The other evening, I drove out to the unofficial shooting range in the hills outside of town. It consists of a metal shack and a dusty flat area glinting with bullet shells, where locals fire away at a remarkable variety of appliances, plastic chairs and other refuse. Hardly any vegetation covers the denuded hills, save a scattering of sagebrush and exotic weeds. It’s a pretty ugly place.
But the sun was sinking and the
light was doing spectacular things to the hills and the clouds
above them when I drove up. There was not another living soul
around. In the gathering quiet, I heard the soft call of a
Townsend’s solitaire and the distant drone of a small plane
heading for the Paonia airstrip. Over the hills a giant moon rose.
As I chased the fading sunlight with my camera, I couldn’t
imagine a more lovely setting.
The arid, inland West is
filled with places that, like the shooting range, are beautiful and
ugly at the same time. Wamsutter, Wyo., the subject of this
issue’s cover story by Ray Ring, is one of them.
Located on Interstate 80 in the middle of the bleak and spectacular
Red Desert, the town has survived for a century on the back of one
boom after another. The latest is fueled by natural gas, but
although industry is pumping out millions of dollars worth of
energy, the town remains as impoverished as ever. The reason? The
oil and gas industry and the state of Wyoming have rigged the
system so that the wealth goes to corporate headquarters elsewhere,
and to state and county coffers in the form of taxes and impact
fees. Towns like Wamsutter have to beg for a few cents.
And so, as Ring reports, the town has "no grocery store, no bank,
no newspaper, no high school, no doctor, not even a veterinarian."
This is a tough pill to swallow for the locals who would like to
see Wamsutter become something more than a warehouse and barracks
for industry. But it is a sobering reminder that community and
environment are still afterthoughts to industrial profits in our
region. This is also true for the "New West" industries of outdoor
recreation and second-home real estate in the most beautiful parts
of the West. But it is most starkly evident in the gas fields of
aesthetically challenged places like Wamsutter.
will never be the kind of quaint and beautiful town that tourists
flock to visit. But with a little more investment from industry and
the state, it could be more than it is today. It could have homes
with real foundations, a meaningful recreation program for kids and
workers, and a way to preserve what’s left of the
town’s rich history. It could have a future beyond the next,
If we write off the Wamsutters of the
world, we accede to the debilitating notion that the West is simply
an industrial colony. If we don’t, we build the foundations
for lasting communities that honor and celebrate their own rough