Wyoming - the Land That the Roaring '90S Forgot

Article excerpt

If every rule has its exception, Wyoming is America's frontier of contrariness.

Many of the truisms defining American life in the 1990s are blown aside here, seeming victims of the relentless high-plains wind for which this cowboy state is famous.

Yet politicians and policymakers are now in animated discussion about whether and how to join the mainstream. It's a debate spurred by a gubernatorial campaign - one with particular poignancy for the residents of Wyoming, who are watching what might be the end of the nation's spectacular economic boom knowing full well that for them, it never began.

The stakes are high for the locals, but not confined to them. For many others, the questions raised here embody rarely voiced concerns in the United States about a century of progress and many of its presumed benefits.

"Why is growth and economic progress such a fundamentally excellent goal?" asks author E. Annie Proulx, a Wyoming resident. While Ms. Proulx doesn't pretend to have the answer, she adds, "the country needs Wyoming just because it's not like anyplace else."

Wyoming's statewide soul-searching is part defiant, part uncertain, and wholly framed by a place probably more like its past than anywhere else in the continental United States.

This is a state where legend has it that citizen-counters had to take names at the train stations to come up with the requisite 60,000 population figure to qualify for statehood in 1890. This is a state where even today no city has more than 55,000 residents. And this is a state without any substantial high-tech sector, professional sports arenas, or concerted plan for getting either.

"You could call us the last defense" against modernism, says Elizabeth Guheen, who runs the Ucross Foundation retreat for artists in northern Wyoming - where you can "look out your window and see deer, wild turkey, and fresh streams," she says.

But a host of facts and trends have many in the state worried.

As the American economy has boomed, Wyoming has sat on the sidelines watching. By measures like job growth and income gains, Wyoming is at the bottom of the barrel. The picture is particularly stark given that Wyoming's mountain neighbors have exceeded the national average in economic growth and prosperity.

This year, for example, when virtually every state was deciding what to do with surpluses, only one enacted a significant tax increase: Wyoming, which boosted gasoline taxes.

Such statistics, however, pale in comparison with the one that disturbs virtually everyone in the state: More than half of the state's college graduates leave because they can't find work at home. University of Wyoming economist Shelby Gerking estimates that 25 percent of the state's 20 to 40 age group left the state between 1990 and 1996.

Dave Freudenthal, a native of Wyoming and the US attorney in Cheyenne, faced that reality recently when his daughter, home from college, told him she probably wouldn't be back again next summer. "It's not a surprise, it's just what kids here have to do," he says.

Growth is a central issue in the race for governor, which pits incumbent Republican Jim Geringer against state senator and Democrat John Vinich. …