Two weeks in the West

  • New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson


"I'm sucking up to you. But you know, when you’re at 13 percent, you’ve got to do something."

—New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, seeking support for his Democratic presidential campaign at an Aug. 22 forum at the University of Nevada-Reno, where he vowed that if he wins, he’ll fund all kinds of education programs. 

All over the country, people are finding it harder to afford a doctor when they get sick. Forty-seven million Americans - or 15.8 percent - lacked health insurance in 2006, 2.2 million more than the year before. According to recent U.S. Census Bureau figures, Westerners are even worse off, with a 17.9 percent rate of uninsured. Texas leads the country in the rate of uninsured, but New Mexico, Arizona, California and Nevada are all close behind, with uninsured rates ranging from 21 to 18.3 percent. Native Americans are in especially bad shape, with 31 percent uninsured. 

Various factors have been blamed for the increase. The Economic Policy Institute, a left-leaning think tank, points to the decrease in employer-provided health insurance. Seven years ago, 64 percent of workers got health coverage from their jobs; fewer than 60 percent receive it now. Others blame immigration: A whopping 45 percent of foreign-born non-citizens lack health insurance, which can drag down numbers in immigrant-heavy states such as California or Arizona. 

On a more positive health-related note, the West remains relatively lean. According to a recent report from the Trust for America's Health, Colorado is the least obese state in the nation, with only 17.6 percent of its residents qualifying as obese. The rest of the Western states also fared better than the nation as a whole. Mississippi, meanwhile, is the fattest state of all - 30.6 percent of its residents are obese. 

Fire was in the news across the West, with political careers, giant puppets and forests all going up in flames. Idaho Republican Sen. Larry Craig claimed he wasn't gay even though he pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct for soliciting sex from an undercover cop in an airport bathroom. But his claims didn't go far with colleagues within his own party, many of whom denounced his behavior. On Sept. 2, Craig said he would resign at the end of the month, effectively ending an influential political career that spanned nearly four decades. Then, he shifted his stance, saying he would rescind his plea, fight the charges against him and possibly not resign. Craig has opposed gun control, supported resource extraction on public lands and was no friend to salmon or, for that matter, gays. Idaho Gov. Butch Otter, R, will appoint Craig's replacement. 

Burning Man - the multi-day bacchanalian extravaganza of grooviness, dust, sex and staring at the sun for hours on end in the Nevada desert - suffered a case of premature conflagration in August. Someone furtively torched the big guy four days early, an event normally saved for the climax of the festival. The man who has been charged with the crime, Paul Addis, told Wired magazine that Burning Man had become an "Alterna-Disney." 

Sun Valley ski resort in Idaho told prospective visitors to stay away because of wildfire raging in the area, and turned on snowmaking machines to keep the flames at bay. The fire forced the evacuation of 1,000 homes. Wealthy homeowners received extra protection: A high-end insurance company sent private contractors in to douse their mansions with fire-retardant. In Colorado, Eagle County and the town of Vail - home to many affluent folks - forked out $400,000 to help the Forest Service cut a 200-acre firebreak in a beetle-infested forest near town. 

Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer, D, called on his state's Legislature to set aside $55 million to fight wildfires that have already charred more than 400,000 acres of Montana this summer. And scientists in Idaho are hoping to battle cheatgrass, one of the West's most notorious fire-feeding noxious weeds, with the Black Fingers of Death, a fungus that attacks the grass' seeds. 

Maybe they just need more nightclubs. Wyoming's economy may be booming, and high-paying energy jobs plentiful, but that apparently hasn't made the state any more desirable for young people. A recent study by the Wyoming Department of Employment showed that workers between the ages of 16 and 34 are leaving the state at about the same rate as a decade ago, before the boom began. 

Housing prices nationwide continue to drop at levels not seen since the Depression, and economists expect the decline to continue. Arizona home prices are down for the first time in 16 years, and Nevada leads the nation in investor-owned foreclosures. Wyoming seems to have dodged the bullet so far, and its economy continues to boom. That hasn't helped the U.S. Forest Service, which may move the Bridger-Teton National Forest supervisor's office out of Jackson, Wyo., because of high housing costs.

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