We’re in this together

 

There is a house in Rawlins, Wyo., that won't sell. It's a bargain, too, at $135,000. In fact, there are 43 houses in Rawlins selling for under $150,000. This is a booming energy town with a housing shortage. People in Rawlins have money. Wyoming has, in fact, the fastest growing median household income of any state.

So why does this house remain on the market?

The mortgage crisis created far from Wyoming has changed the rules on borrowing money. No more nothing or 3 percent down. It's 10 percent up front, and not that many people have $13,500 lying around.

This shifting dynamic is one more blow to the concept of Western exceptionalism. We've heard it all our lives: In the West, we're different. We've got great expanses of public land, we've cornered the market on natural wonders, we have individual freedom and pay little heed to government, and we certainly don't care how they do things back East.

But whether it's ranchette, ranch-style or ranch, it doesn't matter: We are common and we are connected. This region is just as liable as any other to feel the splintering jar of the cue ball caroming in from New York, London or Shanghai.

The crisis also threatens one of the few stabilizing elements of the West. Despite a history of boom-and-bust economies and a transient workforce, homeownership has always been high out here. Utah, for example, is the only state where the homeownership rate has never fallen below 60 percent. We've put our eggs in one basket: our homes. Now, forces far afield from our public-land states threaten that investment.

This shattering of nest-egg wisdom reinforces a lesson the West has learned the hard way. Diversity matters in all forms -- demographically, ecologically, or economically. In the last 40 years, commodities have continually shrunk as a percentage of the West's economy. That's a good thing, but now, with energy prices soaring, it's tempting to slip back into old ways. Let's don't.

In July, oil-and-gas-rich New Mexico was projected to enjoy a $400 million budget surplus. Then it fell to $225 million and now, the projected surplus is around $80 million.

If Lehman Brothers, which was founded in the same year that California endorsed statehood – 1850 -- can get caught with its financial pants down, so can we. Our economies of tourism, healthcare and creativity require just as much attention as do oil and gas.

The crisis has also driven home the fact that most Westerners live in cities, and all are feeling the brunt of bad choices made in New York and Washington. Western cities are reeling from real estate losses. During the last quarter, at least 40 percent of all homes in Las Vegas, Sacramento, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Phoenix were sold at a loss.

Yet the fundamental lesson isn't financial, it's political. The West has often been the lair of the ideologue. They come in all guises, including Ted Kazcynski (Unabomber), Sagebrush Rebellion, Branch Davidians, Proposition 13 (California taxpayer's rights), Aryan Nation. For every reasonable soul we have sent to Washington -- Montana's Mike Mansfield, Idaho's Frank Church -- we elect true believers ready to fight liberals masquerading as moderates who are out to squash our way of life. This includes politicians like Richard Pombo of California, Barbara Cubin of Wyoming, and Helen Chenoweth and Larry Craig, both of Idaho.

Although both Democrats and Republicans share equal blame for allowing this financial mess to deepen and fester, it was precipitated by having a pair of ideological Westerners at the helm. Both Bush and Cheney have been blind to differing opinions and market signals. That made me wary of two more Westerners, John McCain and his running mate Sarah Palin. She told a crowd gathered in Carson City, Nev.: "You understand the need to put the pride back into America and into Americans because we can do this again. We are an exceptional nation."

If this continuing crisis has taught us anything, it's that the West may be exceptional in spirit, but it's no different from the South or the East when it comes to weathering economic changes in fortune. An emphasis on pride is hardly the point; we need common sense about living within our means. Owning a house now has global implications.

Samuel Western is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is a writer in Sheridan, Wyoming.

High Country News Classifieds
  • STEWARDSHIP COORDINATOR
    Join Skagit Land Trust (the Trust), a not-for-profit conservation organization based in Mount Vernon, Washington, and help protect land for people and wildlife. Skagit Land...
  • 2022 SEASONAL SCIENCE EDUCATOR
    The Mount St. Helens Institute Science Educator supports our science education and rental programs including day and overnight programs for youth ages 6-18, their families...
  • POLICY DIRECTOR
    Heart of the Rockies Initiative is seeking a Policy Director to lead and define policy efforts to advance our mission to keep working lands and...
  • CHIEF FINANCIAL OFFICER
    Self-Help Enterprises seeks an experienced and strategic CFO
  • CONSERVATION SPECIALIST - LAND PROTECTION FOCUS
    View full job description and how to apply at
  • RIVER EDUCATOR & GUIDE
    River Educator & Guide River Educator & Guide (Trip Leader) Non-exempt, Seasonal Position: Full-time OR part-time (early April through October; may be flexible with start/end...
  • LAND AND WATER CONSERVATION DIRECTOR
    The Land and Water Conservation Director is a full-time salaried position with the Mountain Area Land Trust in Evergreen, CO. The successful candidate will have...
  • FOOD SYSTEMS ENVIRONMENTAL FELLOWSHIP
    If you were to design a sustainable society from the ground up, it would look nothing like the contemporary United States. But what would it...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust (RiGHT) is seeking an Executive Director who will lead RiGHT toward a future of continued high conservation impact, organizational...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    Help protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life. Work hard, meet good people, make the world a better place!...
  • VERDE RIVER PROJECTS TECHNICIAN
    The Verde River Projects Technician (VRPT) provides technical assistance to Verde River Program staff in implementation of the Verde River Streamflow Monitoring Protocol. This consist...
  • 8 FIELD PROJECT SPECIALISTS (POSITION FORMERLY TITLED TRAIL CREW TECHNICAL ADVISOR)
    Are you passionate about environmental conservation and connecting people to the outdoors? The Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) is looking for someone with outdoor leadership...
  • SOUTHWEST REWILDING ADVOCATE
    WildEarth Guardians is seeking a full-time advocate in our Wild Places Program to advance a new paradigm of forest management and protection based on the...
  • NEW BOOK:
    True Wildlife Tales From Boy to Man. Finding my voice to save wildlife in the Apache spirit. 365+ vivid colorful pictures. Buy on Amazon/John Wachholz
  • CHIEF OPERATIONS OFFICER
    with Rural Community Assistance Corporation. Apply here: https://www.marcumllp.com/executive-search/chief-operations-officer-rcac
  • 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...
  • WATER PROJECT MANAGER, UPPER SAN PEDRO (ARIZONA)
    Based in Tucson or Sierra Vista, AZ., the Upper San Pedro Project Manager develops, manages, and advances freshwater conservation programs, plans, and methods focusing on...
  • WADE LAKE CABINS, CAMERON MT
    A once in a lifetime opportunity to live and run a business on the shore of one of the most beautiful lakes in SW Montana....
  • PROFESSIONAL GIS SERVICES
    Custom Geospatial Solutions is available for all of your GIS needs. Affordable, flexible and accurate data visualization and analysis for any sized project.
  • GUIDE TO WESTERN NATIONAL MONUMENTS
    NEW BOOK showcases 70 national monuments across the western United States. Use "Guide10" for 10% off at cmcpress.org