The greatest threat to Wyoming today is our state's economy's heavy reliance on fossil fuels. As the world transitions to alternative energy sources at a rapid pace, Wyoming risks losing more than half of its revenue. Over the past year, as coal mines and oil wells have shut down, entire companies have gone out of business, and thousands of workers have been laid off.
Luckily, there is a solution. We need to expand our economy, and we need to do it in three stages: Rescue, Re-imagine, Rebuild.
Rescue: In the immediate term, we need to provide Wyoming residents and businesses with income and loans so that hard working Wyomingites can feed their families and keep their homes. The 2020 CARES Act, with its more than $2.7 trillion in stimulus funds, is an important initial stopgap measure, but it's not enough. Indeed, the US Congress is considering proposals that would provide each American supplemental income, freeze rent, mortgage and loan payments, and help small businesses during the COVID19 crisis. This would allow us to catch our breath and prepare our state and the nation for the next step: reimagining our future.
Reimagine: Wyoming has so much more to offer than coal, oil and gas; if we stopped viewing ourselves solely as an energy producing state and think more broadly, we can be attractive to a variety of thriving industries that would bring high paying, secure jobs. Think, for example, of the new technologies developed to curb the rise in greenhouse gasses and the innovations they have spurred; innovations that rely on a smart and skilled workforce like we have here in Wyoming. Just consider all the components required to build and operate electric trucks and hydrogen-cell vehicles, or the expertise that will be needed to maintain caravans of self-driving trucks on our highways. Advances in artificial intelligence, biotechnology, material science, and integrative planning, together with serious progress redesigning semi-nuclear reactors and methods to combine solar and hydroelectric power generation, can fuel the future of Wyoming.
Rebuild: President Franklin Delano Roosevelt said “There are many ways of going forward but only one way of standing still.” In the wake of the Great Depression, FDR’s New Deal put millions of Americans to work creating the country’s infrastructure, building bridges, roads, railroads, hydro-electric dams, electric grids, schools and hospitals. The investment it required ($6 billion, or 10 percent of the GPD at the time) repaid itself many times over, both economically and by making the United States a global superpower for decades. The success of the New Deal illustrated that when we have a coordinated and actionable federal plan – and the political will to implement it – our country can emerge from a crisis stronger than it was before. Imagine what a smart federal plan, combined with the technological strides of the past century, can help us do in the upcoming decade.
Diversifying our economy and our workforce while “keeping Wyoming Wyoming” will require a holistic vision and careful planning. Some ideas for rebuilding the state’s economy are clearly delineated in ENDOW (Economically Needed Diversity Options for Wyoming), a 2016 initiative created by former Governor Matt Mead. Others will need to be added. Broadly, we need to address:
Wyoming has some of the country's most beautiful wide-open spaces, breath-taking scenery, clean air and water, abundant fish and wildlife, vast tracts of public lands, and an unparalleled quality of life. Most importantly, we have Wyomingites, who are rugged, adaptable and compassionate. To protect our way of life we should prioritize:
To achieve this, any development plan will require a thorough understanding of our environment. Wyoming's scientists are leading the country in environmental planning - check out the Wyoming Migration Initiative, the Sage Grouse Task Force, and "Wind Power in Wyoming: Smart from the Start".
The national unemployment rate jumped to 14.7% in the last 3 months, leaving more than 30 million Americans jobless. Many states, including Wyoming, are running out of unemployment funds. Wyoming is projected to lose more than 25,000 jobs (12 percent of the private-sector workforce) by this summer, mostly in the fossil fuel and hospitality sectors. In the short term, Congress’s Paycheck Guarantee Act may provide relief, but long-term we need to think bigger. It is time to implement the Federal Job Guarantee program FDR first proposed more than 70 years ago. It was intended to use federal funds to support state-based job creation while guaranteeing employment with a livable wage. Adaptation of this initiative to our times will help job creation and retraining programs in Wyoming. Oil-field workers who lost their jobs when the number of oil rigs dropped from 32 to 4 in the past year can be re-hired to install solar panels at hydro-electric dams, plug up abandoned wells, or build wind farms and electric micro-grids. Coal miners can join the proposed Rare Earths and Thorium mines in Bear Lodge Mountain, or help WYDOT repave our roads and improve them with wildlife overpasses. Such efforts will bring together laborers, planners, engineers, heavy equipment operators, wildlife biologists and more.
The short- and long-term options are vast and should be promoted and supported through federal, state and private-sector partnerships.
In the 20 years I have lived in Wyoming, I have had at least six different general physicians. They were all excellent, but none of them stayed here very long, in large part because their spouses could not find jobs. Although Laramie is a University town of over 30,000 people, many Laramigos have to go to Cheyenne or even Ft. Collins, CO to receive specialized treatment. Rural Wyomingites have even less access to healthcare. If we want to retain our young people and attract new folks who are searching for a high quality of life, we must design a first-rate, accessible healthcare system, one that includes mobile services to reach our far-flung ranchers. To get there, Wyoming should join the rest of the country in expanding Medicaid. In 2019, nearly 54,000 Wyomingites were enrolled in Medicaid and the Children Health Insurance Program - a far cry from the 73,000 who would have been eligible under a Medicaid expansion. While some were able to get health insurance through the Affordable Care Act, at least 6,000 Wyomingites were left without access to any health insurance. This number has likely risen due to the recent layoffs throughout the state.
Leaving people uninsured during the COVID19 pandemic, in which complications have left people with lasting heart and kidney damage, is unconscionable. Further, by refusing to expand Medicaid, Wyoming is expected to lose $1.3 billion over the next decade. This is money that can cover uncompensated medical costs for the state, and support our rural hospitals during this crisis. Previous attempts to pass the bill have failed because the state legislature was unwilling to provide the required state matching funds (10 percent of the total), against the will of a majority of Wyomingites.
The recent COVID19 pandemic and the resulting job losses have shown that linking healthcare insurance to a job is a bad idea. The United States must adopt Universal Healthcare: a system that ensures a basic level of care for all people, where health insurance is independent of employment.
Article 7 (1) of the Wyoming constitution states that “The legislature shall provide for the establishment and maintenance of a complete and uniform system of public instruction, embracing free elementary schools of every needed kind and grade, a university with such technical and professional departments as the public good may require.” Indeed, Wyoming has many excellent schools that have been nationally recognized. Continued support for Wyoming education should remain a priority, and recommendations by independent review panels to keep schools properly funded should be adopted by our legislature.
Wyoming’s dedication to education is reflected in the state’s community colleges and the University of Wyoming. Their relatively low tuition, combined with Governor Dave Freudenthal’s Hathaway Scholarship, enable the majority of Wyomingites to obtain a high-quality education without accruing crippling debt. In this, Wyoming should be seen as an example to the rest of the country: a state in which education is viewed as a worthwhile investment and where funding for scientific and other disciplines is a priority.
As your senator, I will support laws that reduce student loan burdens and bolster our higher education system, so as to deliver top-notch instruction in the sciences and the arts and to fuel scientific discovery.
I am a wildlife ecologist who has studied the various effects of invasive species, logging, pollution, and climate change on animals from polar bears and mountain lions to river otters and chipmunks for over 30 years, and I have seen the effects of climate change with my own eyes. While studying pumas in California in the early 2000s, my colleagues and I detected a clear increase in greenhouse gases in those cats’ bones that were collected over a 150 year period. As the chief scientist on a US Coast Guard Icebreaker expedition in 2009, I witnessed vast stretches of the Arctic Ocean completely ice-free at a time of year it should have been frozen over. When I returned to Wyoming, our pine forests had been devastated by an unprecedented bark beetle outbreak.
My observations and data added to a vast body of existing research pointing to humans’ role in increasing greenhouse gases.
Interestingly, our collective efforts to stay at home during COVID19 only managed to reduce carbon emissions by a fraction. It is clear that as long as we continue releasing greenhouse gasses on an industrial scale, we will not be able to address this crisis. Solving it will require national programs and global coordination.
But regardless of opinions about the reality and urgency of climate change, the rest of the world’s transition to clean energy will leave Wyoming behind if we don’t act now. Countries from Peru to Tunisia and Scotland to South Africa are adopting new energy sources at an accelerating rate. Scotland, for example, is expected to reach 100 percent renewable electricity this year. And Sweden accomplished the same two years ahead of schedule.
Between 2015 and 2018, as oil wells and coal mines closed and people were laid off, Wyoming lost fully 1.3% of its population, much of it to out of state migration. Working families leaving Wyoming translates to further economic shrinking and loss of revenue for the state.
Economic anxiety is also one of the main drivers of suicide: at 24 per 100,000 inhabitants, Wyoming’s suicide rate is 1.7 times higher than the rest of the country. Eighty percent of Wyoming’s suicides are committed by men, with the highest rates among those who work in construction and the extraction industries, as well as among farmers and ranchers. Among women, homemakers exhibit the highest rate. In addition to the incredible emotional toll on families and communities, suicides leave substantial financial strain as well.
Twice since arriving in Wyoming, I have assisted close friends as they struggled with crippling anxiety that drove them to substance abuse and suicidal thoughts. In both cases, my intervention brought them back from the brink, for which I’m grateful. I’ve known others who unfortunately succeeded in taking their own lives; it is hard to describe the devastation their actions left.
We need to address this economic anxiety and hopelessness to keep our children and young people in the state and offer them opportunities to build their lives and raise their families here, as well as to prevent substance abuse and self harm.
While the majority of suicides in Wyoming are caused by economic anxiety, the most common method used is firearms (64 percent). On two separate occasions when I helped friends who had suicidal thoughts, my first action was to help them secure their guns. There are some cases, however, where people may not recognize that they need help to prevent them from hurting themselves and others.
I’m a hunter and own two rifles and a shotgun, which I intend to keep. I have also used guns for bear safety in many of my research projects and was trained to shoot semi-automatic and automatic rifles during my military service; I know the level of training required to safely operate these weapons and am personally familiar with their devastating capacity to kill.
Our laws should support responsible gun ownership to reduce incidents of suicide and mass shootings. We require people to learn to safely handle guns as part of our hunter training programs; there is no reason we can’t do the same for gun ownership more generally.
There are over 6,000 active duty and reserve military personnel in Wyoming, mostly serving in the Air Force and the National Guard. Together with the nearly 50,000 veterans, they constitute about 10 percent of Wyoming’s population. Many of them have served in Iraq and Afghanistan and returned home with lasting health problems. Quite a few of my students at the University of Wyoming were veterans, many of whom told me of their struggles with physical and emotional disabilities and of their deep frustration trying to navigate the bureaucracy of Veteran Affairs.
As someone who has lived through several wars and served in one, I understand the cost of war. Far beyond the price of tanks and bombs and the obvious devastating loss of lives, the injuries, grief, and economic hardships of the families of our men and women in uniform are not always entered into the equation when we send our troops to war. Indeed, many veterans suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and face a higher likelihood of suicide. As lawmakers, we should consider the true cost of war before deciding to launch any hostile operations. And whenever possible, diplomacy should take precedence to war.
Recent incidents of police violence have brought systemic racism to the forefront of our national conversation. We must rethink the ways in which we keep our communities safe. We don't need tanks and military tactical gear on our streets. Instead, we should invest in de-escalation and conflict management training, in affordable housing and mental healthcare.
But police violence is only one of many inequities Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) endure in our country. One need only look at disparities in employment opportunities, health outcomes, educational attainment, prosecutorial practices, predatory loan targeting, mortgage availability, and voting access to see built-in discrimination in most institutions in American life. Due to environmental racism (the practice of placing polluting factories and waste sites near communities of color), Black and Brown children literally breathe different air than their White counterparts.
Today, even conservatives like Mitt Romney acknowledge the extent to which systemic racism impacts Americans of color. It is long past time to right these wrongs.
In 1869, Wyoming was the first territory in the nation that recognized women’s right to vote. In 1890, our legislature even wrote: “We will remain out of the Union one hundred years rather than come in without the women.” Wyoming was the first state governed by a woman, Nellie Tayloe Ross in 1924. Article 1(2) of the Wyoming constitution states that “in their inherent right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, all members of the human race are equal.”
Today, we are failing in our commitment to equality. The gender wage gap in Wyoming is larger than in most of the country: women in Wyoming make 71 cents on the dollar compared to men for the same job. In the current pandemic, unemployment claims filed by Wyoming women rose from 25.4 to 51.5 percent, illustrating the disparity in job opportunities in the state. And although I have seen a shift towards acceptance of the LGBTQ+ community in my 20+ years in Wyoming, our neighbors, friends and family can still be refused access to housing and employment based on their sexual orientation.
Five years ago, in Obergefell v. Hodges, the Supreme Court ruled that the right of same-sex couples to marry is guaranteed by the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution. Earlier this year, in Bostock v. Clayton County, the Court ruled that LGBTQ individuals are protected from employment discrimination under The Civil Rights Act. The progress of the LGBTQ rights movement is undeniable - as is the fact that there is far more work to be done.
More than fifty years after the start of the gay rights movement, discrimination against LGBTQ+ people is still common in America. The FBI has found anti-LGBTQ bias is a motivating factor in nearly one in every five hate crimes committed in the United States. Trans individuals, especially trans women of color, are particularly likely to suffer from persecution and violence. According to the CDC, LGBTQ youth attempt suicide at significantly higher rates than their heterosexual peers due to the hostile environment and the resulting mental health effects they face. The National Coalition for the Homeless has also found that LGBTQ+ youth are disproportionately likely to be homeless.
I am a Wyomingite, and as such, I strongly believe in individual liberty and personal choice – the choice to express one’s opinions, to peacefully practice one’s religion, to responsibly bear arms. And because I believe in personal freedom, I recognize every person’s right to choose if and when they want to have children. That includes their right to decide to terminate an unwanted pregnancy, which is never an easy choice. But it is a choice that should belong to a woman and her physician, and not be dictated by any politician or party.
A big step in reducing abortions is to minimize the occurrence of unwanted pregnancies through science-based sex education, access to birth control, and by creating a society of equality where sexual assault is non-existent.
Historically, five main indigenuous tribes called Wyoming home. Today, the Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone are forced to share the small Wind River Reservation (1.8 million acres, down from the original 400 million acres) in the middle of the state. Our failure to meet treaty commitments to indigeous tribes dates back to the 1800s, when lands originally assigned to the tribes were reallocated to homesteading and Land Grant Institutions including the University of Wyoming. Much of southwestern Wyoming sits on land that was originally part of the 1863 treaty with the eastern Shoshone Tribe. And the indignities continue today: as recently as this year, a district court ruled against the Arapaho and Shoshone tribes’ attempt to include Riverton as part of the Wind River Reservation.
The inequities play out on a national scale as well: The Trump administration is attempting to disband tribes, politicians only recently began to pay attention to the problem of missing and murdered indigenous women, and Republican attempts to dismantle the Affordable Care Act will disproportionately impact tribal members.
Wyoming’s tribal members are our neighbors and friends; they share our values, hopes and aspirations. For the past three years, I’ve mentored dozens of young people from the Wind River Reservation as an instructor at the University of Wyoming Native American Summer Institute. Their engagement, motivation, and enthusiasm for exploring our forests have been an inspiration.
As an outdoor enthusiast, I am in love with everything Wyoming has to offer. It’s one of the main reasons I came to teach at the University of Wyoming over 20 years ago. I learned to skijor in Alaska, and I still do it here in Wyoming every year. My research projects have taken me to some of the most remote and beautiful parts of the state. I feel fortunate to have experienced these incredible places, and to have met many of the people who share my love of them.
Forty-eight percent of Wyoming’s land (about 30 million acres) is managed by federal agencies, including the Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service, the Forest Service and the Fish and Wildlife Service. An additional 4.2 million acres are state owned. Wyoming public lands are a significant source of income for the state: the tourism and recreation industry is our second largest source of revenue. In many cases, however, mineral leasing and other developments by private entities limit public access to these lands. The current administration is expediting the auction of public land leases to fossil fuel conglomerates, all the while limiting the opportunity for public input.
A coalition of 78 businesses, 41 non-profit organizations, and over two thousand Wyomingites signed the petition to keep public lands in public hands. Many more participate in our yearly gatherings to celebrate Wyoming Public Lands Day (which was declared a state holiday in 2019).
Wyomingites are blessed with some of the cleanest water and air in the nation; our levels of air pollution are about half the national average, and most of our water sources are free of contaminants. Much of this can be attributed to the relatively low levels of development in the state, the high prevalence of public lands, and our wide open spaces.
Despite the overall high quality of our water and air, some communities experience severe incidents of pollution. The town of Pinedale, neighborhoods around Cheyenne, and areas near Douglas have been exposed to poor air quality, mostly because of oil and gas extraction. Residents of Laramie, Pavilion, Jackson Hole, and the Wind River Reservation are concerned about contamination of drinking water from various sources. Some of these concerns can be addressed at the state level, but others require enforcement of federal laws.
Hunting, fishing, and other wildlife experiences contribute more than $1 billion dollars a year to Wyoming’s economy. These activities support thousands of jobs in the hospitality sector and fund conservation efforts by state and federal agencies. Hunting and fishing guides, restaurant and hotel owners, outdoor equipment stores and numerous others rely on revenue from residents and out-of-state hunters and anglers. Maintaining viable native fish and wildlife populations is pertinent to preserving our livelihood and way of life, and over the years we have realized that this work is best conducted by professionals like the nationally recognized Wyoming Game and Fish Department (WGFD).
Wyoming has also been a leader in resolving wildlife management conflicts between state and federal agencies and other stakeholders, by creating task forces like the sage grouse task force and the migration initiative) to create coordinated management and recovery plans. Often, the University of Wyoming Ruckelshaus Institute facilitates solutions by encouraging discussion and collaboration, giving all Wyomingites a voice to reach a compromise. Recently, such successful efforts to resolve conflicts have been hampered by political interventions, often leading to protracted and contentious legal fights.
I am a hunter myself - I believe it is the most humane way to obtain meat. When I can’t hunt and the freezer gets low, I buy only locally raised, grass fed, free-ranging Wyoming beef. Meat from free-ranging animals is healthier and has a much lower carbon footprint than animals raised in feedlots or factory farms. Grass-fed cattle produce less methane than animals fed corn and fermented products. The recent legislation allowing Wyoming ranchers to sell their products directly to our residents is a step in the right direction. It also helps circumvent the problems arising from the COVID19 pandemic where workers in meat packing plants are infected at alarming rates.