Opinion: Wyo’s foundations rumble under the weight of the inevitable

A distinctly Wyoming scene. (Mike Vanata)

By Paul Weaver, WyoFile

WyoFile writes about Wyoming — its staff and contributors do it well and readers appreciate it. We want to know what’s happening and we worry about this place. We wonder about what lies down the road for a state that at times seems impervious to change just as our foundations rumble under the weight of the inevitable.

Comments on WyoFile’s articles and opinion pieces reliably prove a point. We are troubled by change — economic, political, cultural, environmental. This has been especially acute during these last few disruptive years. The economy is not strong, and the solutions all seem too controversial or out of reach.

What seems most frustrating is that so much appears outside our own control. As citizens of a beautiful, special place, we wonder if our destiny is to be forever determined by distant corporate wealth and federal controls. We seem to either celebrate or conspicuously ignore the former while ceaselessly chafe at the latter.

For example, the biggest news for the state recently is that billionaires are interested in building a nuclear energy facility here, and yet we spend more time talking about the pause in federal energy extraction permits. Wyoming is a place we feel compelled to jealously protect, but we want to use it to our advantage, if only we knew how. It raises questions. Can we preserve what we love about Wyoming but balance it with doing what we must to survive or even thrive?

King Coal looks like he’s in his death throes. Wind and now nuclear power are storming the castle. State leaders are working hard to prop up an industry that seems past its prime. Even if some of the efforts succeed, the determination of our governors and legislators won’t produce an economic time machine. The waves of change are building in the U.S.

Beyond the energy economy, newly relocated remote workers, a large number of retirees and other migrants are squeezing our already choked housing markets in the West. Economics are unsentimental and bring serious challenges to Wyoming’s doorstep.

If that’s the way it’s going, can it be that the most valuable resources we have beyond uranium and Bitcoin laws are a tax shelter and rural “escape” for retirees fleeing California, Colorado’s Front Range and other areas? I for one would like to see at least as many young families move here as retirees, and both in manageable numbers.

Nobody wants Wyoming to be the Florida of the West, or their town to be the next Boise (nothing per$onal). Retirees and people relocating in general aren’t bad, but if they move here in large numbers and pay no additional taxes to increase revenue, there are questions. How will we keep up with the demands on our infrastructure and already struggling healthcare system? New residents and out-of-state money can do real and hard-to-reverse damage to our environment, culture and ways of life. Without a real plan we won’t be able to manage it, not even close.

-- Advertisement – Story Continues Below --

Reader comments by recently arrived residents from other states or those scouting us because they too no longer care for their environs are of interest to WyoFile’s audience.

We wonder: Why Wyoming? Why now? What are you looking for here? This is not intended as hostility, but many of us remember the Front Range of just 20 years ago and this raises concerns. Let’s talk about it.

I ask for my own reasons. I’m a fourth-generation native of the state, which makes me part of the less than 50% of the Wyoming-born population that lives here. I’ve lived in the Bighorn Basin where ag is still an actual industry, in the southwest where they extract energy and longest in the southeast where we export people. My grandfather was a farmer, my dad worked in the energy industry and my mom did a bit of everything. I love Wyoming and believe it is unique. I think many of us believe that. Can we keep it that way?

I’m just slightly above the median age in Wyoming and neither a baby boomer nor a millennial. That puts me in another demographic minority. I mention these maligned generations for a reason. Yes, they always help stoke the culture war clickbait, but through sheer numbers alone both will play a big role in the future of the West.

After a year of turbulence in other parts of our America, we see many of each group are becoming eager to live their “best life” elsewhere and Western states like Wyoming look like appealing places to do it.

It’s clear what we offer them: Lower taxes and home prices, less congestion and nicer Instagram backgrounds. My question is, how will they strengthen our state? Each group is tens of millions strong and mobile. We’re the least-populated state in the troubled union. This seems worth thinking about. We shouldn’t let our need for economic development outweigh a strong vision for Wyoming. How do we embrace progress and new neighbors while minimizing the impacts to our fragile ecology and communities?

In many ways the energy economy allowed us to avoid not just taxation but also conversations about land and water development, population demographics, the true potential and costs of new economic activity and how they fit into the larger narrative of Wyoming and our future.

Critics and defenders of this strange and wonderful place are accurate in what they say. We’re an outdoor destination, but view 21st-century environmental concerns skeptically. We want a full range of amenities and services but prize our low populations and low taxes. We like our geography but despise being perceived as “fly-over country.”

-- Advertisement – Story Continues Below --

Wyoming has mixed feelings about itself and its future. We have economic problems, and we’re growing slowly today, but if you look just a little bit ahead you can see over the horizon. If this seems a little preemptive today, I don’t think it will in 2031. It seems like a voice from the past is posing a challenge to us: like it or not, the growth is coming. Will it be “growth on our terms?”

So, what are our terms? I wrote this to pose questions, but I will take a risk and guess at the thinking of Wyomingites. Wyoming isn’t hard to read if you know the language.

We know we need new blood, but can’t see how populating the state with retirees and the sparkling of a few celebrities meets that need. We welcome newcomers, but there are reservations. We don’t want to just be a playground state for the wealthy to own second summer homes and contribute little. Can they bring a few jobs? We welcome visitors and tourists, but again there are reservations. We don’t want the parks so crowded that they bear almost no resemblance to our childhood memories. We don’t want to see other people every time we try to enjoy an outdoor activity. That isn’t the Wyoming experience.

This isn’t just griping. Recent upticks in outdoor recreation resulted in Wyoming state parks absorbing a 34% increase in visitation equating to 1.8 million more visitors. What costs to our struggling state budget were incurred by that? How did you like the closure of rest stops last year? How many unfortunate Yellowstone human/wildlife exchanges are too many? How do we find the balance?

This isn’t philosophical. We probably don’t want a stagnant economy that sinks us with lumps of coal and a drill bit tied around our necks. So what do we want?

We want a future for Wyoming that has a functional economy, strong education system, fiercely independent political landscape, successful family-owned agriculture, spacious recreation and a good life for ourselves and our families.

Another truism is nobody gets everything he or she wants in life, but will we be able to have any of these?

It doesn’t look good. It seems like we’re stumbling around in the dark. People in this state need to start really talking to each other and setting the agenda. If we really are a “small town with long streets,” it’s time for a town meeting.

-- Advertisement – Story Continues Below --

 

 

WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.