A wide-open state of few people, rich resources

Wyoming has more sky and fewer people than you can imagine. The least populated state in the lower 48, it has fewer than half a million inhabitants in its neatly rectangular 97,914 square miles.

This is a Rocky Mountain state, but it is also a Great Plains state. Mountains generally get a better press than plains. And the mountains here are wondrous.

But a large part of this state's appeal for its residents is simply the wide-open spaces. ''You get in your car and you can drive for miles without seeing anyone.''

The ribbons of Interstate highway rise and fall and rise and fall again like breathing until they're over the horizon. ''Grasshopper'' pumping stations bray away like perverse mechanical donkeys. The power lines march across the plains like a giant's clotheslines. Grazing cattle and grayish sheep looking like so many boulders populate the landscape. It really is where the deer and the antelope play.

But the wide-open spaces have begun filling up with people at a rapid rate, even if absolute numbers remain small: Wyoming gained 41.3 percent during the 1970s, up to 470,816 in the 1980 census. No one expects a repeat performance during the 1980s, and all projections for a resumed boom here after the current recession are made with one anxious eye on OPEC. But some forecasters call for population growth over 30 percent.

The reason, of course, is energy. The upheavals of the mid-1970s made Western coal attractive again in a big way for the first time since the railroads went diesel in the 1950s. Wyoming has other mineral wealth, too. The state has long had a busy oil industry, and though production is declining as mature fields play out, the value of that production has risen. The natural gas discoveries of the Overthrust Belt in southwestern Wyoming are being hailed as the greatest since Alaska's Prudhoe Bay in 1969, though ironically they are coming at a time of soft demand.

Wyoming is also America's No. 2 uranium state, although that distinction has lost much of its glory of late. Heightened public concern about the safety of nuclear plants, plus their continued high cost, has knocked the bottom out of the yellowcake market for the time being.

Trona, or soda ash, is another mineral which, while not a household word, is still important in Wyoming. Trona is used in glassmaking, particularly automobile windows, and so that industry, like autos, is down in the dumps.

In sum, minerals, now accounting for over half the state's economy when multiplier effects are considered, soared in importance through the 1970s. Their significance is even more evident when not only production volume but increased value is considered. Also of note is that mineral severance tax revenues increased more than 27-fold from 1970 to 1980, and continue on an upward path in the 1980s.

All this has led to a curious phenomenon. While the rest of the country has marched bravely ahead into the post-industrial era or the information economy or whatever, Wyoming has stayed resolutely a raw-materials economy. In fact, minerals development is making up an ever bigger slice of the pie chart. In short, Wyoming is unlike the national economy and becoming even more unlike it.

The state is obviously a long way from major population centers. Not to labor the point, but cattle outnumber people in Wyoming better than 3 to 1. Towns that get advance billing, so to speak, on highway signs miles up the road turn out to consist of five or 10 people and a couple of gas pumps.

The growth has been considerable. But Wyoming's population is still too small and unlikely to become big enough to provide either the labor force or the local market for major manufacturing operations - or major service industries, except for tourism.

As for the new high-tech industries that can locate anywhere, well, they're likely to settle in places with more engineers and sunshine. (Some Wyomingites argue that their rigorous climate gets a bad rap; others don't mind a little bad publicity if it keeps the state from being overrun with newcomers.)

Energy-linked industry such as synthetic fuels plants are one option, but the oil glut has pretty much put such projects on the shelf. And in any case, it's not clear that there's any great interest in building plants here. ''We'd rather export coal than build power plants,'' says the manager of a mine outside Gillette.

Dick High, editor of the Casper Star-Tribune, whose point of view is probably more gadfly-on-the-rump than mainstream, calls Wyoming a ''classic'' colonial economy: Resources are controlled by major firms based elsewhere, and the state's gross product includes only a small proportion of ''value added,'' i.e., labor.

The outside investment in Wyoming over recent years has been tremendous, he says. ''If the mineral wealth in this state were spread around among all the people of the state, every household would get a million dollars - that's if you take the low estimates of the minerals. If you take the high estimates, every human being is a millionaire.

''My hypothesis is that there is a lower proportion of personal income relative to gross product here than in any other political jurisdiction in the world,'' he says, including the third world.

But if the term ''colonialism'' smacks of exploitation, in Wyoming the exploitation should be considered mutual.

It may be a case of choosing what has already been chosen for them, but Wyomingites exhibit no great urge to industrialize, or to see their roads jammed with traffic. ''Life style'' here means hunting and fishing, and driving jeeps and pickup trucks with the biggest tires you've ever seen this side of a bulldozer. It means string ties or no ties, and cowboy boots worn unobtrusively, as footwear and not part of a costume. And people here talk about their life style as proudly as any Sunbelt sunshine capital.

Across the state, the prevailing desire seems to be to see Wyoming's energy resources developed, but as unobtrusively as possible so that the wide open spaces can be preserved and the natural beauties of the state still savored. In the final analysis these may be the greatest resources of all.

Dick High's long-term projection for the state is, ''It'll be a park again.'' His thesis is predicated on the assumption that new energy technologies could well make strip mining irrelevant in a few years. That is a minority view. And yet there are a lot of Wyomingites who might not mind living in a park.

The recession has hit late, and hard, at least for a state that has been accustomed to 3 percent unemployment. Just days before newspapers reported, in early February, the heartening news that national unemployment had fallen from 10.8 to 10.4 percent, the Star-Tribune's banner headline announced state unemployment at an all-time high.

Part of the price Wyoming pays for its export economy is that its economic health is tied to that of its outside markets. Current slack demand for energy nationwide has taken its toll. Although there are upward signs, such as projected increases in coal production, and the expected benefits of the new gas fields of the Overthrust Belt, observers disagree as to whether economic recovery can be expected anytime soon.

Some observers see that 3 percent unemployment as symptomatic of an ''overheated'' labor market, an actual labor shortage.

Like much of the West, Wyoming has seen the pendulum swing from agriculture to energy - in its Legislature, for instance. But the people are still rooting for the cowboys - even the townsfolk. Perhaps especially the townsfolk.

Some people think it may be too late already. The young manager of a ranchwear store complains that there is litter to be found even in the once-pristine precincts of Jackson Hole, and that ''as soon as you get into cities of 50,000 or so,'' as the state did in the last census, ''you start getting into street crime, and all that kind of thing.''

But if the Old West values live anywhere in this country, it's here in Wyoming. People are pleased to enjoy energy wealth - but at heart they're still cheering on the cowboys.

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