Wyoming Is Not Alright

A Tough Love Letter to the Equality State from a Wyomingite in Exile

So I was making breakfast on Wednesday when I heard the story “Facing a Reckoning, Wyoming Wrestles with a Transition from Fossil Fuels” on NPR’s Morning Edition. As a Wyoming ex-pat, this story hit me in a lot of different places, and in the course of it’s six minute runtime, I was equal parts disappointed, flabbergasted, deeply saddened, and infuriated.

The ($11,000 Per Person) Pool

This was the killer opening. In Pinedale, WY, state oil and gas revenue bankrolled a $22 million aquatic and community fitness center. Pinedale is home to just 2,000 people. The reporter speaks with the center’s director, and frames the investment as something that has drawn young people back to this otherwise low-opportunity community. The clincher of this vignette: declines in the oil and gas industry, expedited by the pandemic, have led to lower revenues and have meant the center’s budget has been cut in half.

I liked to think the author started with this story to make it clear that Wyoming’s problems are not a case of long term neglect or financial hardship, but at least in part, a case of piss-poor decision-making. A brief skim of this story might allow a listener to come away thinking, “wow, what a sad loss for the community,” but even just a cursory thought will bring them towards the inevitable — “why the fuck did this community spend all their money on this fucking pool?”

As a long time fan of Parks & Rec, this situation screams “Ice Town.” Translation: it’s hard to see how a multi-million dollar rec center is not an ill-conceived boondoggle as an economic development strategy that *very obviously* is not going to work. It’s an investment in relative luxury for the sake of luxury. How many, of Pinedale’s 2,000 residents are even capable of making regular and effective use of the center’s three-story rock wall, yoga rooms, or pool? Is it attracting a lot of new economic potential to the area and helping residents secure well-paying, stable jobs? Is it significantly improving the lives of Pinedale’s people in the way that say, a well-developed Main Street or state investments in medical or transportation infrastructure might?

We’re left asking why in the world these people built a $22 million pool in Pinedale, and the answer seems to be, because they had the money to do it. Wyoming state budgets for decades have been some of the biggest (per capita) in the country, due to oil and gas revenue.

I Will Permanently Cut You

I’ll be the first to admit that I have benefitted directly from Wyoming’s doomed marriage to oil and gas extraction. I was educated in Wyoming public schools, which were excellent. Class sizes were reasonable, schools were accessible, my teachers were dedicated and well-paid, and resources were relatively plentiful. It didn’t end there either. In my extracurricular activities, like speaking and leadership clubs, qualifiers at every level received paid travel to competitions. So for dozens of state and seven national competitions I attended throughout high school, all the transportation expenses, every hotel room, and every meal was paid for by the Wyoming Department of Education. Which was an awesome privilege, especially because had they not been, I likely wouldn’t have been able to attend many (or help bring home two national and two international titles for the state #glorydays).

For me, these opportunities were not just fun trips with my teammates. These were the forges that helped shape me, that taught me how to operate in the world beyond my rural Wyoming life, and helped me gain the courage and confidence to eventually go away to college, build a career, and eventually spend my time writing explicit emails. For many of my classmates, these experiences were even more transformative. Many stayed in their first hotel room, took their first airplane ride, or even left the state for the first time in their lives only because Wyoming decided that investing in students both inside and outside the classroom was worthwhile.

So to hear the current governor Mark Gordon, say not only that he (and other state lawmakers) plan to make major cuts to education but that they “are likely to be permanent” is terribly sad to me. The door that I walked through has been slammed shut behind me. And why? Because education, like fancy swimming pools, is something states are happy to pour money into when it’s plentiful, but begins to look “non-essential” when fortunes turn.

And I have to admit, even though I’m incredibly grateful for the education I received there, if the end goal of Wyoming’s system was to nurture smart, accomplished, civically-active Wyomingites who would go on to lead the state — the system failed. Not because my classmates and I didn’t turn out smart, accomplished, and civically-active (we definitely did) but because there were not nearly as many opportunities after our educations were complete to put our skills to work building a better state. Not unlike Pinedale’s pool, one good element does not a healthy community or system make. Giving us world-class educations and than asking us to turn down a world of opportunities to instead live and work in a state ruled by the whims of oil and gas companies and ultra-conservative politicians was, at best, a half-baked scheme.

It’s heartbreaking to see that, instead of thinking hard and digging deep to invest in a diverse future economy for the state and creating space for the many young people they’ve educated to return, Wyoming is cutting eduction, suing the Biden administration, and mostly doubling down on the dying fossil energy business.

It’s the Nature, Stupid

For anyone who can see more than one election cycle into the future, this lawsuit is obviously fruitless, and more so, it’s straight up bad news for the state of Wyoming. At it’s core, the goal is to get Biden’s executive order that bans new oil and gas leases on public land thrown out, so that Wyoming can sell more leases, and degrade more of its public lands with abandoned well-sites and inevitable spills. The lawsuit itself is a transparently political conflation of effects, declining energy revenue and Wyoming’s financial troubles did not start last month, they go back years. Biden is not the enemy of fossil energy, climate change is, and suing the administration to kingdom come is not going to stop these industries from dying.

The good news is, Wyoming already has something else to offer the world, especially during a pandemic when priorities are shifting so quickly and space, outdoor adventure, and wilderness activities are at a premium. It’s fucking public lands.

Sure, Yellowstone, Matȟó Thípila/Devil’s Tower, and the Tetons are open and active today, but about 50% of the state is owned by the federal government. There is much more of The People’s land out there that could be being used for outdoor recreation or preserved. And it’s been shown elsewhere that rural communities near natural attractions have healthier, more stable economies (based on tourism) than ones dependent on resource extraction.

In other words, suing to allow more degradation of public lands is literally demanding the freedom to mortgage the state’s future for a tiny, short term gain.

If the state needs to raise money, another solution would be to RAISE THE FUCKING STATE INCOME TAX, which currently hangs out at a whopping 0%. Wyoming state law only requires “residents” to reside in the state for 100 days a year, making Wyoming one of the most beneficial tax havens for America’s ultra-wealthy. It’s hard to see how a state government can call for damaging the state’s natural resources while letting some of the world’s wealthiest people live nearby and contribute so little of their vast resources to the state’s overall financial health.

I’ll only spend a moment on this nonsense plea; “Meanwhile, an editorial in Wyoming’s largest newspaper pleaded that the country not turn its back on Wyoming workers, especially after all the cheap energy that’s been produced and exported out of here for decades.” This is obviously disingenuous. If the energy was so “cheap” that the rest of the country should be overcome with gratitude and bend-over backwards to protect the state and its under-invested-in workers, how did the state get so rich it could build a $22 million pool in a town of 2,000 people? Wyoming has already reaped the reward of its energy extraction — and the responsibility for failing to invest it well is not a burden the rest of the country should be asked to carry.

The Paradox of Plenty

The woes of Wyoming’s sob-story brought my international development education screaming back to me. Because Wyoming’s story is not unique. This is a painfully recognizable cycle.

Wyoming has the Resource Curse. The phenomenon is more commonly associated with the developing world, but it’s common in rural America too. Essentially, countries, states, or even communities with an abundance of natural resources, say fossil fuels or *raw agricultural commodities*, tend to have less economic growth (as well as less democracy) than others with fewer natural resources. Though there are many versions of this and reasons why it exists, Wyoming’s seems to be pretty straight forward. The state figured out that it could make essentially all of its money on oil and gas revenue, and so it never really bothered to encourage any other kind of economic development. And why would lawmakers want to? The fossil fuel money seemed endless, and competitive industries in the state might bid up local wages, raise housing costs or land values (both of which raise the cost of doing oil and gas business in the state), or lead to a growth in population that might vote against the interests of the oil and gas industry and the politicians that cater to it. It’s a vicious cycle: the oil and gas sector settles in Wyoming and funds the government, and the government tailors policies to encourage them to stay.

The interests of many state lawmakers and the oil and gas sector may be one in the same, but they are not synonymous with the interests of the people of Wyoming. The two former groups might need to wrestle with a future without fossil fuels, but The People of Wyoming could deal with this problem simply by voting these good ol’ boy republicans out of office. That kind of more substantive change is not broached in the article, and I think it’s disappointing that it wasn’t. Maybe that’s because Wyoming hasn’t made a space for many people who have divergent views on the big questions, like who we are as Wyomingites.

Getting to ___ _____

A real problem with journalism, especially rural and environmental journalism, is that the discipline tends to be extremely, obsessively focused with what is, and has a much harder time communicating, what isn’t, and why.

“Here’s the facts,” these stories say, “here’s the people involved and their ideas, and this is a representative sample of what’s happening and what we have to work with.” But then what do we do with a story like this; where the people involved have few, meager, and outdated ideas, where what’s happening is dispiriting and hopeless, and what we’re working with is, well… not very much? These stories provide little beyond discouragement, they curb our imaginations, and often make us feel like the most likely (and often very bad) scenario is essentially inevitable.

We can combat this kind of thinking (as journalists and readers alike) by looking for the negative space. Seeing what is not there often holds the secret to understanding the bigger picture.

What’s missing in this story about Wyoming’s fate, then? It’s missing the optimistic, intelligent, far-seeing, environmentally-informed perspective of a young state leader. And why is it missing? Because the very system, which many of the article’s subjects are mourning, cast us out. Why is there no optimistic vision for a post-fossil fuel Wyoming? Not because the state is incapable of producing one, but because the state’s culture has been hostile to that vision for years. When reading a story like this, think about what voices are excluded, and who is benefiting from that exclusion.

The long and short of this story is, it is not bad luck that has brought the state of Wyoming to its current flirtation with fiscal disaster. Its choices have done that; those of its oil and gas industry, the lawmakers who support it, and of the people who continue to elect those lawmakers. Clinging to this fossil-fueld past, and focusing the public eye on the fight to preserve it, is not helping. It’s actively causing harm, because it’s crowding out stories of what might be next, and fails to ask why the people dreaming of next are so rare. In centering the fossil fuel industry and their money (or lack thereof), the state continues to ignore the only thing it ever really succeeded at creating, and the only thing that could, at this point, save it.

Its people.

Author of Farm (and Other F Words), pre-order now: https://bit.ly/2JTY90i. Rural issues and agriculture writer/researcher. Not a cheerleader, not the enemy.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store