What Dick Cheney might have learned in Rock Springs, Wyoming

 

It's too bad that Dick Cheney didn't stick around longer in Rock Springs back when he was growing up in the deep West. He worked in the Wyoming city decades ago, in the early 1960s, after he flunked out of Yale. For Cheney, it was a bottom-of-the-heap job, stringing electrical lines as a "groundman."

It was also the scene of one of the future vice president's youthful indiscretions: his second drunken-driving bust. In the summer of 1963 - coincidentally the year I graduated from Rock Springs High - a couple of Rock Springs' finest pulled him over and he ended up paying a $100 fine. Cheney said those driving-while-intoxicated offenses were hard experiences that helped change his direction in life.

If he'd hung around the city a few more years, he might have learned another and perhaps more significant lesson, one applicable to where things - partially under Cheney's direction - seem to be headed in Iraq. Not long after Cheney headed out of Rock Springs and on to a more productive life, things changed dramatically here.

The gritty Wyoming high-desert city was blindsided when a couple of electric-company heavyweights decided - with virtually no public involvement, save for a few clued-in locals figuring to cash in - to build a billion-dollar behemoth, a 2,000-megawatt, coal-fired power plant. That's a plant big enough to produce enough electricity for some 1.6 million people.

At the same time, the 1970s Mideast oil embargo touched off a drilling frenzy nearby, followed by Fortune 500-companies arriving to exploit the area's huge sodium carbonate deposits. Literally thousands of people poured in, overwhelming the community.

The result was predictable: chaos, crime, a shattered community and calls to "do something." Sociologists, ministers and crime-fighters alike jumped on the bandwagon, scared and shaken by Rock Springs' stark fast-growth experience.

Well, it was too late for Rock Springs, the politicians said, but they agreed that in the future, the public would need to know all about big decisions before they got made. Thus was born the Wyoming Industrial Siting Act, a pioneering law based on the National Environmental Policy Act.

It embodied a seemingly simple concept: Any incoming company planning a mega-project had to tell folks up-front what to expect, along with the potential positives, the downsides and the alternatives to such a project.

The human pain of Rock Springs turned out to be a valuable lesson for other Western cities. Rock Springs was forever branded as the quintessential boomtown, where social ills developed and festered. It took a long time to clean up the mess. The city's landscape, with its deteriorating trailer-court leftovers, and its psyche still bear the scars.

Fast-forward to the present, where we hear much talk about Iraq but see little documentation about what's going to happen once we begin the planned "action" against Saddam Hussein. Evil gets a lot of attention. So does the "need" to "do something about terrorists." But at what cost?

Have you seen any "impact statements," environmental or otherwise, assessing potential or likely military casualties? How many Iraqis might die? Have we gotten a clear picture of what will happen after the dust settles in Baghdad? Has the Bush-Cheney administration provided enough information so that people in a democracy can make a good decision?

It's too bad Dick Cheney didn't stick around Rock Springs a little longer so he could experience for himself what can happen when you act first and ask the tough questions later. It was in the summer of 1978, when Cheney was on the campaign trail making his first run for Congress, that Rock Springs hired a police chief to clean up the town. One night, that chief fired a single bullet into the head of his undercover drug detective.

"Self-defense," the chief explained; the detective was about to draw on him. So he shot first. And how did he know the man was planning to shoot? "I could see it in his eyes," the chief testified.

Well, that certainly took care of the problem, or at least, the problem as it was outlined by the police chief: Get him before he gets you. That also seems to be the way the Washington war party, including Vice President Cheney, looks at Saddam Hussein in Iraq.

Before our bombs start dropping, I hope our vice president thinks about Rock Springs and the lessons some of us have had to learn there, because it's all too easy to act fast, but it's harder than hell to put all the pieces back together again, once you've made your move.

Paul Krza grew up in Rock Springs and worked in Wyoming for various newspapers before moving to Socorro, New Mexico.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

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