When I think about Wyoming, I think about the pioneers that many of us can trace our heritage to. They came west to a hard and unforgiving place. Many left behind families or communities where they had a comfortable life. They exchanged their relative security for far more uncertainty, and they did so because they believed they could build something better.
Much of Wyoming’s identity is wrapped up in our pioneer heritage. We revere those who risked their livelihood — and sometimes their lives — to build something new. However, in doing so, we often miss the big picture of why they did what they did. The pioneers were visionaries focused on progress and growth. They sought something new and to build something prosperous out of the arid West.
I worry that we in Wyoming look to preserve the frontier lifestyle at the expense of the frontier spirit. We sometimes forget that in addition to being the hardworking, self-sufficient men and women we picture them to be, the pioneers were also dreamers. They imagined a better future in the West and acted on those dreams. Perhaps the greatest attribute of the pioneers was their imagination.
Wyoming needs more imagination. Imagination is probably not the first thing most of us think of when we are considering what will bring Wyoming prosperity. However, when we look at the areas of the world that are thriving the most, all of them have an abundance of imagination. Imagination is what allows us to create new businesses, develop new industries, and build the communities that we want to live in. Imagination is what takes us from where we are now to a better future.
None of Wyoming’s pressing problems are going to be solved without imaginative solutions. We will not be able to navigate the economic impacts that global market changes have on our legacy industries without using our imaginations. We must picture what the natural resource industry in Wyoming looks like in the future and adapt accordingly. We must be proactive, not reactive.
The same goes for our agriculture and tourism industries. They too must adapt to changing circumstances so that they continue to play a prominent role in Wyoming. These are industries that are a key part of our state, but they are industries that will change over the coming years. This change will be uncomfortable at times, but we will be in a better place if we embrace the pioneer mindset of adapting to difficult circumstances and using our vision to guide our future.
Imagination is picturing the future we want and building it, not focusing on the past we had and trying to hold on to it. That is not to say we should discard our past — there will always be a connection between what we were and what we become. However, we cannot let our reverence for the past prevent us from moving toward the future.
Our past is important. We must learn from it and stay connected to it. We must build on the best parts of our heritage and what makes us unique, but we cannot let our past limit us. I worry that too many in Wyoming want to hold on to a loved and appreciated, but no longer sustainable, past. Our natural resource markets have changed, the agriculture industry has changed, our small towns need to find new industries to stay vibrant. If we fail to adapt to these changes, the opportunities that come with them will pass us by and we risk setting ourselves on a path to decline.
None of us can stop change, so our only choice is to adapt along with it. We can let our history guide us and inform how we want our future to look, but we must recognize that our past and future are different parts of our state’s story.
My great-great grandparents homesteaded in Wyoming generations ago. It was not easy and there were many struggles along the way. They were willing to do it because they believed that the future they could build here was better than what they left behind. They could imagine the lives they and their descendants could live in this place, wild though it was. That is the pioneer spirit.
Today, we are again faced with difficult times and an uncertain world. It also will not be easy and there will be struggles. We may face setbacks, disappointments, possibly even large losses. But those of us that choose to live here, even though some parts of life may be easier elsewhere, do so because we love the Wyoming that was, the Wyoming that is, and above all else, the Wyoming that we are creating for the future.