Editor’s note: WyoFile is pleased to present the third installment in our special project: “The Pete Simpson Forum,” a conversation about how our state can best deal with a host of challenges and opportunities. People with different backgrounds are invited to write about a particular topic. WyoFile publishes a pair of columns each month. 

A note from Pete: This month’s forum contributors are Wyoming neighbors from either side of the Owl Creek Mountains – John Davis of Worland and Dave Raynolds of Lander.  John practices law, among many other things, and Dave raises buffalo, among equally many other things, and, though their backgrounds differ, both share a passion for Wyoming history and both have insights, albeit somewhat contrary to each other, about Wyoming culture and the nature of Wyoming’s political identity.  They welcome comments – as do I! Keep ‘em coming!

Wyoming’s Political Identity by Dave Raynolds

By Dave Raynolds
— October 8, 2013 
Dave Raynolds
Dave Raynolds

Our national discourse is full of stories based on the one-size-fits-all approach to problems. Here in Wyoming we enjoy space where our size fits some. We are distinguished by those many who are not here as well as by those few who are. Count our blessings — in a few moments you could think of dozens of people you’re glad aren’t here.

Those of us here have special responsibilities. How should we educate our children? Do we want more government or less? Should we export energy, or just hay and steers?

Education was a recognized problem back in territorial days. In 1880, 10 years before statehood, there were only 1,000 high schools in the country. Wyoming Territory had five: three along the Union Pacific Railroad, one in Buffalo and one in Lander. The Lander example is instructive.

Related story John Davis
Related story: Wyoming’s political identity and the Johnson County War
Related story: Wyoming’s political identity and the Johnson County War

Fed by a group of county grade schools across a stretch including current Sublette and Hot Springs counties, the first high school building became too small and was replaced by a bigger one two blocks away. Ranch kids boarded in town during the school season. There was talk of having the State Capitol in Lander, but Cheyenne won. Then perhaps the land grant
college? Laramie got that one.

Philip Wisser, a local bachelor rancher with limited schooling made a will providing that his property be sold and the cash support local specialized education. Trustees got a legal opinion that a vocational high school would fill the bill, so a 160 acre homestead on the outskirts of town was bought and a new Fremont County Vocational High School built. In time it was replaced by yet another, fourth high school building complex. Meanwhile, the old Wisser ranch went through several owners, the latest of whom donated a portion as expansion site for the Wyoming Catholic College. Notice that hereabouts virtue can be rewarded more than once.

In earlier days, education was truly locally controlled and paid for. In time there was an effort at the state level to provide some basic standards. One idea was the summer “institutes,” which travelled about and re-treaded local teachers. Community colleges were developed, first in Casper (1945). Little by little state authority over the system has expanded, together with state funding from mineral wealth. The methods and substance of this control are a matter of political controversy.

The caution lights are blinking; while we spend more for each K-12 student than any other state, our students test well below average compared with students from other states. Should we set as a goal a drive upwards toward mediocrity?

A recent New York Times study showed Wyoming leading all states with 25.2 percent of employees in government, more than double the lowest state; Pennsylvania at 12.4 percent. Do we have enough government yet, or do we need more? Direct employees don’t include those selling things to government, like new school buildings. Does our emphasis on education mean we’re bound to have proportionately more government employees than other states? When you hear people talking about the “Nanny State,” don’t look elsewhere — that’s us.

We’re good at exporting hay and steers. A neighboring alfalfa farmer buys a new alfalfa processor for a third of a million dollars at cash discount in the fall, takes it into the shop, where he and his family disassemble it down to the last set of bearings, then reassemble so it won’t break down in the field. The machine cuts the alfalfa, dries it out, re-moisturizes it to specification, grinds and extrudes it into pellets, and spits them into a following truck while another truck provides more water. Pellet trucks go to the railroad, fill hopper cars, which go to the Pacific Coast, load into ships, which unload in Japan and Korea where they don’t have enough land to grow their own alfalfa for their milk cows.

As for steers, we grow bull calves, castrate them, eat the oysters, feed the steers, then ship them mainly to out-of state feed lots (where they may eat our hay). If we’re hungry for meat, we import it. One in 10 Wyoming readers have met someone involved in agriculture; outside Wyoming, maybe one in 1,000.

So — should we export fuel and energy too, or just cut back production to fill our own needs? We’re starting to shut down coal-fired power plants, just as the Obama administration urges. Fuel and energy exports require railway cars (coal, oil, gas), pipelines (oil, gas) and transmission lines (AC or DC power). Federal bureaucrats have all these transmission systems by the throat. Wyoming may be the Btu capital of the United States, but our national government is in the business of rationing Btus.

Aside from people who come to Wyoming by birth, the state grows by immigration which on balance can offset emigration of Wyoming natives by travel or death.

Many of the newcomers are transients — locally they’re called “tumbleweeds.” These come in all sorts, ranging from tax refugees in Jackson to oil field roustabouts to out-of-state students. In contrast are the “stickers;” those who have found a final home in Wyoming. There are cycles in migration; currently we’re at an all-time peak. Probably a third of our current population came here by choice. Many liked things as they found them, and say don’t change anything more. Others draw on
out-of-state experience, and can suggest ways to improve things. We should listen to them.

More than a century ago Wyoming was given the title “Equality State” — our choice. Just because all the then-current states and territories didn’t offer women the right to vote, we didn’t have to wait until 1921. Nowadays, since our size fits some, let’s continue to make our own choices.

— Dave Raynolds is a buffalo breeder and author living in Lander. Dartmouth educated with an MA from Wesleyan, he was a foreign service officer and recipient of the Department of State meritorious service award. He is presently a member of the steering committee of the Wyoming Business Alliance and is past president of the National Buffalo Association. He is author of a book and several articles on the development of small economies.
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  1. I like the premise of the column. My comments would be that our student scores would probably soar if there were less legislative oversight (state and federal) and more parental involvement in the child’s education. That would include the parents teaching the child to be accountable for their own actions–successes and failures. My second comment would be that I doubt PA has as much land under NF and BLM control or the national parks that we have which might account for much of the government employees. So, comments about the nanny state might be couched with this in mind. That being said, I think there probably has to be some national regulation of interstate transportation of energy, alfalfa or steers or there would be a lot more parochial bickering. It’s not perfect but right now it’s what the lobbyists want.