Sheridan author: Wyoming fantasy dooms economy

CODY, Wyo. – Wyoming’s fascination with a Hollywood version of itself has pushed the state toward economic distress, an aging population and a drain on young people who leave to find work, a Sheridan author said Tuesday.

Gazette Wyoming Bureau

The state hasn’t been able to shake the long-held idea that Wyoming is a rugged cowboy haven where riches will spill out of farming, ranching and mineral development, author Samuel Western said in an hourlong talk in Cody.

"This mythology broke us," said Western, whose recently released book, "Pushed Off the Mountain, Sold Down the River: Wyoming’s Search for its Soul," has already sold out. A second printing is scheduled for this month.

Western, a former correspondent for The Economist magazine and a contributor to other magazines, said the state hasn’t disentangled itself from early promotional material – from inside and outside the state – touting Wyoming as a place where tough individuals can make a living off the land. "The Land of Great Reward" was one early slogan.

"We can’t move forward if we have this Hollywood history of ourselves," Western said.

He said he spent years researching the book, trying to understand where Wyoming came from, where it is and where it’s heading.

Many of the current statistics don’t bode well, Western said. Wyoming is the fastest aging state in the country. Only Teton County saw growth in school enrollment between 1990 and 2000. The birthrate is at an all-time low. University of Wyoming graduates are leaving the state in droves.

"Any university where 70 percent of graduates leave to find work is a system that needs to be discussed," Western said.

Western said the first twinges of problems go back to the state’s inception, which revolved around the development of the railroad.

"We were formed for the Union Pacific Railroad," he said, citing a speech from the first territorial governor.

Early on, it was clear that it would be difficult to attract people to Wyoming’s high plains and mountains. Western said officials exaggerated Wyoming’s population to win statehood. At one point, President Ulysses S. Grant even considered divvying up the land among neighboring states.

Farming finally took hold, leading to a golden era between 1890 and 1920.

"Those were the best years Wyoming ever had for any sort of agriculture," Western said.

Despite those successes, the state remained poor by most standards. Things got worse in the Great Depression.

Western said that when he had a difficult time finding very much literature about the Great Depression in Wyoming, he finally asked a historian friend about it.

"We’d been so poor that the Depression was nothing new," the friend responded.

Wyoming didn’t really recover from the Depression until 1973, when the oil embargo drove up prices.

But those lean years in between, when ranching and farming were supposed to be king, Wyoming’s economy continued its slump. Western said that when one governor took office in the 1960s, there was $80 in the state’s general fund.

Many people thought the ascendancy of the oil and gas industry would lift the state out of the economic doldrums. But Western said that hasn’t really happened, either.

Though there has been plenty of mineral production, Wyoming residents haven’t reaped the benefits that they might have, he said.

"Minerals brought significant wealth to very few people in Wyoming, and most of those individuals have taken that wealth and left," Western said. "How could they have brought all this wealth and we still don’t have any money?"

With all of the money generated from oil and gas, he said, the University of Wyoming’s endowment should be bursting with $3 billion or $4 billion, Western said. Instead, it’s only $150 million.

"We just gave it all away," he said.

He acknowledges that much of the oil and gas revenue goes to pay taxes so Wyoming residents can pay less. But even then, most local economies aren’t able to foot their own bills, he said.

Park County, according to Western, generates only 45 percent of the money it needs. Beyond that, it’s forced to get money from state and federal governments.

"The more dependent on natural resources, the poorer we’re going to be on a local basis," he said.

Western said he’s been criticized at previous speeches for appearing to be anti-agriculture. He said there is a place for farming and ranching in Wyoming, but they need to be viewed in real terms, not in some fictionalized ideal about what they should be or might be one day.

"I hope I’m anti-fantasy," he said.

The economic realities of ranching and farming are not encouraging, he said. About two-thirds of the production of irrigated crops in Wyoming is hay, which has one of the lowest profit margins. And in Goshen County, which has some of the state’s most widespread agricultural production, there are more children living at the poverty level than anywhere else in the state.

So what’s the answer?

Western doesn’t really provide one, other than to say Wyoming needs to re-examine its perception of itself, accept a diversified economy and invest in education and infrastructure.

He said switching toward a more service-oriented economy might be warranted – even though Wal-Mart is already the largest private employer in the state. That kind of economy can support more than just fast food and retail jobs, he said.

But it’s going to take some new vision from Wyoming’s communities.

"It’s up to us, the people in this state, to take risks that are not related to natural resources," he said. "The best resources are the resources we have between our ears."

Mike Stark can be reached at (307) 527-7250 or at [email protected]

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