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1839 - Big windmills and big rivers on fall road trip

We often describe Wyoming’s four seasons as: Early Winter, Winter, Still Winter . . . and Construction.

         Yes, we are definitely in the construction season.

         As anyone who has traveled anywhere across the country recently knows, America is tearing up and repairing its highways.  We encountered an amazing amount of highway re-construction projects during a quick road trip from Wyoming to Nebraska to Iowa and Illinois earlier this month.

         As readers of this column know, Nancy and I love trips like this.  Here are a few highlights.

         I always love rivers, and this trip included crossing lots of them.  First was the Wind River at Boysen Reservoir, which is still running high late in the season.

         In Casper, the North Platte is such a classic river. We rolled down Interstate 25 and crossed this river again at Douglas, where again it was broad and powerful.

         Once in Nebraska, we caught up with the rainy weather that had bedeviled the Midwest in late August and early September. Interstate 80 was busy with semi-trailer trucks and lots of cars and non-stop construction.

         In Iowa, windmills are everywhere.  The Hawkeye State now gets 37 percent of its power from wind, which is the highest percentage of any state.

         Wyoming may be catching up soon in the number of windmills, though.  Kara Choquette of Rawlins reminded that the $5 billion Chokecherry and Sierra Madre project is coming along. The  $3 billion Trans West Express Transmission line will carry all that power.

         In the Omaha area and southwest Iowa, we caught the end of the torrential rains, which had drenched those areas and caused previous high temperatures to dip into the 60s. When we were packing for the Iowa trip, we figured on lots of shorts and tee shirts. We replaced those items with jeans and long sleeve shirts.

         I would highly recommend checking out the Omaha marina area if you get to that part of the country. The Bob Kerrey Walking Bridge is spectacular with a wonderful view of the Missouri River.

         We crossed Iowa amid amazing construction sites and found ourselves in Cedar Falls, a neat college town.

         We drove scenic Highway 3 from Cedar Falls to Dubuque – great views. Dubuque is Iowa’s oldest city and one of the most amazing small cities in the Midwest. Julien Dubuque founded this historic locale in 1788. It contains classic structures including two breweries, churches, big and unique bridges, and even an ancient shot tower.  A railroad bridge that swiveled to make room for big barges to pass through is located there on the Mississippi.

         One of my favorite sayings when enjoying a spectacular view with good company goes something like this: “there is nowhere on earth I would rather be than right here, right now.”

We were there on a magnificent fall day and as we sat along the River Walk along the Mighty Mississippi, I repeated to my brother Jim and his wife Laura this comment. It was just a spectacular moment. Not Yellowstone or the Tetons, but one heckuva of a pretty nice spot.

         Backbone Park, which was Iowa’s first state park is located an hour from my hometown of Wadena. It was closed because of the high rains. My sister Mary, who lives next to Backbone in Dundee, endured 12 inches of rain over a five-day span.  My brother Jim called the rain “biblical.” It was seemingly not related to Hurricane Florence but the timing was similar.

My hometown is located in a part of Iowa known as Little Switzerland. My brother John lives there. We went to the cemetery and visited the grave of my dad, Tom Sniffin Sr. Sure enjoyed John’s homegrown watermelon and fresh tomatoes for a late afternoon snack.

         Earlier we had stayed in Harlan, in western Iowa, with Nancy’s sister Patsy and her husband Roger.  This little town, where I worked for six years at the newspaper and met my wife, is the nice bustling little county seat of Shelby County. Nancy’s kid sister Tami, who is battling cancer, was in high spirits and doing well.

         Enroute home, we stopped in Omaha, to spend time with relatives at Big Fred’s, a famous pizza joint in the western part of the city.  Some of the best pizza ever!

         We traveled 2,000 miles through four states in seven quick days. Saw many loved ones and visited former stomping grounds. It was a wonderful time but it is sure good to be back home in Wyoming!

 

1838 - Is this Wyoming`s biggest project ever?

The announcement Wyoming would be seeing a $5 billion investment in the FE Warren Air Force Base in Cheyenne got me wondering:

         Is this the largest financial investment of any single project in the history of Wyoming?

         The number “five billion” takes my breath away. Not sure what the total value of all the homes are in the state or all the oil or all the coal, but billions would measure that.

         But it is always hard to compare military hardware with ordinary items.

         Some 40 years ago, we had a newspaper cartoonist who drew a cartoon showing a map of the United States with a bulls-eye located in Cheyenne.  This gave us an idea of where the Soviet Union was aiming its missiles.  It was assumed they wanted to cripple the ICBM (InterContinental Ballistic Missile) headquarters at the start of a nuclear war between the USA and the USSR. The message of that cartoon was that the rest of Wyomingites would bear a big brunt of that onslaught.

         Today, all those silos and those 400 missiles need a serious upgrade.  The current facilities are decades old and one news story claimed the crews still use floppy disks on ancient computers.

         Yes, it is time to re-boot and it looks like the number it will take involves ten digits at $5,000,000,000.

         Some time ago ExxonMobil spent $1 billion on the Shute Creek plant northeast of Kemmerer.  Supposedly it was built on a creek of a similar name – the creek name described the location a person would go when being in dire circumstances – but wiser heads suggested changing it to Shute Creek!

         What would our Interstate Highway System cost today?  Might be $5 billion based on recent contracts showing what it costs to re-build a mile of Interstate highway.

         The Buffalo Bill dam west of Cody was the biggest dam in the world when it was built in 1912. It was also the tallest and probably the most expensive. Would it be $5 billion in today’s dollars?

         What about the entire campus for the University of Wyoming  - would it cost $5 billion if you started from scratch?

         Some of our coal-fired power plants might have cost of a billion dollars in today’s money.

         Also those huge windmill farms plus the transmission lines are being mentioned as billion-dollar projects.

         Rob Black of Cheyenne reminded me that I missed probably the biggest project in our state’s history and the project that literally defined Wyoming. He writes:

         “How about the Union Pacific Railroad? Although only a portion crossed Wyoming, Congress in 1862 paid $32,000 per mile to the two companies building it, and the total length was 1,776 miles. Total cost would have been $56,832,000.

         “One online source just rounded it to $50 million. Based on an inflation calculator I found, that would be equivalent to $1.43 billion in today`s dollars. Not quite $5 billion. And Wyoming`s portion would be even smaller. If Wyoming is about 400 miles wide, then 400 divided by 1,776 = 22.5 percent. And 22.5 percent of $1.43 billion is a paltry $322 million.

         “Still, if you built the same railroad today, I`ll bet labor and materials would cost a lot more, plus environmental impact statements, taxes, lawyers, much higher overhead, etc. etc., maybe it would be close to $5 billion in Wyoming alone.”

         One of Tucker Fagan’s many careers was instructing President Ronald Reagan on the codes for the ICBM missile launchings. He knows this subject.

         But Cheyenne being the biggest missile target in the world? He begs to differ:

         “You are correct that a very large amount of Defense money is headed to replace the Minuteman ICBM system.  As for Cheyenne being a bulls-eye, my guess it is not.  Both sides now are limited to 1,550 warheads.  When you look at the vast target structure facing the Russians, a weapon focused on FE Warren is not likely because the message from the President to the missiles crews goes directly to the missile capsules.

         “Northrup Grumman and Boeing are honing their solutions to win the contract. I expect a lot of people moving to the southeast corner of the state and whichever company wins the contract will buy lots of material and supplies for the project.”

         For some perspective, that $5 billion earmarked for Cheyenne is a tiny fraction of the $140 billion planned by the military for an upgrade of all our ICBM facilities all over the world.

         So I guess we are glad Wyoming is getting its piece of this huge pie.  And yes, that cartoon showing Cheyenne as the bulls-eye is still very much applicable, but as Tucker explains, it would not be the only bull’s-eye in this modern world.  Some consolation, I guess.  

 

 

1837 - 30 years ago, Yellowstone was burning up

Looking out the airplane window, it was a hellish scene.  My Yellowstone, a place I have loved forever, was changing right before my eyes.  Fire was destroying it and I seriously wondered if it would ever be the same again.

         That was my exact thought as I piloted a small, single engine airplane over the vast expanse of Yellowstone National Park in the early fall of 1988 during the fires that year.

         Flying with me on that day was the late Larry Hastings, one of the best pilots and instructors in Wyoming history.  Also along and helping take photos was the late Mike McClure, a legend in his own right, as a premier photographer.

         Both men lived in Lander. We had been talking about making this flight for some time.

         It was my bright idea.  We had seen TV coverage of the fire but no one seemed to have a good aerial view.  I always want to figure out a way to take a big picture in the easiest way possible and flying over the park seemed the best plan.

         Hastings was aware of the altitude restrictions, which caused us to fly quite high as we soared over the world’s oldest national park while it was literally burning up.

         The view was impressive because as far as the eye could see was smoke.  It was unimpressive because it was almost impossible to make out landmarks.

         What was visible were a large number of hotspots where fire would shoot 300 feet in the air.  It was hot down there.  The park I loved was going to be changed forever.

         That event three decades ago was unprecedented in the history of the National Park Service.  There were contrasting programs of fire suppression and “controlled burns” in place, which caused the people responsible for the park’s existence to be incapable of dealing with the conflagration.

         The Park Superintendent was Bob Barbee, who became known as “Barbecue Bob.”

         Today we are again enduring smoky air and brilliant sky scenes   from California fires. Back in 1988, cities and towns in a wide circle around the park enjoyed the most colorful sunsets in history.  Here in Lander, which is a two-hour drive southeast from YNP, the evening views were unprecedented.  Like now, it was an awful time for folks with respiratory problems.

         Numbers do a good job of telling the Yellowstone Fire story.  It covered some 800,000 acres or over one third of the park. 

         Much like many mountain areas today in Wyoming, the park was overdue for a huge fire event.  Extremely dry conditions (drier than ever measured before) plus controlled burns plus accidents   plus mountain pine beetle tree kills plus lightning, well, the die was cast. Though hellish at the time, those fires improved the health of Yellowstone’s forests. Often, the West’s ecological health often depends on fire.

         Some 250 different fires ignited between June and September in the park and the surrounding national forests. Seven fires caused 95 percent of the damage. Fighting the fires in 1988 cost $120 million, which is $230 million in today’s dollars – almost a quarter of a billion dollars.

         Biggest fire was the North Fork fire, which was started July 22 by a cigarette dropped by a man cutting timber in the neighboring Targhee National Forest.

         Aug. 20 was dubbed Black Sunday as more than 150,000 acres were consumed in a single day. On that day, one of the biggest fires, called the Huck Fire, started when a tree fell on a power line near Flagg Ranch.  This fire burned in the John D. Rockefeller Jr. Memorial Parkway and then crossed into Yellowstone on Aug. 30.

         One of the most amazing scenes of this fire was when embers from it were sent airborne across the massive Lewis Lake by 80 mph winds, setting new fires on the other side of the lake. Firefighters were hopeful the lake would provide a natural firebreak. Alas it did not.

         This complex of fires burned 140,000 acres and was finally extinguished when some welcome snow and rains fell later that fall.

         It took valiant efforts by more than 13,000 firefighters, 120 helicopters and slurry bombers, plus National Guard and civilians. But to little avail.  Important structures like Old Faithful Inn and the Lake Hotel were saved but efforts to completely stop the fires proved to be impossible.

         Mother Nature wanted those fires to burn and they did until she was ready to put them out.

         On that day 30 years ago we were flying above a scene right out of Dante’s Inferno. I experienced a memory that I would like to forget yet will always recall.

1836 - Most unique Wyoming election - ever

In the end, an election that looked like the craziest in Wyoming history ended up right where it started – front runner State Treasurer Mark Gordon, Buffalo, won going away.

         But what happened on Tuesday, Aug. 21, 2018, in the GOP gubernatorial primary was unprecedented in the state’s 128-year history.

         A record number of voters, some 140,000 in the total primary and almost 118,000 in the GOP primary, rocked the preconceived notions of pundits and the plans of candidates.

         Gordon withstood a withering assault of anonymous nasty mailers plus complaints by fellow candidate Harriet Hageman of Cheyenne to notch the win.

         Three unprecedented things happened in this race: vast sums of money were spent, an endorsement by a sitting president occurred and record numbers of “crossover” voters became Republicans.

         First, biggest change in this race compared to past ones was the huge sum of money expended. Gordon, Hageman, Foster Friess of Jackson and Sam Galeotos of Cheyenne may have each spent nearly $2 million or more. Most ever spent prior to this was eight years ago when Gov. Matt Mead spent $1.3 million to win a hotly contested primary.

         Second, President Donald Trump endorsed Friess on the morning of Election Day.  Never have we had a sitting president endorse a candidate in a Wyoming primary campaign.

         Third, arguably, the most unique story of this campaign will be the final tally of people changing parties at the polls.  It may have been as high as 9,000 voters as Democrats and Independents became Republicans. Most of the crossovers appeared to support Gordon for his seemingly moderate political stances or to vote  against Friess, because of Trump connections and his strong pro-life beliefs. Spirited local races also caused crossovers registrations.

         Some Democrats demurred when told the theory about crossovers.  But good for them.  If what they did was intentional, it was legal under current Wyoming law and was a doggoned good strategy.

         Republican mega-donor Friess entered the race late, just 119 days before primary day.  He started with less than 1 percent name recognition and was sixth in the polls at the end of April. On Election Day, he finished second. A week before the election he was one point ahead of Gordon in a poll by a national firm, making the race look much closer than it ended up being.

         During the GOP primary campaign, it always seemed that it benefitted Friess if the other candidates (Gordon, Hageman, Galeotos) stayed bunched up during the last months of campaigning. Then Friess could leap-frog them at the end. Didn’t happen. Gordon’s lead was too big on Aug. 21.

         On primary election day, the statewide crossover vote sure seemed to increase Gordon’s victory.  Plus the surprising drop in votes for Galeotos meant somebody was going to get his lost votes.

My totally unscientific projected totals would have seen Gordon and Friess finishing tied with 30,000 votes each. That estimate was obviously incorrect. 

         At his rally Tuesday night Friess said he reached out to Gordon and offered to help in any way. He encouraged everyone to help Gordon, too. He also said he and Lynn plan to stay involved in Wyoming issues. 

         The campaign pace was frenetic for all the candidates. It helped that Friess had his own plane. For example, he made 17 campaign stops in cities and towns during the last 72 hours of the campaign:  Sheridan, Laramie, Cheyenne, Rawlins, Casper, Douglas, Rawlins, Casper, Gillette, Pinedale, Cheyenne, Evanston, Gillette, Casper, Jackson, Gillette, and finally Casper.

         Even with a plane, that schedule could wear you out.

         And then there were the other races:

         I was surprised to see Curt Meier of Torrington knock off Leland Christensen of Alta for State Treasurer.  Seemed like Leland had the momentum. Meier spent a lot of money on ads and had Newcastle ad guru Bob Bonnar in his corner, a big plus.

         Nathan Winters of Thermopolis sure seemed like he had a chance to defeat Kristi Racines of Cheyenne for State Auditor, but it was not even close.  If Kristi wins the general I hope she will open the state’s books for Wyoming citizens.

         U. S. Sen. John Barrasso of Casper easily turned back Dave Dodson of Jackson, who spent a boatload of money in a furious challenge. Now Barrasso will take on Gary Trauner of Wilson in the general.

         This primary took on the feel of an athletic contest with everyone cheering on their teams.  Now, I am ready to cheer on the Cowboys and Broncos!

1834 - Come Home to Wyoming campaign

Way back in December 1999 I wrote a column, which detailed the achilles heel of Wyoming`s economic expansion - the lack of qualified workers who live here.

My solution was inviting natives, former residents and frequent visitors back home to the Cowboy State as a key way to solve this problem.

Now here we are 19 years later, the problem is not only still occurring but it might be worse today than it was way back then in the last century.

And on a similar subject, now, like then, the out-migration of Wyoming`s young people is a subject of dismay. Somehow the state needs to reverse that trend.

But we also have to confront the reality that often our young people want to head off to the big city. This is a natural wanderlust that most people consider an asset in a young person. We can worry all day long about it, but the reality is that a great many of our young people want to get out and see the world. The old refrain from World War I comes to mind: “How do you keep them down on the farm after they’ve seen Paree?”

So if it is a given that they are going to leave, maybe we just need to wait a decade or two or three and then we should invite them back?

We have a great opportunity to invite them back after they have been gone awhile.

Back in 1999, I suggested the state work with Wyoming newspapers, which were sending out more than 10,000 newspapers per week to former residents who were living in the 49 other states around the country.

As a former president of the Wyoming Press Association, I saw those readers as prime candidates to accept an invitation to "come home."

Today this would still work but it could also be done through the multitude of web sites employed by newspapers, radio stations and online services.

Other folks who would be worth recruiting home to Wyoming:

 

• The mailing list of University of Wyoming graduates would be invaluable, as would the list of grads from the state`s community colleges. Efforts might be made around class reunion time to inform our natives about what a great state Wyoming is today.

 

    • The list of servicemen who have spent time at Warren Air Force Base might be a good place to recruit people to return to our state. Plus there are national guardsmen from all over America who have spent quality time at the Guernsey training facility. I ran into just such a guy in Two Rivers, WI. He actually waved me down after seeing my Wyoming license plate. “Best time I ever had in my life. You Wyoming folks are great,” he exclaimed.

 

    • What about the out-of-state folks who have applied for and purchased hunting and fishing permits in Wyoming. They would be ideal candidates to move here, too. Nowhere in the continental USA can offer the hunting and fishing experiences as Wyoming.  I know a realtor whose logo was “live and work where you want to play.” Made sense.  These folks would be prime candidates to bring their skills to this place they love so much.

 

    • Unique institutions like the National Outdoor Leadership School in Lander have more than 100,000 graduates across the world, all of whom recall wonderful times during their stay in our state. I would bet that if you asked a majority of them what was the “best” time of their lives, they would mention that NOLS course in Wyoming. 

 

    • Vigorous retirees are always good candidates. They would bring their own retirement income with them plus usually they end up investing in local business. Wyoming offers low taxes, good medical care, low population, cheap housing and a wonderful vigorous lifestyle.  Plus our conservative financial policies and our conservative politics would cause them to come here, too.

 

         Most recently, we have had the pleasure of dealing with graduates of Wyoming Catholic College in Lander. They come from over 40 states around the country.

         They are loving their Wyoming experience and want to stay here and work here after graduation.  It appears that perhaps Wyoming is an “acquired taste” so the folks who know what living here means – well, they are more likely to want to live here and work here.

A  "Come Home to Wyoming" program would go a long way toward solving the problem of matching good employees with good jobs here in the Cowboy State.