Time Goes By... Is It Really 2020? Reflections on a Half Century in Wyoming

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Is it really 2020? Back at the turn of the century (yeah, 20 years ago at 2000), our little town put together Project 2020, which was a guide for the town’s future.

Project 2020 is the topic of a future column, but my point here is that we are now at that far distant place that we used to identify as the “year 2020.”

My wife Nancy and I are very active and I just continue to deny how old we are - we keep busy, we keep working, and we keep traveling. No slowing us down yet.

But this column is about growing older and also watching my beloved Wyoming grow older.

Heck, I have been around so long I worked on the original Wyoming Futures Project back in 1986. Our moderator was a youthful TV anchor from Casper named Pete Williams. He is now that mature, graying legal correspondent for NBC News. During these times, he is on national TV all the time. He does a great job, but I digress.

Farther back in 1978, Wyoming was starting to boom. Our Gov. Ed Herschler, a Democrat, won the election with a slogan “Growth on Our Terms.”

Wyoming’s chaotic economy, because it is tied to energy, was about to hurdle through four more years of spectacular growth. It was a boom and we all loved it.

Crash! Arguably the worst bust in Wyoming’s history hit in 1982. It lasted until 2002. Everything went wrong. Oil and natural gas prices plummeted. Coal was still in its infancy. Uranium had become the biggest boom and 2,000 jobs in Fremont, Carbon, and Converse Counties disappeared.

Gov. Herschler said our town of Lander was hurt the worst. We saw an iron ore mine close that has 550 highly paid workers.

Statewide, though Wyoming folks soldiered on.

That Futures Project was headquartered in tiny Ucross, Wyoming, and we were an optimistic bunch.

The economy was so bad one year the Legislature would have had a tough time balancing the budget had not a wealthy Jackson woman died, leaving millions in estate taxes.

Gov. Mike Sullivan said that once the state’s banking account was in an “overdrawn” state.

The year 2020 was just a gleam in peoples’ eyes. Then we saw oil prices surge, and natural gas (and coalbed methane) really take off.

Congress put in regulations against smoky coal plants so Wyoming’s coal, which burns cooler and pollutes a lot less, suddenly became the fuel of choice for power plants across the country.

With 300 years of coal in the ground, it seemed like this was a gravy train that would never end.

Along about this time, a couple of gamblers named Mick McMurry and John Martin of Casper struck big time with a deep natural gas well in the Pinedale area in 1992. They used a new technique called fracking. Little did anyone know what that technology would mean to the future of energy?

Because of fracking, natural gas could be drilled anywhere. Besides natural locations like Wyoming, Texas, and North Dakota, new states like Ohio and Pennsylvania became leading producers. Natural gas prices continue to plummet to lowest levels in memory, right here in 2020.

Wyoming is not in a bust right now but these are different times. Towns all over the state are benefitting from the diversification that occurred in the last 34 years – a third of a century!

Although the above dissertation is about some past history, this story is prompted by where I am at writing this column. Holed up my room at the beautiful Ramkota in Casper, we are getting ready to attend the early bird cocktail hour for the Wyoming Press Association. This is my 50th year of being in the Wyoming press.

When I attended my first press convention, I was a 24-year old publisher, the youngest in the room. Unless Pat Schmidt or Jim Hicks shows up this year, I will be the oldest attendee at this year’s event. What a life cycle.

Back in 1970, a majority of the newspapers operated with what is called “hot type,” a system of page formatting that actually is not that far removed from what Gutenberg invented in the Middle Ages.

Today, they all still print on paper but most of them also have digital and video offerings.

Based on national contests, Wyoming has the best newspapers in the country. That is something to be proud of since our state has just 44 newspapers.

Its always fun hanging around with the Wyoming journalists. They are confident and optimistic lot. Sure there are a few sour lemons here and there but most of these folks love their towns and cover them enthusiastically.

Wyoming is a far better place because of their efforts. Happy 2020.