It's a common theme here in the West -- during boom times, more workers flood into towns than can be housed. Workers loaded with cash they've made in the oil and gas fields or uranium mines can't find an apartment to rent, while hotels are booked for months, even years in advance. Many end up living in a temporary man-camp or a tent or cramped trailer without electricity. Then overnight, the economy tanks, energy prices plummet, and the jobs evaporate.
It's a story that High Country News has covered dozens of times in its 40-year history, but each time it's with a different twist or a fresh perspective.
Former High Country News publisher Ed Marston wrote in April of 1983 about the spectacular nose-dive that oil shale development took the previous year when Exxon shut down its 'Colony' project in Western Colorado, wiping out thousands of jobs. Marston wrote that it wasn’t a full-scale bust since the project, a huge oil shale mining and refining operation, was just getting underway. But thousands of workers had filled the towns of Rifle, Parachute and Grand Junction to mine the shale and build the facility. (Cover image at left, or click here to download the article as a pdf.)
Just before Christmas, four other companies had pulled out of the project and terminated 1,000 jobs. The demise of Exxon's stake in the project took care of at least another 4,000. One Rifle resident, a hospital administrator, reported that when he "left his nearly empty hospital to go home, he noticed that some of his neighbors weren't around. He saw their lawns were dying and weeds were growing up in what had been well-kept yards. People had simply moved away." Across the West, once bustling communities emptied out as energy jobs dried up and people 'simply moved away.'
Now, nearly three decades later, a similar story is playing out in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico as the latest natural gas boom that's hummed along for nearly a dozen years withers. But as reported in The New York Times, not all of the region's energy centers are suffering. In western North Dakota, an oil boom is drawing thousands of laid-off energy workers and many are finding it easy to make a living, but tough to live.
Hundreds are sleeping in their cars or living in motel rooms, pup tents and tiny campers meant for weekend getaways in warmer climes. They are staying on cots in offices and in sleeping bags in the concrete basements of people they barely know.
Where do you suppose those laid-off energy workers of nearly 30 years ago went to find work? You guessed it, western North Dakota. Randy Bradbury reported on the trend in "North Dakota: The oil boom is on" for the March 19, 1982 issue of High Country News.
"Workers flood Dickinson and Williston, the two largest towns in western North Dakota. Although construction continues at a record pace – despite high interest and the national building slump – new arrivals reportedly have offered rewards in efforts to find places to live," Bradbury wrote. (Cover image at right, or click here to download the article as a pdf.)
Bradbury focused on the strains to the small farming communities, but also the damage to the fragile badlands inflicted by the boom. "In a land where erosion is the law and justice is meted swiftly, drilling platform pads quickly become gullied where they are carved into the steep butte and valley walls."
The boom and bust story is a mainstay in High Country News simply because it's a ubiquitous part of the region's fabric. "Is there anything left to say about boomtowns?" wrote the staff in "Dear Friends" introducing a story in the May 2, 1980 issue about the latest boom to hit Evanston, Wyo.
"Living in a boomtown must be a little like holding hostages or playing pro football – you hear the same dumb questions over and over. Reporters come from Denver, New York, maybe even Australia, to ask you how you're coping."
"The HCN staff has traveled to many boomtowns over the years. Some say we live in one. Usually we focus on something else – a power plant's air pollutants, dangers to the water table, a gas sweetening plant. But it seems important every now and then to ask the same dumb questions. Because every town is different the answers will never be the same.
"Stepping across a busy night-time street in Evanston, you many stumble into a friendly, drunken bunch of rowdies bidding farewell to one of their brethren who's heading back to Missouri. 'I made lots of money,' he says, laughing, leaning against a truck and fingering his suitcase. But his big smile is for Missouri. You pick up your six-pack and dodge zipping trucks to get back across the street to the motel."
We can assure you readers – High Country News will keep reporting on boomtowns because they will likely always be part of the West and because their stories provide important insights. Despite the question we asked three decades ago - a question that crosses our minds even today - we think there's still plenty to say about them.