Wyoming - the Land That the Roaring '90s Forgot

If every rule has its exception, Wyoming is America's frontier of contrariness.

Many of the truisms defining American life in the 1990s are blown aside here, seeming victims of the relentless high-plains wind for which this cowboy state is famous.

Yet politicians and policymakers are now in animated discussion about whether and how to join the mainstream. It's a debate spurred by a gubernatorial campaign - one with particular poignancy for the residents of Wyoming, who are watching what might be the end of the nation's spectacular economic boom knowing full well that for them, it never began.

The stakes are high for the locals, but not confined to them. For many others, the questions raised here embody rarely voiced concerns in the United States about a century of progress and many of its presumed benefits.

"Why is growth and economic progress such a fundamentally excellent goal?" asks author E. Annie Proulx, a Wyoming resident. While Ms. Proulx doesn't pretend to have the answer, she adds, "the country needs Wyoming just because it's not like anyplace else."

Wyoming's statewide soul-searching is part defiant, part uncertain, and wholly framed by a place probably more like its past than anywhere else in the continental United States.

This is a state where legend has it that citizen-counters had to take names at the train stations to come up with the requisite 60,000 population figure to qualify for statehood in 1890. This is a state where even today no city has more than 55,000 residents. And this is a state without any substantial high-tech sector, professional sports arenas, or concerted plan for getting either.

"You could call us the last defense" against modernism, says Elizabeth Guheen, who runs the Ucross Foundation retreat for artists in northern Wyoming - where you can "look out your window and see deer, wild turkey, and fresh streams," she says.

But a host of facts and trends have many in the state worried.

As the American economy has boomed, Wyoming has sat on the sidelines watching. By measures like job growth and income gains, Wyoming is at the bottom of the barrel. The picture is particularly stark given that Wyoming's mountain neighbors have exceeded the national average in economic growth and prosperity.

This year, for example, when virtually every state was deciding what to do with surpluses, only one enacted a significant tax increase: Wyoming, which boosted gasoline taxes.

Such statistics, however, pale in comparison with the one that disturbs virtually everyone in the state: More than half of the state's college graduates leave because they can't find work at home. University of Wyoming economist Shelby Gerking estimates that 25 percent of the state's 20 to 40 age group left the state between 1990 and 1996.

Dave Freudenthal, a native of Wyoming and the US attorney in Cheyenne, faced that reality recently when his daughter, home from college, told him she probably wouldn't be back again next summer. "It's not a surprise, it's just what kids here have to do," he says.

Growth is a central issue in the race for governor, which pits incumbent Republican Jim Geringer against state senator and Democrat John Vinich. Yet like the state as a whole, the political establishment, including the gubernatorial contestants, appears somewhat ambivalent about growth and development. Candidates routinely speak in favor of expanding the economy, but remain wary of any changes that might crimp the wide-open spaces integral to the Wyoming lifestyle.

Need for big reforms

In fact, the structure of the state economy suggests anything less than a radical reformation would be ineffective, says Professor Gerking. Wyoming is a heavily commodity-dependent state, relying on oil, coal, and other mineral mining for the bulk of state revenues. Those revenues come from severance taxes levied on the value of the commodities mined. There is no individual or corporate income tax.

So, as energy and mineral prices go, so goes the state. And with energy prices in a prolonged slump since the energy boom of the 1970s, Wyoming's fortunes have slowly dwindled. This year, the fuel-tax increase was passed to help the state get through the next two fiscal years, but budget analysts forecast a 10 percent revenue shortfall in the years 2001 and 2002.

But this is no Appalachian state. Because the state population is small (at 450,000, the nation's smallest), per-capita spending on many public services, like education, is relatively high.

Not gonna pay a lot

The result, in the view of many, is a state where residents are used to paying little for public services, and therefore a culture where prospects of radical change, like an income tax or other means for injecting new resources into the economy, are slim. "People want the status quo, and they don't want to pay for it," says Gerking.

Cheyenne rancher John Etchepare says, "there is definitely a desire to have growth, but lots of differences of opinion about how much and where."

History certainly played a role in Wyoming's low, far-flung population. As settlers moved west during the 1800s, Wyoming's scarce water and inhospitable climate seemed to discourage settlement for all but the hardiest. "We were a pass-through place. I'm not sure as an economic unit we've ever really developed as a state," says Mr. Freudenthal.

Tourist meccas like Jackson have drawn suitcase ranchers and telecommuters, but that phenomenon has done little to change the state. Just as well, say a growing number of environmentalists who sense an opportunity here not found elsewhere.

"This is one of the few places left in the country where we can do landscape-scale conservation," says Ben Pierce, state director of the Wyoming Nature Conservancy. The organization has helped create more than 200,000 acres of conservation easements, arrangements that save property owners inheritance taxes when they give up development rights to their land.

Still, if growth continues to be resisted, it will most likely be because of forces that predate modern environmentalism. Says Proulx: "It's still a place where you must adapt to it. It cannot easily be made into what it isn't."

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