updated 7/15/2008 6:58:09 PM ET 2008-07-15T22:58:09

Wyoming is “the land of the cowboy,” as the WPA Guide called it more than 60 years ago. ‘‘Its mountains, plains, and valleys are essentially livestock country. A cowboy astride a bucking bronco greets the visitor from enameled license plates, from newspapers, magazines and painted signs.’’ The cowboy is still on the license plates, and Wyoming remains the most western of states in spirit—largely unsettled, the least populous state, a thin veneer of civilization stretched over a forbidding and beautiful land. But it is more than the land of the cowboy now; it is the land of the oil and gas worker, of the coal mine operator, of the tourism operator.

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For Wyoming’s economy now depends not on cowboys and cattle but on mining and minerals. Wyoming boomed with oil prospectors during the energy price surge of the 1970s, but was hit hard by drops in oil prices in the early 1980s and again in the late 1990s. As the exploration for oil slumped, the production of other minerals has surged. The Clean Air Act put a premium on Wyoming’s low-sulfur coal, and this is now the number one coal state, producing one-third of the nation’s coal, more than West Virginia and Kentucky combined. In the Powder River Basin 30-story high machines blast away the topsoil and scoop out the coal; it is hauled away by 65 unit trains a day by the Burlington Northern and Union Pacific, which can’t handle all the traffic; but the Dakota, Minnesota & Eastern rail line proposed to run east to the Mississippi River, the biggest U.S. rail construction project in a century, was dealt a blow by its failure to get a federal loan. Wyoming is also the number seven oil and number four natural gas producer, and the nation’s top producer of the mineral bentonite (used in oil drilling and cosmetics) and has the world’s largest reserve of trona (used in glass and baking soda), on which Congress cut the royalty rate from 6% to 2% in September 2006. Much of the natural gas is coal-bed methane, mixed with water next to coal seams; only in 1989 did engineers figure out how to separate the natural gas from the water. Now 200-foot drilling rigs are sinking wells as deep as 25,000 feet, and production has jumped enormously since 2000. These are capital-intensive industries which produce relatively few jobs for highly educated young people. About one-quarter of people 25 to 34 left the state in the 1990s, and about two-thirds of the graduates of the University of Wyoming leave, which causes some unease. “For those unable to stay, hopefully some day you will return,” Governor Dave Freudenthal told graduates at the university’s commencement. But there’s a unfulfilled demand for workers in the Powder River Basin and other boom areas, and Wyoming is busy sending recruiters out to places like Flint and Lansing, Michigan, to attract skillful blue collar workers not afraid to take their chances on the nation’s energy frontier. Everything seems to be coming together for Wyoming: high oil and gas prices, continued demand for coal, rising beef prices, rapidly rising severance taxes and revenues from tourists. The American City Business Journal in 2005 rated Wyoming number one in economic vitality, tied with Nevada, in 2005.

Wyoming’s second industry is now tourism. Yellowstone National Park continues to draw millions, and Jackson Hole just to the south has become one of America’s elite resort areas year-round; its airport is Wyoming’s busiest and the only one that accommodates jets. There has been growth as well in the scenic and pastoral country on the eastern slope of the Big Horn Mountains around Buffalo and Sheridan. The third industry is agriculture: Wyoming is second in the nation in wool production, third in sheep inventory and also produces hay, sugar beets, barley, pinto beans and beef cattle. Drought hurt some farmers in 2002, but farm exports were sharply up. This mix between tourism and agriculture leads to some cultural clash. The movie Brokeback Mountain, about gay sheep herders, premiered in Jackson Hole in December 2005, but played to mostly empty houses in the state.

Reliance on high-tech mineral extraction and high-end tourism may seem a contradiction of Wyoming’s Old West heritage. But Wyoming has always depended on new technology to tame age-old nature. Cattle ranches after the open-range era were made possible only by the barbed wire that could fence in roaming herds, and the steam locomotives that could carry cattle to markets back east. This 19th century high tech was brought to Wyoming by large capitalist operators, some of them onetime Texas cowhands or second sons of English landed gentry, who started the first big operations after the Civil War. And of course mining depends on high-tech machinery and responsiveness to markets that reward innovation and penalize stasis. At the same time, Wyoming still is a kind of frontier: It was until recently one of the few states with more men than women—one reason it was the first part of the United States, when it was a territory in 1869, to give women the vote (exception: New Jersey allowed women with property to vote between 1776 and 1807, but there weren’t many). There is a settled part of Wyoming as well, in the medium-sized towns that are the state’s largest cities, and among sheep and cattle ranches, sugar beet and malting barley farms and denizens of tiny settlements. This is a small state, a single community really, where people remember who played what position, when and how well, for what high-school football team; where because all the locals know who your father’s cousins married, you mostly live on the straight and narrow. The locals set the tone of life in Wyoming.

There was once a sharp economic and regional split traditionally reflected in partisan politics. The big economic interests—cattle ranchers, organized in the Wyoming Stock Growers’ Association, and the Union Pacific Railroad management always favored the Republicans, as did the wildcatters, independent producers and oil company geologists. The main Democratic constituency had been the Union Pacific Railroad workers who built the first transcontinental line across southern Wyoming in the 1860s; the southern tier of counties, from Cheyenne through Laramie to Evanston, once voted Democratic. But now the Democrats are strongest in Teton County, the home of Jackson Hole, by far the wealthiest county in the state and the only one to vote for John Kerry in 2004. Wyoming has been one of the most Republican states since the 1970s; it hasn’t elected a Democrat to the Senate since 1970 or the House since 1976, though it has had mostly Democratic governors over that time. In presidential elections it is solidly Republican—the most Republican state in the nation in 2000, when it voted for George W. Bush and native son Dick Cheney, a running back on the Natrona High School football team, by a 69%-28% margin.

Wyoming’s Republican tendencies in the 1990s were strengthened by the Clinton administration’s environmental policies—proposing grazing fee increases, the reintroduction of gray wolves into Yellowstone, proposing threatened species status on the black-tailed prairie dog, banning snowmobiles in national parks, the moratorium on road building in the national parks. But the policies of the Bush administration—removing endangered status from the gray wolves, opening the way to proving title to land currently controlled by the Bureau of Land Management—have removed some of these grievances. In a small state with not much more than half a million people—the nation’s smallest population congressional district—Wyoming voters expect to talk person-to-person with their governors, senators and congressmen every so often. Personal campaigning is important, and Democrats have won six of the last eight races for governor. But party tends to trump personality when it comes to federal office.

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