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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.

1833 - John Barrasso deserves to be reelected

If you think U. S. Sen. John Barrasso’s Republican primary campaign is crazy this year, you need to harken back to 1996.

         There were nine candidates running in the GOP primary to replace retiring U. S. Sen. Al Simpson. The winner was current Senior Senator Mike Enzi, with just 27,056 votes. Barrasso was second with 24,918 votes.  Third was Curt Meier of Torrington with 14,739 votes. Meier is currently running for State Treasurer in the Republican primary.

         In an act showing class, Barrasso immediately congratulated Enzi on his win and joined his campaign staff.  Enzi won in the general and the two men continued to work together.  Today, they are our two U. S. Senators.

         Barrasso’s journey to become an incumbent U. S. Senator took some twists and turns but he ultimately achieved his goal 11 years after that first primary run.

He has had an amazing Wyoming life.

         Known as “Wyoming’s Doctor,” Barrasso came the closest to being a ubiquitous TV personality as there could be found in Wyoming from 1996 to 2007.  He appeared constantly on state TV stations promoting Wyoming Health Fairs and offering health tips.  The program was immensely popular and propelled the Casper state senator. He moved to the front of the succession pack when U. S. Senator Craig Thomas died of cancer in 2007.  Democrat Gov. Dave Freudenthal appointed Barrasso to fill out Thomas’s term.  The state Republican Party had also submitted the names of Cynthia Lummis (later our U. S. Representative) and Republican strategist Tom Sansonetti.

         Barrasso was elected in the subsequent 2008 special election to a finish the term.  He later won in 2012.  This is his fourth campaign for the office.

         Most observers thought he would sail through the primary easily before facing a veteran Jackson Democrat Gary Trauner, who has twice lost in statewide races. Another candidate in the GOP primary is Charlie Hardy, a perennial candidate.

         To Barrasso’s chagrin, another well-heeled Jackson foe named Dave Dodson entered the GOP primary fray and has been working very hard.

         Dodson is a retired businessman and entrepreneur.  He is an aggressive candidate and his campaign seems to be running on all cylinders.  It took a while for voters to take him seriously.

Dodson is spending over a million dollars of his own money on the primary race, mainly in TV and newspaper ads attacking Barrasso plus lots of direct mail. He is also traveling the state with his wife Wendy passing out a handbook for Wyoming that he has written called ”Put Wyoming First.” His campaign has gotten Barrasso’s attention.

         Another candidate in the GOP primary is retired judge John Holtz of Laramie, whose campaign is more docile than Dodson’s.

         Barrasso, who has a $5 million campaign nest egg, has most recently been pounding the sidewalks of the state making sure he does not get ambushed in this race.

         Oddly for Barrasso, it appears some Wyoming voters have short memories and the allure of an upstart might be appealing.

         To me, John Barrasso has always been a wonderful representative for Wyoming.  And although he gets criticized because he is on Fox News so much and also because he appears to be attached to the hip of Senator Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell, I think he is doing a fine job for the Cowboy State.

         Barrasso is moving up fast in the leadership positions in the Senate and this will bring an amazing amount of clout to our state, which has the smallest population the America.

         He and Mike Enzi are a perfect team, in that Enzi quietly gets a tremendous amount of good work done, while John works the political side of Congress to Wyoming’s advantage.  What a great 1-2 punch!

         Those two, plus working with U. S. Representative Liz Cheney, give our state a tremendous advantage over just about every other state when it comes to influence on the national stage.

         Do I think they could do even more?  Yes, it seems, at times, that with all this clout we should be seeing more influence.  But I think that will come.  Congress is still in a state of shock working with President Donald Trump. As Trump’s new world order becomes more of a reality, our Congressional delegation is perfectly positioned to reap the benefits.

         When you have a good fast horse to ride like John Barrasso, you do not change mounts in the middle of a successful race. 

         I am voting for John Barrasso. I hope you do, too.

1832 - Bernard the Mule plus a bugle in old Wyo

Although lengthy, this is my favorite political story about a famous incident that occurred many decades ago in Wyoming’s Absaroka County. It occurred back in the times when there were foxhunts and even a drawbridge on the Tongue River.

It seems that a farm woman called a veterinarian in Durant from her home in Absaroka County about her mule, Bernard. Bernard was ill, and the lady was very upset.

“Doctor” she said, “Bernard is sick and I wish you would come and take a look at him.”

“It`s after 6 p.m., and I’m eating supper,” the doctor protested. “Give him a dose of mineral oil and if he isn’t all right in the morning, I’ll come and take a look at him.”

The woman asked how she should give Bernard the mineral oil, and the doctor said to give it to him through a funnel. She said she was afraid the mule might bite her.

“You’re a farm woman and you know about these things,” the doctor said. “Give it to him through the other end.”

The woman went down to the barn. There was Bernard moaning and groaning in his misery. Few things get sicker than a mule.

She looked for a funnel, but the nearest thing she could find was her Uncle Bill’s foxhunting bugle -– a beautiful gold-plated instrument with gold tassels.

She took the bugle and nervously affixed it to the proper portion of the mule’s anatomy. Bernard was unperturbed. Still eyeing the mule, she reached behind her for the mineral oil.

   Unfortunately, she picked up a bottle of turpentine by mistake and gave the unfortunate Bernard a very liberal dose.

Bernard’s drooping head jerked upright. His eyes widened. He screamed like a panther, jumped up, kicked down one side of the barn and took off down the road at a mad gallop. The bugle was still affixed in his rear.

Every time he jumped, the hunting horn would blow.

All the dogs in the neighborhood knew what that meant. The horn was blowing, so Uncle Bill was going fox hunting. Soon Bernard had a pack of hounds in full cry behind him.

Those who witnessed the chase said it was an unforgettable scene.

 There was Bernard, running at top speed, with the hunting horn protruding behind him. The mellow notes were issuing from the instrument, the gold tassels were flying and the dogs were barking joyously in full pursuit.

Old Man Hogan, who hadn’t drawn a sober breath in 15 years, was sitting on the front porch as the spectacle swept past him. He gave up whiskey that day and later became active in the temperance movement.

It was good and dark by the time Bernard and the dogs reached the drawbridge on the Tongue River.

The bridge-tender, who was running for Sheriff of Absaroka County and was heavily favored to win, heard the horn and thought a boat was coming.

The bridge-tender hurriedly raised the drawbridge.  Bernard ran right up the span, sailed into the water and drowned. The pack of dogs went right in behind him, but they all swam to safety. The hunting horn went down with Bernard and was never recovered.

Stories spread fast in that part of Absaroka County, and everybody knew about the incident by the next morning.

It so happened the election for Sheriff was occurring that day.

The bridge-tender received exactly seven votes -– one from himself, and the others from six close relatives.

Political analysts interpreted the election as follows:

The voters figured that any man who didn’t know the difference between a boat coming up the Tongue River and a mule with a bugle up his rear end wasn’t fit to hold public office in Absaroka County.


   (Post script: This is a plagiarized version of a story first told by Richard Walser in a book called Tar Heel Laughter. Plus our apologies to Craig Johnson of Longmire fame.)


(Post-post script:  Wyoming is in the throes of an interesting and vibrant primary election campaign.  We would recommend readers make themselves acquainted with all the candidates.  These are good men and women and they really want to go to work for you.  Pay attention to their messages and then be sure to vote on Aug. 21.)