting the other day, and I was amazed at how many people I didn’t know.”

    When I became the default candidate for Congress last year because no Democrat living in Wyoming filed to run, the Chamber of Commerce and other groups asked me, along with all the other candidates, to write about our ideas for creating more economic growth. It was really hard for me, doing a lot of research, to figure out how dynamic change could happen given some of the attitudes I saw.

    Obviously the energy/mining boom-bust cycle has always existed, and Wyoming isn’t the only state or region in the world that faces changes. In some ways, the state’s very small population is self-reinforcing in a world where people are moving to larger and larger cities with their economies of scale and synergy and walkable neighborhoods and the amenities wanted by younger, educated people.

    Change will happen. I remember going with my great-grandmother to visit her sister and brother-in-law in Oil City, Pennsylvania, in the 1950s. The elderly couple, Jewish immigrants from Russia who’d come there half a century before, had prospered running stores that got business from the oil workers in that boom town, but by then, the boom was ending. The large corporations once headquartered in Oil City — Pennzoil, Quaker State, and Wolf’s Head — soon left, as did my great-great-aunt’s children and their descendants.

    This will probably sound like the thoughtless comment of an outsider with little feel for the state, but my own impression is that Wyoming’s misfortune is that it *is* a state rather than a region of another state with a more varied and diverse economy and large enough population to be sustainable. If a million people moved into Wyoming tomorrow, it would cause havoc, but it would have a better economic future. But such a vast state with the population of metropolitan Albuquerque is going to have a difficult problem. Even Walter White couldn’t make enough money with his meth business in so big and spread-out a place.

    Richard Grayson

    Brooklyn, New York

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