Fighting Resource Extraction Companies Toe-to-Toe in Wyoming

Big Horn Mountains

Manderson      Forty percent of the nation’s coal is produced in the huge Fort Union deposit under the Powder River basin in Wyoming.  Mines cover hundreds of square miles of ground.  Oil and gas operations also proliferate throughout the state.  It’s possible to drive more miles along many of Wyoming’s roads without seeing people than it is to not see a horsehead well pumping away or a storage tank somewhere on the horizon.  It’s not hard to imagine the deep pockets that these kinds of extraction companies have in a small population state with less than 600,000 people stretched over a vast land area in the 10th largest state in the country.  Agricultural and ranching operations work along side all of these operations, as do the families that make the state their home and workspace.  And, that’s where the rub comes in.

In Sheridan I popped into say hello at the headquarters of the Powder River Basin Resource Council which is at the front line of this fight in much of the eastern part of the state.  I had spent a couple of days doing training with the Powder River staff in the mid-70s when the organization was in its relative infancy though now it has forty-five years under its belt.  Part of the regional community organizing powerhouse of the Western Organization of Resource Councils founded by Pat Sweeney to coordinate many of these organizations and their fights, Powder River set down a wide footprint on environmental issues related to extraction industries and how they affect ranch and ag communities in Wyoming.

Currently a central campaign focuses on something called “self-bonding,” but we’re not talking about Wall Street here.  The law in Wyoming requires coal companies to guarantee that they will reclaim the land that they mine and given the climate and annual rainfall in much of the state, that’s a huge job.  Sounds good so far, but the state also lets the companies “self-bond” which means they can claim that they are putting up enough money in reserve to do that reclamation work.  The frequency of coal company bankruptcies in the current energy economy is regular, so a self-bond is just about worthless.  Importantly, Powder River has made this a signature campaign.

In Sheridan I also met with Rob Davidson the executive director of Council of the Big Horn Range, focusing on the Big Horn region of northwestern Wyoming especially the four huge counties that overlap with the US Forest Service Region.  The Council is only a couple of years old and hopes to build along the same lines as Powder River.  The Council can also claim some recent victories, including preventing the Forest Service, facing cutbacks from Washington, to consolidate its offices and close one on the west side of the Big Horn mountains.

Thankfully, grassroots organizations of committed members and organizers like these are standing in the way or Wyoming and the stewardship of our national lands, waters, and ranges would be even more imperiled.

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Wyoming People

Manderson      As we moved the Silver Bullet from Rock Creek, Montana, fifty miles from Missoula to Manderson, Wyoming, on the backside of the Big Horn Mountains between Greybull and Worland in the central part of the state, we would kid our friends and comrades of seven summers along the creek that we were no longer Montana people, but were now “Wyoming people” again.  I was born in Laramie, so I was OK with that.  Our family has camped and driven all over the state over the years many times in the Big Horns, the Wind River Mountains, the Snowy Range, along the Bridger and Oregon Trails, outside of Rock Springs in the nooks and corners, and of course in Yellowstone in their camping ghettos.  Nonetheless, moving from deep blue Missoula to dark red central Wyoming got us more than a few nods of sympathy.

Wyoming is way more than Dick Cheney though.  There is a resistance of long standing no matter how embattled.  I recently read two books as I prepared to come back to the Airstream with most of my family, one was Pushed Down the Mountain, Sold Down the River by Samuel Western and the other was Behind the Carbon Curtain by Jeffrey Lockwood.  Both books eviscerated the contradictions in the political life of the state that genuflected to the myth of the ranch hands and cowboys and allowed energy companies one break after another with marginal to nonexistent benefits to the people.  In short, Wyoming is not being surrendered without a fight.

Reading the editorial in the local newspaper in Casper as we drove up from Denver was also a good notice to one and all that nothing should be taken for granted even in the White House about politics as deeply read as Wyoming.  They were slamming Trump and his zero-tolerance policy and child incarceration system in no uncertain terms and offering no quarter.  See what I mean?

We stopped at a Walmart to get a tent mattress on the way.   Looking at the long line at the checkout counter, I thought I might switch.  The cashier looked like a Normal Rockwell or Hollywood casting director’s class version of a grandmother a bit plumb with snow white hair.  Looking at all of the other cashiers in line after line, it was obvious that not a one of them would ever see 65 again and most had looked the other way as 70 had passed them by.  A senior shuffled by our car and patted our purchase with a smile and comment about “good camping.”  His gate was clipped and measured and Social Security clearly knew his account number.

Maybe they were all working because labor is in short supply in Wyoming, and if that is the case, that will have political consequences as well, but maybe as conservatives try to gut the safety net and entitlements they ought to visit Wyoming and talk to some of these workers, because they are not going to be voting for anyone forcing them to wear a smiley-face vest for Walmart.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Please enjoy Black Pumas’ Black Moon Raising

and In My Blood by the Mark O’Connor Band

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