Rails and historic buildings in Laramie. (Jim Maurer/FlickrCC)

I loved growing up in Laramie, but the town has always felt a bit … stagnant. We don’t have much of an economy here aside from the University of Wyoming. Albany County is the poorest in the state, despite its educated workforce. “Economic development” often amounts to more low-wage service jobs and convincing chain stores to fill vacancies in the local strip mall. 

Most people I knew growing up in Laramie moved to other states. Not long ago, I too joined the droves of young people who flee Wyoming in search of opportunity. 

Today, I’ve moved back to Laramie to be closer to my family and to spend more time outdoors. I’m excited to return home and hope to be part of shaping a better future for our state. But I’m quickly finding that many of the forces that made me want to leave nearly a decade ago still exist. 

Wyoming is still stubborn about trying new things, and it refuses to invest in its own future. 

The Rail Tie Wind Project planned for southern Albany County offers Laramie a rare chance to start writing a new chapter. It would help create a new local industry and new jobs, produce clean energy. It would bring desperately needed tax revenue — something that our neighbors in Carbon and Laramie Counties already enjoy.

But it would also bring about change, which folks around here tend not to like.

Specifically, a small number of wealthy homeowners are working hard to block the Rail Tie project, claiming wind turbines will “forever ruin” their million dollar views. 

I get it. Open landscapes and abundant wildlife are what a lot of us — including me — love about Wyoming. But it’s funny that people living in McMansions scattered across hilltops are the ones righteously defending them. Aren’t giant houses eyesores? Don’t rural subdivisions disrupt migration corridors?

Besides, there are more important things to our state’s future than these people’s backyard views. Fixing Wyoming’s broken economy is one of them. Doing our part to stop climate change is another. And, finally, there’s improving our state’s crappy attitude when it comes to trying new things.

For my entire life, Wyoming lawmakers have faced decisions where they could choose to support new industries, create new sources of tax revenue, and take steps to decrease Wyoming’s carbon output. But those things are all hard to do. The situation is never perfect, someone is always unhappy, and so our leaders find excuses to do nothing.

Guess who gets to deal with the consequences of these decisions? My generation. We are inheriting a crippling state budget crisis, a decades-long dependence on failing industries, a wildly outdated tax structure, and we will experience the most severe impacts of climate change.

Young people across political and ideological divides care about climate change — much more than our elders apparently realize — and we want to live in a place that does, too. Climate change is not something that will happen in the future. It’s happening right now, and we’re feeling the impacts in our communities. 

You want to talk about spoiled views? The Mullen Fire just west of Laramie last fall saturated the town in smoke for months. I couldn’t see across the street some days, and forget about the surrounding mountains. 

Wildfires and severe drought will only worsen until we take serious steps away from burning carbon for energy. Unfortunately, because of older generations’ inaction, we’ve run out of time to be super picky about how to fix Wyoming’s economy and how we transition to renewable energy. We need to act.

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The clean power industry alone cannot breathe new life into Wyoming’s towns, solve our massive budget crisis, or reverse the course of climate change. But projects like Rail Tie are steps in the right direction, toward a future with sustainable job opportunities and a sustainable planet.

Rail Tie would provide local career paths for students studying to be wind turbine technicians at Laramie County Community College. It could build momentum for other forms of local clean power development. Albany County would earn new revenues for our schools and public services. Plus, supporting renewable energy jibes with the City of Laramie’s goal to be carbon neutral by 2050.

The clash over the Rail Tie project is emblematic of a bigger problem in Wyoming: resistance to change. The project’s success would demonstrate that Wyoming is willing to encourage, rather than stymie, new industries — even if a handful of loud, well-connected people oppose it. 

But it’s failure would affirm that Wyoming is never apparently going to be ready for change. Our communities will continue to fall behind as we cling to the same old ideas that have been around forever — and this is precisely the kind of thing that tends to drive young people away.

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  1. When i moved here 12 years ago i knew it would be different, coming from the liberal state of Colorado to this conservative state. But I never expected the results of the last general election to be this closed minded. People all over this country continue to vote for issues that are not in their best interests. But this state is really in the dark. So i blame an under educated and uninformed populace. And of course the ‘over dependence” on fossil fuel. We have not even been taxing this industry properly! So now, big surprise, the states bankrupt! AND what’s wrong with simple income tax, people!! A 2cent tax on gas.? To rely on one industry to keep your state afloat is just plain ignorant..

  2. Hi Kelly,

    First, I’d like to start with a little info about me. I own a small cabin on Boulder ridge. I built the cabin myself, using a large percent of recycled and locally sourced products. It is also solar powered. I”m not a Republican or opposed to change. In fact, you could probably call me a liberal. I have also volunteered as Assistant Chief of the Tie Siding VFD for almost 15 years. (I worked on the Mullen fire you referenced.) Oh, I also own a fully electric car.

    That said, I’d like to discuss a statement you made in your column: “Guess who gets to deal with the consequences of these decisions? My generation.”. You are absolutely correct! That’s why many of us local small landowners are trying first and foremost to make sure that Albany County thinks first – and ensures that the rights and safety of ALL property owners and Albany County residents are considered now and into the future. And that Albany County doesn’t just blindly accept what Connect Gen is proposing without “looking behind the curtain”. (And by the way, ensuring that Albany County doesn’t leave money on table by just accepting the deal that Connect Gen is promoting. without detailed study.)

    Since you are an activist, I”d like to ask you take the WyoFile tag line to heart: “You’re as obsessed with the facts as we are!” – and really look at both sides of the issue. What is the goal of any “for profit” company? Their goal is simple – to make as much money as possible, so they can present a strong financial picture to their shareholders or their private owners. That translates to some unpleasant realities: with as few regulations as possible, as cheaply as possible, and as fast as possible. As an activist, you should also be considering how this reality plays out in real life, and not simply accept that since a company is offering a “green” product that they have any special love for the people of Wyoming or any other state.

    They are here because Wyoming has a resource they can exploit to make money, and because at least so far, Albany County and Wyoming hasn’t really paid much attention to how wind development did it, or asked for too much in the way of taxes or escrow/bonding in return for the right to exploit that resource. And don’t forget, Connect Gen isn’t even planning to operate these towers long-term – they are basically brokers, planning to make money solely from the development, This is a completely legitimate strategy, but it should make you think – what are their primary motivations?

    For example, if a company was proposing to build a coal or gas-fired power station outside of Laramie, wouldn’t you want to ensure that the impacts on local residents would be considered, that the environmental impact would be considered, and that Albany County was really getting the best possible deal? Why should an industrial wind facility be any different? And wouldn’t you want to check all the facts they use as “evidence” – like how many jobs will really be created, just how bad the impact will be to local landowners, and are the studies they quote from 10 years ago still valid now that wind turbines have at least doubled in size? That’s all we are asking.

    I’m sure you are aware that on the border between Albany and Carbon counties, the Canadian firm “Blue-Earth Renewables” is already well along in the process of two wind projects: “Two Rivers” and “Lucky Star”. Between them they plan to erect 277 turbines, and make significant payments to Laramie, Rock River, and Albany County. Excellent!

    They are also refreshingly candid about the “real” job situation. Long-term jobs for both facilitates are expected to be approximately 24 full-time jobs (over a project lifespan for about 40 years). Which is certainly good, but it’s not any more any than any other small manufacturing or tech company might bring to Laramie, and that could have additional growth over time.) And most importantly, these sites appear to be well away from any private residences not belonging to the lease holders as far as I can tell from the maps they publish and from Google Earth. For example, it looks like the town of Rock River will be at least 2-3 miles from any tower from what I can tell.

    The point here is that Albany County in NOT refusing to invest in the future (at least when it comes to Wind Turbines), and when properly situated, wind development can be a win-win. For me, and many others, the issue with the Rail Tie proposal is that it affects a disproportionately large number of small landowners, will rely on roads used by local residents for the bulk of it’s traffic, and is situated very close to heavily forested areas and recreational/historic areas, including the Roosevelt National Forest. This reality requires more study, and a plan that respects everyone,

    In her comment, Ruth Sommers mentioned coming down for a visit to see first-hand. Would you and others from WyoFile be willing to do that? Commissioners Ibarra and Gosar have done so, also taking the time to meet with local residents and others who can share first hand info, Including perspectives from those who’s lives and property were impacted by the recent Roundhouse Development in Laramie County.

    I have included a couple of interesting links below, and would be happy to share the same info that I already sent to the County Commissioners in trying to open a real dialogue on this subject.

    Sincerely,

    Don Wierbilis
    Boulder Ridge, Tie Siding

    http://bluearthrenewables.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/12/Lucky_Star_-_Two_Rivers___Lucky_Star_Fact_Sheet.pdf

    “Wind farm gets permit for 277 turbines | Energy Journal | trib.com” https://trib.com/business/energy/wind-farm-gets-permit-for-277-turbines/article_9c4ec113-db1c-5dd0-bdce-9a83fedd02af.amp.html

  3. Yes, I live in the area they want to put the Rail-Tie windfarm. No, I am not a millionaire living in a McMansion on the mountain. This project does not benefit me for MANY reasons. The grid energy from this project does not go to Wyoming, it goes to Colorado. The jobs coming into this project are temporary, and will be from outside the state vs inside. You expect they will buy products from the state to increase economy, however, how much was increased to locals vs franchises. We make the most during CFD from tourists. The roads will be affected from this project. Cherokee Park Road is battered enough by weekend warriors, hunters and campers. Bringing semis in will make ruts far worse and expect winter will be even worse than that. And look what impact it will have on 287. A mostly one lane road with passing lanes without this project is hazardous. Imagine in winter, when wind drifts will become the norm, I see 287 closing more often then I-80. You stated you left because Wyoming never changes, yet you returned because you missed the beauty. Why leave the other state if it had all those changes you wanted? Sometimes change is NOT good.

  4. It’s really easy for Rail Tie proponents to reduce the problems associated with this industrial project to wealthy landowners anxious to preserve a viewshed. First of all, we are NOT all wealthy landowners! Why not take a drive in the footprint of this project and see how many McMansions you see? Most of us are like me – the owner of a modest dwelling, incidentally fully off-grid and powered by solar – who hope to leave their home to our children as part of their legacy. What proponents would rather not pay attention to are the problems we see with inadequate rules and regulations currently in play in the county. Maybe that is because most proponents live in town, or don’t even live in Laramie. We who will live next to this industrial behemoth are worried about inadequate setbacks to protect us from living next to a haul road, or from audible and infrasound noise, shadow flicker, ice and blade throw, fire, the attraction of lightning, the inadequate protections for damage potentially done to water wells or structures from blasting,(which ConnectGEN says will be done), the lack of monitoring and oversight by the county. The only road in and out of our area will be filled with earth movers, semis hauling towers and blades and their escort vehicles, workers.. The traffic last year on Cherokee Park/Boulder Ridge roads from recreational users was absolutely unbelievable. Perhaps we can just cut off all but landowner and emergency access on these roads – no tourism – hopefully emergency and fire vehicles can get through. Regulations don’t require avian wildlife mitigation systems which prevent eagle and raptor fatalities by 80% (IdentiFlight), and on and on. So no – it’s not just viewshed. But – I’d like to remind you that this viewshed is yours too – and anyone else traveling Hwy 287 – and anyone living within 35 to 40 MILES of this project., which means everyone living in Laramie.

  5. Out of curiosity have you driven Pumpkin Vine road? There are no McMansions nor are there any on state land , county land, or the recreational land off Vedauwoo, Blair Wallace, Curt Gowdy, Happy Jack , Pole Mountian or Medicine Bow National Forest. All of these areas are public recreational space and critical grazing range for big game and species of greatest conservation concern. By eliminating biodiversity you accelerate global warming. I too am pro renewable and am thankful Albany County has the Lucky Star and Two River Wind Projects approved and I am thankful these will put approximately 25 million into our coffers. These projects are cited right unfortunately the proposed Rail Tie Wind Project is cited wrong.

  6. It is disheartening that Wyoming fails to embrace another natural resource, they have without tapping fossil fuel, the wind. The folks who want to maintain a view from their mountain top homes need to invest in the future of Wyoming and all resources available. One day that home will be replace or occupied by younger generations, we hope, at affordable prices while working to keep taxes attractive for future Wyoming residents.

  7. When you drive into Wyoming on any of its highways the openness and beauty take your breath away. I remember flying into Laramie from Denver for a job interview. I was sold as we circled and landed at Laramie’s airport.

    Then y0u learn about Wyoming’s marriage to extractive industries, to its legislatures meanness and small mindedness, to the State’s seeming fear of change.

    Were I young and looking to build a life I’d be attracted to Wyoming’s beauty, but be turned off to it’s right wing politics and inability to see beyond a dead-end and empty vision of Wyoming’s future.

  8. Low wages and no future also drive young people away…as soon as they get that high-school diploma.

    1. Opportunity is what you make of it. I know numerous successful people in this state that put in the time and effort to build something and created jobs for them themselves and employees – not the low wage jobs you refer to. Wyoming’s not perfect, but then I am not sure any state or other local is either. It’s what you make of it and effort you put into it.