The life of an energy colony

  • A track gang makes its way into Wyoming from Edgemont, South Dakota

    American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming
  • "Trail Herd Watering," a 1905 photochromic image

    Detroit Publishing Co., courtesy wyomingtalesandtrails.com
  • Midwest Oil Field around 1920, when about one-fifth of all petroleum produced in the U.S. came from a single field north of Casper

    courtesy www.wyomingtalesandtrails.com
  • A wheat field near Newcastle around 1908

    J.E. Stimson Collection, Wyoming State Archives
  • A bronc rider has decorated Wyoming license plates since 1935

  • Touting its low taxes, Wyoming tries to attract new businesses in this 1948 ad. Even so, only about 40 of the state's 114 years have not been lean

    1948 Directory of Wyoming Manufacturers, Mines and Oil Producers
  • Moving vans headed out in the 1980s as the boom-and-bust cycle continued

    Mike McClure
  • Jeffrey City boomed as a uranium town, then completely emptied out with a bust

    Mike McClure
  • The 2002 Wyoming highway map has this message inside: "(We) urge all freedom-loving people to 'Cowboy Up' with us and America in this time of national ... need - until what needs doin' is done."

 

Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story, "Wyoming at a crossroads."

1869:

Wyoming is formed as an official territory for one purpose only: advancing the cause of the Union Pacific Railroad. The railroad wants access to southwest Wyoming’s coal fields on its transcontinental journey to the West Coast. Gov. John Campbell tells Wyoming’s nascent legislative assembly, “It is our duty to shape our action in all the departments of the Territorial government so as to assist in carrying out the objective (of) the proprietors ... of the railroad.”

1880s:

Failing to attract the entrepreneurs who built other states — small-acreage farmers and hard-rock miners — Wyoming turns to cattle ranching. The state’s herd quickly grows to more than a million cows, mostly owned by a few huge ranches. Then winter die-off and a market crash begin Wyoming’s long pattern of boom and bust. The wealthy are able to buy even more land during the bust, but everyone else suffers or flees. Gov. Thomas Moonlight worries that power lies “in the hands of a few.”

1890:

Wyoming becomes the 44th state.

1920s:

Deflation flattens Wyoming agriculture; the price of a bushel of wheat drops from $2.43 to 93 cents. The Great Depression begins early and lasts twice as long as it will in other states. Lack of oversight on a new major player — the oil and gas industry — allows a near monopoly. At one point, Standard Oil of Indiana controls more than 97 percent of Wyoming’s crude oil production.

1930s:

For working cowboys, average wages run about $30 per month, with room and board — still roughly the same as a half-century earlier. Yet Secretary of State Lester Hunt puts the bucking bronco on the state license plate, defining Wyoming’s self-image.

1937:

Thurman Arnold, a Laramie native who has become a Yale law professor, says: “No able lawyer has any business settling in Wyoming under present economic conditions. ... That is not only true of lawyers but (also) of university professors or anyone else who wants either money, intellectual contacts or anything else. Economic disadvantage creates a backward country.”

1950s:

Attempts to lure more extractive industries to Wyoming bring increased production of coal, oil, phosphate, trona, uranium, bentonite, gypsum and taconite. Even with all the new activity, people aren’t staying; from 1950 to 1960, Wyoming loses 19,700 people in net migration (includes births and deaths).

1957:

Tom Bell, a young master’s candidate in zoology at the University of Wyoming, writes his thesis, “A Study of the Economic Values of Wyoming’s Wildlife Resources.” He finds that tourism, hunting and fishing generate about $150 million a year, while total agricultural production is only about $100 million. Wyoming’s leaders pay no attention. Bell goes on to found High Country News in 1970.

1962:

Hired by the state to perform yet another economic study, the Armour Research Foundation issues discouraging words: “Because of (the) rugged mountains, barren plains and short growing season ... agriculture in Wyoming has historically been limited,” which has caused a “retardation” of any attempts to form a balanced economy. The researchers observe, “The attitude that ‘Wyoming is fine the way it is,’ is held by key Wyoming residents who are in a position (of) influence ... it is unfortunate when a minority in a community can discourage growth.” 1965: University of Wyoming demographer Thomas Davis finds shocking rates of rural poverty, and reports the state is also losing people in key age brackets — teenagers and men over 30 years old. “The state lacks many of the amenities and jobs to retain the most productive age groups.” During this decade, Wyoming loses 39,000 people in total net migration.

1970s:

Riding an oil boom, Wyoming gains about 140,000 people during this decade. Gov. Stan Hathaway recruits more out-of-state corporations, and state government begins to reap the first significant taxes on extractive industries. But even Hathaway eventually admits that relying on industry to fund state government has drawbacks. “It bothers me that we created something that the majority of people in Wyoming said, ‘My God, this is a free ride.’”

1980s:

Oil and uranium bust, banks close, businesses collapse, bankruptcy papers get filed by the boxload. Wyoming loses about 16,000 people during this decade. 1990s: Commodity markets rebound, and Wyoming gains 40,000 people this decade. But the good times don’t stop the exodus of young people. Only two of the state’s 23 counties have increasing school enrollments. “We actually had a decrease among (people) who are 34 (years old) and younger,” says Jonathan Schechter of the Charture Institute in Jackson. “We don’t have the (young) generation making babies. We are in a demographic death spiral.”

Today:

Riding a boom in coal and gas revenues, Wyoming looks more prosperous than other states that are burdened by deficits. Yet Wyoming still has the smallest population of any state in the nation (about a half-million people), and runs dead last in high-tech jobs. Of Wyoming’s current crop of college graduates, 50 to 75 percent leave the state looking for work.

Timeline adapted from the book, Pushed Off the Mountain, Sold Down the River: Wyoming’s Search for its Soul, by Sam Western, Homestead Publishing, 2002

High Country News Classifieds
  • STAFF ATTORNEY
    The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA), Utah's largest conservation organization, has an immediate opening in its Salt Lake City office for a staff attorney. SUWA's...
  • DEVELOPMENT & COMMUNICATION SPECIALIST
    Idaho Walk Bike Alliance seeks a lover of bicycling, walking, and all modes of active transportation who willingly puts the car in the garage and...
  • COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR
    Friends of Inyo - the Communications Director is a full-time permanent position that reports to the Executive Director and utilizes communication strategies and production skills...
  • INDIGENOUS AFFAIRS EDITOR
    High Country News seeks an editor to oversee the work of our award-winning Indigenous Affairs Desk. This individual will lead a team of passionate journalists...
  • HIKING TO THE EDGE:
    Confronting Cancer in Rocky Mountain National Park. Poetry and photos on survival thinking. E-book and paperback available at Amazon.com.
  • OPERATIONS MANAGER
    Founded in 1936, the National Wildlife Federation has grown into America's largest and most trusted grassroots conservation organization with 53 state/territorial affiliates and more than...
  • IPLC RIGHTS AND EQUITY PROGRAM ASSOCIATE
    A LITTLE ABOUT US Founded in 1951, the Nature Conservancy is a global conservation organization dedicated to conserving the lands and waters on which all...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR FUTURE WEST
    Future West seeks an executive director to lead this dynamic organization into the future. Based in Bozeman, MT this well-respected nonprofit provides communities in the...
  • PART-TIME EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Mitchell Museum of the American Indian Location: Evanston, IL Salary Range: $45,000 @ 24 hours per week. send resume: [email protected] www.mitchellmuseum.org
  • COMMUNICATIONS LEAD
    Southeast Alaska Conservation Council is hiring! Who We Are: The Southeast Alaska Conservation Council (SEACC) is a small grassroots nonprofit based out of Juneau, Alaska,...
  • SENIOR POLICY ADVISOR
    Since 1989, The Nature Conservancy in Alaska has been doing work you can believe in protecting the lands and waters that all life depends on....
  • OUTDOOR PROGRAM - ASSISTANT DIRECTOR
    St. Lawrence University seeks to fill the position of Assistant Director in the Outdoor Program. To view the complete position description, including minimum qualifications required,...
  • PUBLIC LANDS DIRECTOR
    Job Announcement Conserve Southwest Utah is seeking a dedicated advocate for conservation and public lands Public Lands Director a "make a difference" position Conserve Southwest...
  • FOR SALE
    Yellowstone Llamas Successful Yellowstone NP concession Flexible packages
  • DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT & MARKETING
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners is seeking a full-time Director of Development & Marketing. This is a senior position responsible for the development of all marketing...
  • LEGAL DIRECTOR
    The Legal Director will work closely with the Executive Director in cultivating a renewed vision at NMELC that integrates diversity, equity, and justice. Black, Indigenous,...
  • WE'RE LOOKING FOR LEADERS!
    As we celebrate 50 years of great Western journalism, High Country News is looking for a few new board members to help set a course...
  • WIND RIVER WRITERS AND PHOTOGRAPHERS RETREAT BY THE NATIONAL BIGHORN SHEEP CENTER
    Enhance your writing or photography skills with world-class instructors in the beautiful Wind River Mountains. All skill levels welcome. Continuing education credits available.
  • EARTH CRUISER FX FOR SALE
    Overland Vehicle for travel on or off road. Fully self contained. Less than 41,000 miles. Recently fully serviced Located in Redmond, OR $215'000.
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    identifies suspect buried trash, tanks, drums &/or utilities and conducts custom-designed subsurface investigations that support post-damage litigation.