By Cat Urbigkit, Range Writing columnist for Cowboy State Daily
Private ranches help to preserve open space and wildlife habitat, while urban dwelling condenses the size of the human imprint on the landscape. These benefits are readily understood, but the importance of rural subdivisions to local communities is often overlooked.
Rural subdivisions suffer from love/hate status. While many residents hate to see fragmentation of rural land, many other people dream of living on a few acres outside of town. They love the freedom offered by rural living, including raising their children with more outdoor space, and having animals that would be prohibited by municipal living. The large percentage of government land ownership in Wyoming serves to make land use planning for private property all the more critical since energy development on public land can cause a large influx of people in need of housing, yet the burden for providing housing falls to the limited amount of private land available.
Nearly half of Wyoming is managed by the federal government, and Wyoming continues to maintain its status as having the lowest human population of any state in the union. With our traditional public lands-based boom-and-bust energy cycle comes tremendous ebbs and flows in our human population. Sublette County is a prime example. With less than 6,000 residents in the county in 2000, the county boomed to a high of 10,476 people by 2012, with most of this growth associated with net migration due to energy development. With the energy bust, the county population declined more than 6 percent by 2019, to just over 9,800 people.
With the bust, Sublette County lost about 663 residents from its peak population. By 2017, 46 percent of Sublette County’s housing units were classified as vacant. That’s a startlingly high vacancy rate, but Sublette County has long been known for its hosting of “second” homes to people living outside the county. About 68 percent of the county’s vacant units are for seasonal, recreational, or occasional use (second homes), and 15 percent of the county’s vacant units are for rent or sale. But another 15 percent (428 homes) are classified as “other” vacant, which means they are not for sale or rent, or otherwise available to the marketplace. According to the Wyoming Community Development Authority, “These units may be problematic if concentrated in certain areas, and may create a ‘blighting’ effect.”
Although we lost more than 660 residents, what we see now is that some of the people who moved to Sublette County to work in the gas fields have decided to stay; either hanging on to what energy jobs are available, or finding other ways to make a living. They may have moved here for the boom, but have determined to stay for other reasons, despite the economic downturn. While some of these residents live in town, and some have constructed homes on large acreages, most often I see their presence reflected in rural subdivisions. They have greenhouses, art studios, vegetable gardens, and chicken coops. The kids learn to ride bicycles on dirt driveways; they construct primitive forts in their yards; and they go out into the pasture to “camp” in the summer. They wade in irrigation ditches on hot days, ride incessant laps on snow machines and dirt bikes, and feed calves, pigs, and lambs for show at the county fair.
Most of these families have animals – cats and dogs, chickens and other fowl, small and large livestock, and horses – and all of these animals require both space and food. Since the acreages are too small to be self-sustaining for their domestic animals, animal feedstuffs must be purchased and brought in, which adds to the local economy. I drive by a busy feedstore across from a rural subdivision every time I drive to town.
Although some decry rural subdivision of land for its scarring of the landscape and harm to nature, I maintain that for these rural residents, they are living as close to nature (blemished though it may be) as they possibly can. Their animals are what connect them to the land, and when the jobs that brought them here may go elsewhere, it is the land and animals that keep them here.
While some may notice the horses standing in a dirt-packed corral, I see that the horse owners have corralled the horses to give their limited pasture time to rest and grow. I see those horses loaded for roping competitions, fairs and rodeos, for family pack trips and hunting adventures, and for kids to ride bareback on the vast public lands nearby, where the kids climb off to explore horned toads and other wonders of nature that surround them.
While some see rural sprawl, I notice the installation of flowerbeds, scattered wildflowers over septic systems, and boxes lovingly crafted for bats, bluebirds, and kestrels. I see people who have taken some level of food security into their own hands, raising animals to provide meat for the freezer, and living and learning about the cycle of life and death, and knowing where their food comes from.
All forms of living have both societal and environmental impacts (negative and positive), but rural subdivisions are often maligned. This view fails to recognize that people can be drawn to our communities with properties in rural subdivisions, and these rural ranchettes can serve as anchors that connect communities while supporting local economies.
Cat Urbigkit is an author and rancher who lives on the range in Sublette County, Wyoming. Her column, Range Writing, appears weekly in Cowboy State Daily. To request reprint permission or syndication of this column, email firstname.lastname@example.org.