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for people who care about the West

The life of an energy colony


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


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.”


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.”


Wyoming becomes the 44th state.


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.


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.


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.”


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).


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.


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.


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.’”


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.”


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