Bill Sniffin Wyoming's national award winning columnist

Bill Sniffin News
Home Search

1805 - Why Idaho grew and Wyoming slowed down

When you live in a small city or town in Wyoming, you feel a responsibility to build up businesses, create jobs and increase opportunities for everyone.

         When you succeed, just about everyone benefits. It is a very good feeling.

         After working in economic development for 48 years, though, sometimes the thought of going to more meetings can make you a little bit weary.

         When I asked John Davis of Worland what he thought about the recent news stories about how Idaho was the fastest growing state and Wyoming was the slowest, he replied: “An interesting discussion, but one that feels like déjà vu all over again.  This has been a recurring situation all of my life.”

         John and I are about the same age and, yes, it does seem like we have been trying to build our communities our entire adult life.

         And, yet, we plod along.

         This column is part 2 of an earlier discussion about Idaho and Wyoming compare. Here are some comments from folks around the state:

Foundation CEO Patrick Henderson of Sheridan weighs in: “When I first graduated from college – I moved to Pocatello, Idaho.  Nice community – friendly folks, diverse economy, lots of outdoor recreation and a great college.  I have family that lives in Boise, both in the education field with Boise State. 

“One thought is that Idaho is just a lot warmer to live in than Wyoming and has very little wind.

         “Idaho has lots to offer with fishing, skiing, hunting and climbing opportunities. Idaho is attractive, but I still prefer my Wyoming!” 

One of the best-informed (and highly-opinionated) guys around is economist Jonathan Schechter of Jackson, who bemoans Wyoming’s worship of King Coal and finds it similar to the country’s worship of “King Trump.” He says: “Put more succinctly, Wyoming is putting a profound amount of energy into denying two basic realities: market forces and scientifically-grounded truth.  The former is especially ironic given our alleged embrace of said forces.

Schechter continues: “This is essentially the same phenomenon as is occurring nationally, and in both cases the process is abetted by an utterly credulous media, which lacks the intelligence, imagination, courage, and/or ability to act in ways that would enlighten its audience.  In that sense, the media is little more than a fixed part of the Kabuki dance Wyoming`s legislature is leading, where the script and all roles are completely rote, leaving no room for change, initiative, or the like.  Switching metaphors, an Emperor`s New Clothes phenomenon.”

         Retired teacher Dennis Coelho of Cheyenne says: “I grew up in southwestern Idaho, on my grandfather’s homestead, about thirty miles south of Nampa.  I have been living in Cheyenne for almost forty years, and I have often thought of comparisons between our fair state and our neighbor to the west. 

“I know that recently a similar essay comparing the states has received national recognition.

“I think a comparison has to start with geography and geology.  My grandfather’s farm was at 2,200 feet, while here it is 4,000 feet higher.  Southern Idaho is a-slosh in water.  While grandfather’s place was on the Snake River, The actual water was in a canyon 400 feet below and useless for farming in our area.  Most of southwestern Idaho draws irrigation from a dam on the Boise River, a project started around 1900 and the impetus for settlement in the area.  

“When I was a lad, circa mid fifties, Boise was about the size that Cheyenne is now, i.e. about 50,000 people.  Tree lined streets and quiet avenues filled with craftsman houses.  

“The Boise area really began to grow when a couple of tech companies, Micron for example, made a commitment to build factories and research centers in the area.  To some extent, they chose Boise because there was a two-year college with ambitions to become a full university, since the state university was in a very inconvenient setting several hundred miles north in Moscow, where it dominates a small town, difficult to get to at any time but especially so in winter.

 “The economic spark started by Micron is still growing as more and more people come to the Boise area. Real estate booms, housing values and development increase.  The demographics show solid growth in that 20-40 age group similar to that in Ft. Collins. 

 “No arguing with the impacts of energy development in Wyoming, but Idaho has had its own industrial impacts and problems especially in the hard rock gold and silver mining areas in the northern part of the state. 

Coelho concludes: “The thing I like most about Boise is the river running through the city. Wish we had that. But I am not moving.”

1804 - Torrington and Lusk are nice Wyoming towns

My recent tour of eastern Wyoming has been among the most fun experiences of a near half-century in the state.

         Nestled between Devils Tower on the north end and Laramie Peak on the south end and the rugged hills and buttes of western South Dakota and Nebraska, is a very special place, stretching from up north to Hulett down to Pine Bluffs on the south. One of our recent trips involved two wonderful towns, Torrington and Lusk.

         It is hard to find a small city in Wyoming that is more diversified that Torrington.

         It has a thriving Ag community including a big sugar mill plus a community college plus a large home for children and the state’s medium security prison. 

         One the town’s biggest annual events is the 2-Shot Goose Hunt and we were there for the annual victory banquet Saturday, Dec. 9.

         Gov. Matt Mead was the biggest celebrity at the event, which he told me he enjoys very much.  Former Gov. Dave Freudenthal also competed this year.  And future governor wanna-be Mark Gordon (our current state treasurer) also competed.

         Hunters compete in teams of two. One year Gov. Mead and his wife Carol were a team.  They camped out in their blind and saw nary a bird. Mead later quipped at the banquet that night that they had nothing else to do, so they repeated their marriage vows.

         Bob Mayor gave us a tour of the St. Joseph’s Children’s Home, which was started as an orphanage some 87 years ago. Today, they serve young boys and girls who usually are sent to the home by the courts. They usually stay about six months.

         The home is impressive.  Its grounds are beautiful and it has a solemn, beautiful chapel.  Its museum is one of the more distinctive in the state.  The home was founded by Bishop Patrick McGovern of Cheyenne.

         Our friends Bryan and Donna Cay Heinz showed us around the area, including some fantastic old homes.  These old homes had crow’s nests on the roofs where presumably you could watch for hostile Indians or just check on things for quite a distance.

         It was fun visiting the Torrington Telegram and meeting publisher Rob Mortimore and Editor Andrew Brosig.  I have too much ink in my blood not to just love the smells and sounds of the local newspaper.  And the Telegram is a darned good one.

         The 2-Shot and other events were held in some of the impressive County Fair buildings.  Hard to imagine a town as small as Torrington having an indoor arena of such size. They host national roping events and you can see why. It is both enormous and impressive.

         Another big thing in this small town is the Torrington Livestock Exchange. It is one of three biggest livestock auction barns in the country.  Hard to imagine the number of cows that go through that place each year.

         Eastern Wyoming College is going through a building boom, which we saw courtesy of one of the students.  President Leslie Lanham Travers is a Lander native, whom I had watched growing up in my town.  John Hansen, the director of institutional development, has a number of impressive projects underway.

The college is all-in when it comes to the trades with a massive welding teaching complex and an ample cosmetology facility.

         As a student of Wyoming history, it has always been easy to assume that the only major railroad in the state is the Union Pacific, which runs across the southern tier of counties.

         But the eastern side of the state was literally also built of towns nestled next to the railroad, which includes Torrington, Lusk, Newcastle and onward north. 

         Our friends Gene and Carol Kupke of Lusk hosted us during our visit to that town.  Enjoyed seeing sites like the new overpass, which was washed out by a flood not that long ago.

         For a quarter of a century, my wife Nancy and I owned a newspaper in Winner, S. D. and often drove through Lusk on U. S. 20 on our way there from Lander.  Always liked the town and always stayed at the Covered Wagon. They have a terrific little newspaper, which is capably managed by Lori Himes.

         During my stops in eastern Wyoming we also visited Jeff Rose at the Rose Brothers Implement Store in Lingle.  Last time I saw him, he was climbing Devils Tower with his daughter.  Now he is talking about climbing Gannett Peak.  Good luck on that!

1803 - Never forget Leslie Blythe

In her own words, Leslie Blythe could see a time into the future when she would gather with a few of her girl friends, all of whom were now over 100 years old, and they would sip cocktails at 4 p.m. Her drink of choice would naturally be a Cosmopolitan.

         All four gals would be accompanied by their service dogs, which, not unexpectedly, were Golden Retrievers.

         She always touted her Cosmo because it featured cranberry juice, which contains antioxidants and prolongs life. 

         And who could argue with her peek into the future? Leslie Blythe was a strong, lively young woman when we had this conversation last year.  She was in tip-top shape.  She literally had more friends than anyone anywhere. There is no non-politician in Wyoming who could match her Rolodex.

         Leslie died from complications of the flu at the age of 58 on Jan. 5 at the Casper hospital.  She was ubiquitous.  She was the Energizer Bunny. She was a force of nature. And I am finding it impossible to believe she is really gone.         

I met Leslie when she took her first media job as an intern at our newspaper in Lander.  She was probably about 21 and worked with some well-known Wyoming journalists such as Bruce McCormack (retired Cody Enterprise publisher) and Milton Ontiveroz of the University of Wyoming’s publications department.

         She graduated from UW and ended up working with media but doing it primarily through Pacific Power, which morphed into Rocky Mountain Power. She had a 30-year career and celebrated that anniversary with delight.

         On her Facebook page back on Dec. 1, she marveled that she had worked for the same company for so long: “Thirty years ago today, I was blessed to embark on an amazing journey with a great company. Fresh out of graduate school and just a pup, I joined the ‘CY Avenue’ gang Dick Brown, Bob Tarantola, Bert Leonard, Carl Ertler, Debbie Roman, Bill Miller, Bill Edwards, Linda Eckes Evans, Mary Karantzas, Jane Drake, Jane Chatman, ‘Baughman,’ Ivan Bassart and so many other wonderful co-workers throughout this state and elsewhere at what was then called Pacific Power. So many fabulous opportunities over the years, and so many remarkable adventures these past three decades.

         “I feel fortunate every day to call Rocky Mountain Power my home thank you! And, the best part is being a member of this team. All the phenomenal people with whom I`ve had the pleasure to work, as well as all the friends I`ve made over the years in this great state and elsewhere. Thirty years! Don`t they go by in a blink! Here`s to many more!”

         Leslie and I always stayed in touch and in recent years we were the two Wyoming representatives on the Mountain West AAA board.  She had a huge impact on that group and represented Wyoming AAA members well.

         It was at one of our meetings in March 2017 when she got the news that her godson, Aidan McCroskey, had died.  Poor Leslie was inconsolable. We all felt so helpless, as we tried to help her get through this tragedy. Now, we are the ones who are inconsolable.

We will be celebrating her life at a service this summer.

         I cannot write about Leslie without mentioning her love of Golden Retrievers, of which she and her husband Mark Wilkinson were breeders of champions. They loved those dogs. She was a champion showman and an officer in the national organization.

         Leslie had a great sense of humor. Her last Facebook post was a funny mention Dec. 30 when the Quick Lane in Casper, which has a time and temperature sign, showed a temperature of minus 196. “OK, I don`t want to hear any whining about the ‘cold weather’ where you live try Casper Wyoming today!  Certainly hope this is a sign malfunction, but I wouldn`t be surprised if not, it`s so cold.”

         But the post that brought tears to my eyes came from her husband who wrote Jan. 5:  “This is from Mark. My heart is breaking knowing I have to inform you of my wife`s passing. Thank you all for the best wishes and prayers over the past couple of days. Leslie was friend to all and I know it may seem crass to post here, but I would rather you hear from the horse`s mouth. Leslie knew so many people that I can`t make all those calls. I will miss you my love, my wife, my friend.”

1802 - Tater heads outpacing Wyoming?

Far be it for me to refer to Wyoming as a “hole,” but that was the unique position our state held during the worst bust in its history.

         During the 1980s and 1990s, our state languished as the rest of the Rocky Mountain states thrived.  The syndrome was referred to as “the donut hole.” The states around Wyoming make up the donut and our state, located in the middle, being the “hole.”

This economic situation was blamed on our state’s singular reliance on energy commodities, leading to countless calls for Wyoming to diversify.  These other states all grew during those decades while our state lost jobs and state revenues plummeted. Our economy was stagnant. There were few successes.  This was also the time when a chunk of our working middle class gave up and headed to more friendly economic climes.

The Democratic Party took a hit during this time as a lot of union members left.  The Democrats never really recovered from that exodus, but that is another story for another time.

         Following that bust, we boomed from 2002 to 2014 as coal surged and oil and gas boomed. I recall, in 2013, a long-time banker in Casper saying our economy was the best he had ever seen – perhaps the best ever. But it did not last long.  Now the state has fallen into a near-bust situation, which was graphically pointed out in a widely circulated article in the Washington Post recently.

         That article stated that Idaho was the fastest-growing state in the country in 2017 and Wyoming was the slowest, finishing last. This prompted pundits and concerned citizens alike to question what we were doing wrong and what on earth were our neighboring potato-heads doing that was right?

         The numbers, in reality, were not spectacular.  Idaho grew 2.2 percent and Wyoming dropped 1.0 percent. When ranked against the other states and District of Columbia, we looked terrible and Idaho looks brilliant.

         I emailed this story to some of the smartest people in the state and here are some of their replies:

         Recently retired CEO of the Wyoming Business Alliance Bill Schilling chimed in:

 “1. Idaho has a busy cityBoiseas state capital, good airport, university in downtown area and several Fortune 500 companies and strong corporate giving. Boise downtown has vibrancy and that has been a steady progression over past 30 years; Coeur d’Alene is their Jackson, but not to our scale. Nearby Spokane feeds it and nearby lakes provide recreation and tourism year round. An impressive inclusiveness reach from Boise to the rest of the state.”

 “2. A steady Ag base due to Snake River irrigationpotato farming

“3. In the panhandle there is great scenery, skiing in winter and hiking/boating in the summer, along with big spender income in Coeur d`Alene.

 “4. Less severe weather. You don`t hear about interstate closures like Interstate 80 here. Boise gets about 60 days more milder weather than Cheyenne.

Former long-time Wyomingite Bart Smith, who is currently publisher of the Greeley Tribune, says: It’s no surprise that resource-dependent states ride that wave up and down and have for many, many years.  I’m sure a few years ago as oil boomed and coal was strong that Wyoming was one of the fastest growing states and all politicians took credit.

“I guess my main thought is this is nothing new at all — it has been the case for decades, and a Washington Post writer just now discovered it. That’s my take anyway!”

Cody Beers of Riverton says: Having just driven through Idaho going to and from the Idaho Potato Bowl, this story hit the media during the trip.

“Bottom line, our economy is very reliant on minerals, and Idaho is much closer to the West Coast and Utah. Boise has had large numbers of people move in from California, and this has occurred in the northwest corner of the state, too. It`s cold (here) in the winter and the wind blows, too.

“We spent time with friends in Pocatello. They like Wyoming, but they love Idaho. Utah is close, and the other reasons (health care, shopping, etc.).

 “I`ve lived here my whole life, and the people I talk to about Wyoming love coming here to visit. They just don`t think Wyoming has much to offer, such as shopping, hospitals, restaurants, etc. Borrowing from the movie Wind River, Wyoming is ‘the land of no backup.’”

(This ends part 1 on this serious topic. Check this space soon for part 2.)

1801 - The gem of the Wyoming Black Hills

During the past five years, we have made an effort to visit just about every city and town in Wyoming. We have given talks and been involved with other authors in book signings.

         We have had wonderful times in Cheyenne, Laramie, Rawlins, Saratoga, Rock Springs, Jackson, Pinedale, Lusk, Wheatland, Douglas, Casper, Thermopolis, Buffalo, Sheridan, Worland, Gillette, Hulett, Sundance, Cody, Powell, Lander, Torrington and Riverton.

         Towns on our to-do list include Afton, Evanston, Kemmerer, Dubois, Lovell, Greybull-Basin, Pine Bluffs, Green River, Mountain View-Fort Bridger-Lyman and others.

         Lately, I had not been having very good luck with Wyoming roads, but back on Nov. 30, the roads were as dry as mid-summer all the way on our 306-mile, one-way journey to Newcastle.

         We drove by Teapot Dome north of Casper and recalled how this massive oil field was the source of one of the biggest scandals in American political history.  Author Laton McCartney of Dubois wrote an informative book about that scandal a few years ago. Ironically, the pending scandal called Uranium One is located about 30 minutes from that site, according to Tom Lubnau, Gillette.

         The towns of Midwest, Edgerton and Wright are along a route that takes you from Interstate 25 over to Highway 59.  The imposing Pumpkin Buttes loom to the north. The buttes is an area that I have always wanted to explore.

You head east from Wright and go through the massive Thunder Basin coalmine complex.  If coal is dying, it does not look like it there.

         Later, we met members of the Wright family, who have a big ranch in the area. The town was named for them.

We passed through the vast Thunder Basin National Grassland.  One rancher told me three Triceratops fossilized skeletons have been found on their ranch.  That particular critter is the official state dinosaur for Wyoming.

         Newcastle knows how to celebrate Christmas. They staged a big downtown celebration on Dec. 1, which was topped off by the 15th annual Pinnacle Bank Festival of Trees. The senior center was jammed full with people of good cheer, raising money to charities.

         Newcastle appears to me to be a successful mix of folks from all different kinds of employment persuasions. Some are coal miners who are bused daily to the Thunder Basin mine.  I ran into former Landerite Paul Piana, who now works there. Paul is one of the state’s premier mountain climbers. His wife Deb is mayor of Newcastle.

         There is a big oil refinery in the middle of the Weston County seat that is running at capacity.  Coal trains pass through the town all day long.

         The coolest building in the town (and one of the most unique in the state) is the county courthouse.  You have to see it to believe it.  It was recently refurbished.  It, alone, is worth a trip to Newcastle.

         Newcastle is nestled in the Wyoming Black Hills and is just eight miles from South Dakota.  Tourism appears to be a huge opportunity for growth. 

         There are big ranches in the area and an abundance of oil and gas wells.  Folks appear to be doing well, although some business people complained the economy has tightened up in recent years. The town has a new motel under construction.

         My host was local publisher Bob Bonnar of the News Letter Journal.  He is very energetic about promoting the town. 

         Bob is a former president of the Wyoming Press Association, and he has worked hard for years pushing newspaper interests across the state. Not sure he has received the credit he is due for his hard work.

         Bob had also lined me up to talk about Wyoming history with 49 fourth graders on Nov. 1, which was so much fun.  Our future is in good hands if all young people are as energetic and anxious to learn as that bunch. 

         Newcastle is one of Wyoming’s oldest towns.  It originally was a coal-mining hub, hence the name Newcastle, which is the name of one of Great Britain’s greatest coal mining regions.

         Their Wyoming coal was in an area called Cambria, which was mined back in 1889, before Wyoming became a state.

One of the early train masters for the CB&Q railroad at Cambria was a chap by the name of Carl Kugland; he worked there from 1895-1903, and later became a Weston County commissioner, mayor of Newcastle, and owned an insurance agency there. 

He has two granddaughters who live in Wyoming, Jean Denham, Cheyenne and Kate Brown, Wheatland.