A few months ago, while scouring Wyoming’s Powder River Basin for evidence that the West had gone global, I drove my little rental car into Gillette, a once humble little burg that has ridden a coal mining and methane boom to become one of the state’s biggest cities. I saw my share of strip malls and a combination of older, ramshackle houses and newer McMansions that were already feeling the strain of Wyoming’s winds. I also saw a lot of Hummers.
It wasn’t that long ago that we were writing about how both the Old West and New West economies were overheated, dueling for the region’s workers. But over the course of just a few years, the housing bust, on the one hand, and foreign demand for commodities like oil and copper, on the other, has dramatically rearranged the economic landscape of the West. For now, let's call it the Hummer Syndrome.
The latest reminder of this Syndrome came just last month, when analysts at Policom ranked the nation’s “micropolitan” areas based on their economic health. Durango, Colo., topped the list and Gillette was third. Gillette’s economic engine, and reason for its high ranking, are the massive coal mines of the Powder River Basin along with coalbed methane. The area is also home to uranium mines, a proposed rare earth mine and oil drilling.
At first glance, Durango’s top-ranking seems to testify to the health of the New West economies. After all, it’s an amenity town if there ever was one, peopled with more doctors, lawyers and chronic raft guides than it knows what to do with. But Policom based its ranking on data from the whole of La Plata County, which overlays the San Juan Basin, one of the richest natural gas fields in the country. About one-third of La Plata County’s economy is rooted in natural gas extraction, and the overall financial health is being buoyed by the Southern Ute Tribe (whose wealth is derived from oil and gas) and BP, which has some 3,000 gas wells in the San Juan Basin.
The latest unemployment figures tell us the same story. In early August, the HCN Range blog reported that rural employment is slightly better in the Interior West than elsewhere. But overall Western employment figures are in many cases held aloft by extraction counties and not much else. Sublette County in Wyoming, for example, has a 3.0 percent unemployment rate, less than a third of the national rate. Campbell County, home of Gillette, is below 5 percent. Some of the lowest unemployment rates in the country are in North Dakota, which is experiencing a massive oil drilling boom. Nevada's job numbers are all bad, but the mining counties of Elko and Eureka (7 percent unemployment) are doing much better than Clark County, home of Las Vegas (14 percent unemployment).
Emerging from this new economic landscape are both highs and lows. Gillete's median household income as of the latest Census data was about $70,000, and nearly a third of its families had an income of over $100,000, making it one of the richest counties in the Interior West. But the trickle-down effect is elusive: Women who work full-time in Gillette make about half of what their male counterparts do, and about one-fourth of all single mothers live under the poverty line. (Even if you are getting a piece of that mining and drilling cash, you've got other worries: Workplace fatalities in Wyoming rose by 15 in 2010, with nearly 30 percent of the deaths occurring in the natural resource industries. In the last two weeks, alone, a drill-rig explosion in Converse County, Wyo., killed three workers, and a contractor was killed at one of the Powder River Basin’s gargantuan coal mines.)
Now don’t get me wrong. I’m happy for the miners and roughnecks who are pulling in $80k to $100k per year, and I don’t begrudge them driving around Gillette in monstrous, costly vehicles. What I find jarring is what it seems to be telling us: That the idea that the Interior West had graduated from being a natural resource frontier to something else may have been an illusion.
If so, that puts us right back to where we were several decades ago, before my parents’ generation began a concerted effort to diversify the region’s economy. They knew that in order to usher out the old economies of logging, mining and drilling -- along with the political structures they had put in place -- they had to figure out a new source of jobs and livelihoods. So they built up the tourism and recreation industries, and posited the idea that natural amenities -- clean air and water and scenery and heritage -- were as valuable as the natural resources you pull out of the ground to mill or to burn. They -- and then my generation too -- pushed clean cottage industries, and envisioned a rural West in which the so-called Creative Class could live and work in small towns without going underground or into the gas fields. The results weren’t always pretty (the amenities boom resulted in sprawl and rush hour traffic jams on rural mountain highways; industrial recreation has trampled the Utah desert), but they at least provided a balance to the extractive industries. The new economies would in turn lead to a shift in the demographic and political landscapes, creating a stronger constituency for protecting the literal landscape.
That balance has not only been thrown off, but the whole structure that it was balancing on seems to have imploded. Tourism may be gasping its way back to life, as are some of the other high-end amenity-based service economies. And there are even one or two bright spots on the manufacturing front here and there. But the real estate and construction machines that came to dominate so many Western economies, and even replace the extractive economies in many ways, have pretty much seized up entirely.
That leaves us with a whole new economic reality that looks a lot like the old one. And unless some of that balance is restored, we can expect to watch the political landscape, and the literal landscape, slide back to those old days as well.
Jonathan Thompson is a contributing editor to High Country News. He is the magazine's former editor-in-chief and is now a Ted Scripps Fellow in Environmental Journalism in Boulder, Colo.