Booms and Busts in Wyoming: It's Not Our First Rodeo

The American Heritage Center’s Alan K. Simpson Institute for Western Politics and Leadership at the University of Wyoming conducted an oral history program to explore the social, environmental, and economic impacts of Wyoming’s latest energy boom in Sublette County, and the more recent downturn. More than forty Sublette County residents from various walks of life sat down with a historian and a tape recorder to talk about their experiences with and perceptions of an energy boom that changed the lives of many people in Sublette County and Wyoming. Just as with many other historic events, where you stand depends on where you sit, but everyone interviewed for this project added insight into this particular boom and those insights are available on this website. We must remember, however, that this was not the first economic boom in Wyoming nor will it be the last.

Booms and busts are characterized by rapid economic expansion (the boom) and contraction (the bust). They have occurred in a variety of industries and ever since Euro-Americans began to visit and settle in what would become Wyoming. They usually involved and involve the production and marketing of a single commodity. See, for example, the fur trade boom in the Rocky Mountains of Wyoming caused by increased demand for beaver felt to use in hats, the gold mining boom around South Pass, the coal industry associated with the railroad and its coal powered steam locomotives, the open range cattle industry of the northern plains and the uranium industry. All of these economic booms were followed by busts caused by changes in fashion, playing out of the easily obtained gold, the replacement of coal fired with diesel powered locomotives , overgrazing and severe winter weather, and fears of nuclear plant accidents. While the Sublette County interviews provide the insight of experience into the boom they do not combine that with a bust experience and busts of different degrees have always followed booms.

The interviews accessible on this website provide valuable information for scholars studying yet another boom in the American West. But they also provide lessons for planners and citizens of communities beginning to experience the disruption and heady excitement of an economic boom. While no two booms are exactly alike the cumulative experiences of participants can help prevent mistakes. Remember also that economic booms have usually been viewed differently by different populations. For example, are the economic benefits worth the social dislocations? How did residents of Sublette County gain or lose as a result of the natural gas boom? What environmental problems accompany the economic expansion? What lessons might be learned from this boom and other historical booms that would help future boom areas better prepare to deal with both the rapid economic growth of the boom and the sudden economic contractions of the almost always inevitable bust?

The ghosts of Wyoming’s previous booms and the current residents of Sublette County have not only lessons to teach but a full curriculum. We need to pay close attention.

Dr. David Kathka
Former Wyoming State Historian