The nearly two century old ruts formed by migrants traveling the Oregon Trail. (Bureau of Land Management)

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. 

Opinion

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.

Khale Lenhart

Cheyenne attorney Khale Lenhart is a former chairman of the Laramie County Republican Party. He can be reached at khale.lenhart@gmail.com

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  1. Wyoming’s future will be liberated by advancements in food and energy production, that reduce the need for water, while requiring much less land, and concentrated “Big Ag.” Known by various monikers (Precision Fermentation, cellular agriculture, microbial production, biosynthesis, and other terms). The products are foods that are nutritious, and often cannot be distinguished from beef, poultry, or other livestock derived foods.

    The efficiency improvements are astounding! The scalability seems to create a favorable condition for cottage industries. Will Wyoming embrace change?

  2. Yeah! I was having a conversation with a couple of UW students about our future and the lack of “dreaming” or imagination about our collective futures. I would love for our people and legislators to discuss actual issues impacting all of us instead of god, guns and babies. While some of the commenters are asking for a vision from the writer, it is clear that before we have a discussion, we, Wyomingites, have to agree on actual facts.

    “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.”

    While Mr. Lenhart posits things have changed concerning sustainability, agriculture and natural resource markets, he goes on to say that our small towns have to find new industries to survive. I say What?

    It is clear these things have changed but to find industries that fill our small towns that actively generate Wyoming revenue to sustain the water, waste water, fire, education, broadband, police and roads in shape to all those small towns is an absolute pipe dream.

    Wyoming is in a unique position to see that sprawl in relation to all those costs to keep its small towns going is impossible in an era where energy cost to obtain energy is rising relentlessly, which cannot be addressed by conducting business as usual to keep these small towns going.

    Wyoming clearly needs to have a discussion about Energy and then when it finally faces facts, then Wyoming can design policies that imagine a future that lets Wyoming wild areas become more wild, while actively engaging in agricultural practices where they make sense from a water/soil location and then encouraging population to increase in areas where the people and transportation infrastructure is in place.

    I can dream of a different, more sustainable Wyoming, but to achieve that dream we have to see the facts first. I am ready to imagine/dream of a different place but I absolutely believe in Khal’s assessment on this topic.

    “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.”

  3. Lots of fluff here and no details. Say what? Although semi-interesting muse, just another rant, basically.

  4. Spot on. If anyone spots the political will to actually do this, please let me know. I won’t wait up.

  5. I do agree with this article. Wyoming continues to relay on its past mineral development for it’s future while there is so much more we need to consider. That is a part of the reason I advocate for changes in the way we do business, starting with it’s wildlife and other natural resources. For a good place to start I’ve recommended the Golden Triangle, an area north of Farson that is mostly BLM lands but contains the greatest densities of sage-grouse anywhere….not to mention a part of the longest mule deer migration corridor and winter ranges for elk, mule deer and pronghorn.
    We need to think bigger and focus on new ideas and thoughts to enhance the natural resources we are so lucky to enjoy. Our grandchildren will appreciate it.

  6. Khale – Terrific essay. Would be even better if you outlined your vision of Wyoming’s future.

  7. Very thoughtful piece, thanks. Change is often hard but always necessary in our fast-evolving world. It is more manageable if we understand why it is necessary. That is in part media’s job. And thanks to WYOFILE doing that well.