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Know the West

Harsh words from inside the Beltway


Note: in the print edition of this issue, this article appears as a sidebar to another article, "Keeping 'em down on the High Plains."

On Oct. 6, 1999, Wyoming got another scolding from the outside. After attending a University of Wyoming-sponsored conference titled "Leadership and the Future of Wyoming," Washington Post columnist David Broder chided Wyoming for its paucity of jobs, continuing dependence on oil and gas revenue, and lack of leadership.

Wyoming officials responded by calling the column shallow and inaccurate, but Broder touched a raw nerve when he commented that Wyoming "has a governor and congressional delegation notable only for their anonymity."

It's understandable that Wyoming resents outside "experts" disparaging their elected officials. But now, even insiders can no longer keep quiet. At the University of Wyoming conference, which was part of the Milward Simpson Distinguished Lecture Series, Al Simpson, who was a national figure when he represented Wyoming in the United States Senate, stood up in the audience and said, "The only real leader in Wyoming today is Philip Dubois."

Dubois has been the president of the University of Wyoming since April of 1997. Thus far, he's been noted for his handling of the grisly Matthew Shepard murder, his attentiveness to legislative affairs and his grassroots effort to improve academic rigor at Laramie.

Even James Watt, whose pro-commodity policies as President Reagan's secretary of the Interior put conservationists in a panic, told the conference audience that he "sees hard times ahead for Wyoming."

It remains a mystery that a state so enthralled with independence and egalitarianism so patently advocates public policy that favors neither.

The millions the state spends each year in low-interest agricultural loans have not led to successful small-time ranching. At an average of 3,791 acres, Wyoming's ranches are eight times the national average in size. The industry pays less than 2 percent of the state's property taxes, contributes 5 percent of gross state product and provides only 6 percent of the employment.

The multinational oil companies that haven't left Wyoming are also getting bigger. So severe is the regional contraction that the Rocky Mountain Oil and Gas Association folded up shop last May. Wyoming leads the nation in coal production, an industry rife with consolidation. In the past year, Arch Minerals merged with Ashland Coal and ARCO coal; Kennecott Energy now belongs to the London-based Rio Tinto; Peabody Coal was bought by Lehman Merchant Banking Partners; and Cyprus/Amax Coal sold its interests to the German mining conglomerate RAG International Mining.

All companies have operations in Wyoming, but such amalgamation rarely means new jobs.

Wyoming already suffers from a brain-drain and horrendous job turnover, although not in mining. In 1997, it had 242,000 job hires and 231,000 exits. Why?

Right now, Wyoming manages seven community colleges and one under-funded university, and its economic policy gives millions each year in tax breaks to energy companies and a marginal agricultural economy.

But it is voices like Watt and Simpson, both of whom are insiders looking in, that may spur change. Economic historian David Landes once wrote that, when it comes to fighting poverty, "what counts is work, thrift, honesty, patience, tenacity." Wyoming has those in spades; what the state needs is leaders.