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