Simpson Forum: Wyoming’s political identity

By Milton Lawrence Woods
— August 6, 2013
Lawrence Woods (Wyoming Arts Council photo)

I am writing this to explain why I am not a good choice to be the next author in your “Pete Simpson Forum” series — a series which I think is a very good idea.

Wyoming’s political identity — or lack of one — is an unavoidable product of its history, which is in a way a history of accidents. For all the early years before the territory was created, Wyoming was just a place to be crossed by a lot of people who were going elsewhere.

The state is large, and the terrain and its climate is not friendly to the notion of large, integrated settlements, so the important issue at the outset was to make it easier to cross the distances between towns. That issue was first attacked by building the railroad, and when the railroad crossed Wyoming to get to the West coast, it built a few places to stop for water and coal. The first of those “accidental” towns was Cheyenne, where the grading crews stopped for the winter, the second was Laramie, after crossing the mountains, and so on west to the Utah line, so that when the territory was organized there were five towns to become county seats of five counties extending in long strips from Colorado to Montana. Wyoming thus started out as an urban territory, but the towns at the outset did not have anything in common except the railroad.

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Once the territory had its own government, many other towns did spring up, and every effort was made to equip each one to provide full services to the small numbers of people in them. So we built grocery stores and chartered banks, and after the automobile came, we built a host of service stations. Then, in 1917 we decided to build highways in earnest, so that Wyoming’s people could develop the same love for their automobiles that other Americans share.

Of course, the highways made it easier to go further to obtain the services people need, and the decline of the small town began, because the larger cities offered more services than the small locations could provide. One clear example of that trend was the fact that in the agricultural depression of the 1920s, over 100 banks closed in Wyoming, and many small towns never replaced them, because they were no longer needed.

Unfortunately, the decline of the smaller towns continues in the state, and there is no credible forecast that arrests that trend. The broad expanses of land we have to govern require a lot of infrastructure, and we have 23 full county governments. Indeed, I remind people that Staten Island in New York City has just a few more people than the entire State of Wyoming. Staten Island is the smallest of the five boroughs of the city, and is one county, with one full component of county officers. (It goes without saying that a New Yorker would never think of giving even one senator to Staten Island.)

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The comparison is meaningless for our planning purpose, except to point out that for a population of this size, we have a relatively expensive government that was structured some years ago, when population distribution, transportation and communication opportunities were very different than they are today.

Then there is the matter of the economy. While the agricultural sector is heavily represented in government, that sector is not the dominant sector of the economy, where property tax revenues in a number of counties are heavily dependent on energy companies and the railroads. Oil royalties from old fields continue to be significant because of the rise in prices, but it is inevitable that the depletion of these reserves will slowly choke off that revenue source. We may be blessed by production established by the new hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling techniques, but it may be that these wells will be depleted in a decade or so, rather than the several (or many) decades for the conventional fields. Nevertheless, this new revenue source, if it comes, will be welcome, although its impact will be very uneven across the state.

Our coal inventory is much more comfortable, but whether coal production and consumption can continue to play the role it does today is a question that will be answered by others, probably without consulting us.

Statewide cooperation in economic matters is very weak. I remember attending a reception in Casper, where I looked around the room, and recognized that nearly all of the leaders from across the state were present. I thought how remarkable it would be if we could get them all to sit down together to discuss what should be done to govern the state. And then I realized that I had put my finger on the flaw in the idea (a terrible metaphor), because there is no way all those people would have agreed to participate in such a conclave.

I suppose the reason such a meeting could never occur is that our settlements are extremely insular in their thinking. Large chunks of the state have strong ties to urban concentrations outside the state, in Colorado and Montana. Jackson and Cody exist in a world of their own, catering to their many visitors, and the coal operations in the northeast of the state have no need or desire to look outside their area. Thus, trying to launch an idea with statewide appeal is a difficult chore.

One of my more lunatic ventures was to have fun losing a lot of money running a small airline headquartered in Worland, and I remember asking one of our important political figures if I could get some help. He said, in effect, “If you move it to my town, I’ll help; otherwise I don’t care.”

And finally there is Washington. We are kidding ourselves if we think we can plan the future without considering in detail what Washington is liable to throw at us, for it very much like sleeping beside an elephant — you never know when he will decide to roll over. We are particularly at risk in the energy sector, which is so important to our economy, as the U. S. government fails to develop a sensible energy policy. I certainly would not disagree that we need to reduce fossil fuel emissions, but we should do so by controlling the use of fuel, not limiting access to it. We need to continue to exploit domestic sources using new safe, efficient technology and we should favor friendly sources of imports. Limiting our access to Canadian sources of energy is an incredible foreign policy blunder, because it limits our diplomatic leverage with the oil producing countries.

I am going to use the other “n” word, “nuclear energy,” because we need to recognize that the Japanese tsunami disaster should not turn us away from nuclear power, but the remarkable strength of those old reactors in a situation no one could have foreseen gives us renewed confidence that our designs can be reliable and safe — and not emit any greenhouse gases. Nuclear energy can be an effective source for base load electricity, and solar energy from our abundant sunlight can be an effective addition to our electric generating capacity, particularly on the days when air conditioning loads peak. Wind energy can help as well, but to a more limited degree.

While we exercise our Wyoming independence, we must also take care that we do not become irrelevant in the national debates.  Some will argue that we can take positions contrary to Washington’s mandate, but I fear those arguments are doomed in the long run, and if we insist on making them, we may forfeit the opportunity to continue to seek solutions that can work. Although there is a 10th Amendment to the U. S. Constitution, I have never seen a Supreme Court decision on it, and I am inclined to think that court has forgotten what it says.

Paraphrasing Reinhold Niebuhr, we need to accept the things we cannot change (the realities of our environment, our economic life and our relationship with the federal government), to continue to try to change the things we can, and to try to be smart enough to know the difference between the two.

You can see why I have been accused of being an anecdotal historian, and I happily accept that criticism, because whenever I see someone put together a sweeping synthesis about the way people think and behave, I also see considerable injustice to a lot of people included in the group being described. I am tired of hearing what the “oil companies” believe and do, and what the “environmentalists” believe and do, because in these two instances I happen to know a lot of those people, and know what they do not believe and do. And before you tell me that synthesis is the key work product of a good historian, let me agree with that as well, for I don’t have a lot of answers — I only have querulous questions (and that probably explains why my books are exceedingly rare).

I am sorry to take so long to say so little, but as the saying goes, I didn’t have time to make it succinct.

Milton Lawrence Woods is a Wyoming author, lawyer, former vice president of Mobil, and a long-time friend of Pete Simpson’s. Some of his notable books include The Wyoming Country Before Statehood; Four Hundred Years Under Six Flags (Worland, WY., 1971), Sometimes the Books Froze: Wyoming’s Economy and Its Banks (Boulder, Co., 1985 ), Moreton Frewen’s Western Adventures (Boulder, CO., 1986), British Gentlemen in the Wild West: The Era of the Intensely English Cowboy (New York & London, 1989), Wyoming’s Big Horn Basin to 1901: A Late Frontier (Spokane, WA., 2003), and Alex Swan and the Swan Companies (Norman, OK., 2006).

This column appears as part of WyoFile’s Pete Simpson Forum, a project to stimulate civil dialogue on issues that matter to Wyoming. Columns are the signed perspective of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of WyoFile’s staff, board of directors or its supporters.

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Gregory Nickerson

Gregory Nickerson worked as government and policy reporter for WyoFile from 2012-2015. He studied history at the University of Wyoming. Follow Greg on Twitter at @GregNickersonWY and on www.facebook.com/GregoryNickersonWriter/

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3 Comments

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  1. Excellent, not to mention wry, commentary on one of my favorite states. I used to live down the road in Colorado, and got up there whenever weather permitted.

  2. Quite enjoyable Mr. Woods, but I fear we are already irrelevant in Washington, our ‘Senators’ work for themselves, or Texas and Wyoming is either a pastime or a stepping stone,, I won’t bother going into our local politicians.

  3. I really enjoyed Mr. Woods’ article and wonder if he has written more about his Worland based airline adventure.

    Bill