Wyoming is a poor state that exports talent. Will that ever change?

Two books examine the state’s homogenous economy and brain drain.

 

“(Wyoming is) a poor, friendly, hard-working state that exports everything, especially talent. The state leaks brain power like thin tea through a colander.”

I was shocked — yet gratified — to read such a blunt description of my home state in the first pages of Samuel Western’s Pushed Off the Mountain, Sold Down the River: Wyoming’s Search for Its Soul. I, too, was once a talented (if ornery) Wyoming high school student who saw no opportunity here and split after graduation.

Thirteen years later, I’m back, and Western’s slim yet sweeping political-economic history has fleshed out my understanding of the state and why people like me so often leave. I recognized the outlines of the book’s characters — state leaders, drunk on the myth of Wyoming’s “rugged independence,” betting that cattle, oil, gas and coal would bring us eternal abundance. Western filled in those outlines with anecdotes and observations: “Out of (Wyoming’s) 112 years of existence, probably only forty were not lean,” he wrote. “For example, in 1968, after the United States had enjoyed one of the longest economic expansions of the twentieth century, then-Governor Stanley K. Hathaway discovered that Wyoming had $80.00 in the state’s general fund. … How could one of the leading energy states in the nation be so poor?”

Pushed Off the Mountain had been out for more than a decade when I finally read it in 2014. In the interim, fracking brought Wyoming an energy boom. Not much had fundamentally changed — the state’s economy remained homogenous, young people continued to leave in droves, and lawmakers hadn’t a clue how to stop it. So I wondered what else had happened since Western’s book was published in 2002.

Now, a damning sequel of sorts provides some answers.

Jeffrey A. Lockwood’s Behind the Carbon Curtain: The Energy Industry, Political Censorship, and Free Speech tracks how mining companies colluded with politicians during Wyoming’s 2000s boom to suppress science, art and dissent. Lockwood, an entomologist and creative writing professor at the University of Wyoming, identifies entire constellations of these instances, showing how corporate power, political cowardliness and the “learned helplessness” of Wyoming’s citizenry have preserved the state as a lucrative playground for mining companies devoid of much opportunity for anyone else. He quotes a community leader from Carbon County, where the median income is lower than Mississippi’s despite its mineral wealth: “You graduate from high school over in Hanna, and then what are you going to do? If you want to earn a living, you’re going to have to go to work in the mines, and if you don’t want to do that, you’re screwed.”

Western rooted Pushed Off the Mountain’s narrative in Wyoming’s frontier history of failed homestead agriculture and imperial cattle barons. These factors, he wrote, helped develop a culture lacking entrepreneurial spirit. Settlers became accustomed to quasi serfdom. Since the farming was bad, they had no choice: Work for the big ranchers or leave the state. Today, Lockwood says, fossil-fuel CEOs have replaced cattle barons, and young people, lacking other jobs, are funneled either into the energy industry or out of Wyoming.

Roy Merrill, an engineer at a Wold Energy Partners drilling site near Rolling Hills, points out various parts of an oil rig. More oil and gas jobs have become available recently in Wyoming, despite the dying boom.
Josh Galemore/Casper Star-Tribune

Lockwood draws his story largely from interviews with people who have learned firsthand how jealously these new barons guard their power. He quotes an art museum curator in Casper who received threats from a state legislator and Anadarko executives over an exhibition of photographs that depicted mining’s damage to the land: “(The curator) was deeply shaken by ‘how such an enormous, successful, powerful, wealthy industry remains so thin-skinned to even the smallest criticism or challenge, so petulant and angry when questioned.’ ”

Throughout the book, Lockwood reveals how energy corporations suppress information they find disagreeable, and not just in Wyoming. Indeed, scientists worldwide have lost funding and jobs, citizens have been harassed and silenced, and government agencies have been cowed into a submission much like that described in Carbon Curtain.

Less common, perhaps — at least in the “free world” — is the suppression of art. But the Casper museum canceled that photo exhibition when its oil-rich benefactors threatened to cut its funding. Worse, the curator was forced to sign an agreement stating that future exhibitions had to be approved by the board. Lockwood describes how this emboldened coal companies a couple years later to demand that the University of Wyoming remove an artwork that referenced global warming.

Today, the boom is dying — coal, oil and gas prices are all down — and Wyoming once again faces lean years. The state is losing population while lawmakers struggle to fund public schools and infrastructure. Many of the leaders Lockwood vilifies remain in power, but a new generation is working to figure out how to stop Wyoming from remaining a poor state that exports talent.

No how-to manual for this work exists. But Western and Lockwood’s books show us the currents against which we must swim.

High Country News Classifieds
  • CARPENTER WANTED
    CARPENTER WANTED. Come to Ketchikan and check out the Rainforest on the coast, HIke the shorelines, hug the big trees, watch deer in the muskeg...
  • AUDIENCE ENGAGEMENT EDITOR
    High Country News (HCN) seeks an audience editor to attract and acquire new audiences and deepen engagement with them - in our newsletters, on our...
  • COMMUNITY MARKETER
    High Country News (HCN) is looking for a Community Marketer to build and strengthen relationships between HCN and other organizations and individuals, with the aim...
  • FINANCE & OPERATIONS MANAGER
    Job Announcement: Finance and Operations Manager Announcement date: July 16, 2021 Applications will be reviewed on an ongoing basis and first review will begin: August...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Job Announcement: Development Director Announcement date: July 16, 2021 Applications will be reviewed on an ongoing basis and first review will begin: August 9, 2021...
  • HECHO POLICY AND ADVOCACY MANAGER
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • HECHO NEW MEXICO SENIOR FIELD COORDINATOR
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • IDAHO STATE DIRECTOR
    The Wilderness Society is seeking a full time Idaho State Director who will preferably be based in Boise, Idaho. This position is part of our...
  • CAUCASIAN OVCHARKA PUPPIES
    Strong loyal companions. Ready to protect your family and property. Proven against wolves and grizzlies. Imported bloodlines. Well socialized.
  • DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    The Nature Conservancy in Alaska is dedicated to saving the lands and waters on which all life depends. For more than 30 years, TNC has...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY, CLIMATE AND ENERGY PROGRAM
    STAFF ATTORNEY POSITION OPENING https://westernlaw.org/career-opportunity-climate-energy-staff-attorney/ ************************************************** Position Title: Climate and Energy Program Staff Attorney Reports to: Climate and Energy Program Director Location: Helena, Montana; other...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY, WILDLANDS AND WILDLIFE PROGRAM
    STAFF ATTORNEY POSITION OPENING https://westernlaw.org/career-opportunity-wildlands-staff-attorney/ ************************************************** Position Title: Wildlands and Wildlife Program Staff Attorney Reports to: Wildlands and Wildlife Program Director Location: Portland or Eugene,...
  • DISCOUNT SOLAR PANELS
    New w/25 year warranty. Shipped anywhere in the lower 48. Minimum order of 10 units. Call, text or email for current prices. .50-.80/ watt
  • SWEET MOUNTAIN HOME
    3.8 acres in pine and fir forest on a year round creek. Custom home, 2x6 framing, radiant heat, wrap around decks and established berry patch....
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    "More Data, Less Digging" Find groundwater and reduce excavation costs!
  • CUSTOMER SERVICE ASSISTANT - (PART-TIME)
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a part-time Customer Service Assistant, based at...
  • LEGAL DIRECTOR AND STAFF ATTORNEY
    Friends of the San Juans' Legal Director and Staff Attorney ("Legal Director") leads our legal advocacy and litigation practice and participates in many other organizational...
  • SPRING-FED PARCELS ON THE UPPER SAC RIVER
    Adjacent parcels above the Upper Sacramento river, near Dunsmuir. The smaller is just under 3 acres, with the larger at just under 15 acres. Multiple...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Wilderness Volunteers Wilderness Volunteers (WV), a 24-year leader in preserving our nation's wildlands, is seeking a motivated person with deep outdoor interests to guide our...
  • POEM+ NEWSLETTER
    Start each month with a poem in your inbox by signing up for Taylor S. Winchell's monthly Poem+ Newsletter. No frills. No news. No politics....