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Bill Sniffin: Recalling my daughter’s first day of school

in Bill Sniffin/Column
Wyoming Back to School

By Bill Sniffin, Cowboy State Daily

In the next few weeks, thousands of little children in Wyoming will be marching off to school.  Especially for those parents of kindergartners, it is a poignant time.  It sure was for me back in 1976 when our daughter Amber marched off to her first day of school.

Here is a column that I wrote about how I felt about that event. The column won a national award and was originally published in our newspaper, the Wyoming State Journal in Lander. It was included in my first book, The Best Part of America, which was published in 1993. Here is the column. I hope you like it:

It’s been five years of diapers, dollhouses, skinned knees, pony tails, Barbie dolls, tricycles, sparklers, double-runner ice skates, Big Wheels, kittens, and hamsters.

Today, I’m sending our youngest child out into the great unknown. She will leave our nest and find out there’s much more to life than just that which she has learned from her folks.

For five years now, she’s believed that anything I told her was true. That all facts emanate from Dad. I’ve been her hero as her life has revolved around her mother, two older sisters, and me.

Now it is somebody else’s turn. Today, we trust an unknown teacher to do what is right for this little girl. This five-year-old, who is so precious to us, yet is just like any of thousands of other little five-year-olds here in the Cowboy State.

I suppose there are scores of other little girls with blond hair and blue eyes right here in Lander.

But, please, I’d like you to take a little extra care with this one.

You see, this is our baby. This is the one I call “pookie” when she’s good and “silly nut” when she’s bad. This is the last of my girls to still always want a piggyback ride.

And, this little girl still can’t ride a bike. And she stubs her toe and trips while walking in sagebrush. She’s afraid of the dark and she doesn’t like being alone.She’s quite shy. But she is a friendly little girl, too. She’s smart, I think. And she wouldn’t hurt a flea.I’ll tell you what kind of kid this is.

Twice in the past month, she’s come crying because the cat had killed a chipmunk. She buried both chipmunks, side-by-side. She made little crosses for them too.

This is the child with quite an imagination.  For example, she calls the stars “dots.”  And once when we were watering the yard, she assumed we were washing the grass.She told us that telephone lines were put there so birds would have a place to sit.

She’s just five years old.  I’m trusting her care in someone else’s hands and I’m judging that they will be careful with her. She’s a fragile thing in some ways and in other ways, she’s tough as nails.She’s not happy unless her hair is combed just right and she might change her clothes five times a day. She likes perfume, too.

She also likes to play with toy race cars and Tonka Trucks.

This is the one who always called pine trees “pineapple” trees. And when we visited our old home state of Iowa and she saw the huge fields of corn, she said “what big gardens they have here.”

And like thousands of other little girls here in Wyoming she’s marching off to her first day of school this week.

I know how those other parents feel.

There is tightness in their chests. Their world seems a little emptier. The days are a little longer.

And when our little girl comes home, waving papers and laughing about the great time she had at school . . . when she tells us about the stars and pine trees . . . and how the farmers raise crops, well . . . she’ll have grown up a little bit, already.

And I’ll have grown a little older, too.

Check out additional columns at www.billsniffin.com. He has published six books.  His coffee table book series has sold 34,000 copies. You can find more stories by Bill Sniffin by going to CowboyStateDaily.com.

Sound off: Converse County leads state’s boom

in Bill Sniffin/Business/Column/Economic development
Sound off Wyoming's local economies

Other counties report good news, too

By Bill Sniffin, Cowboy State Daily

Of Wyoming’s 23 counties, why is Converse County leading the way economically?

The county boasts an unemployment rate of 3.2 percent, the fourth-lowest rate in the state behind Teton, Crook and Weston counties. It is in the midst of an energy boom bringing new workers to the area. Who better than the local newspaper publisher to explain what it happening in Douglas, Glenrock and Converse County?  

Douglas Budget Publisher Matt Adelman says:

“Converse County is at the apex of a massive oil and gas exploration boom that appears to be just the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

“While we have huge amounts of exploration and development activity underway already, indications are the next few years will see an even bigger explosion of development as more wells are drilled – as many as 17,000 by some estimates based on those permitted. Those wells in the permit pipeline and the 5,000 wells being proposed are the subject of an environmental impact statement that is nearing its conclusion – and many more come into their own.”

Adelman says that all this oil and gas activity eclipses other energy-related activity.

“The Cedar Springs (phase 1) wind farm is beginning work this year, and phases II and III are already well into becoming realities concurrently and consecutively with phase I.

“Rocky Mountain Power’s multi-billion dollar Gateway West transmission line project is underway, with its starting point outside of Glenrock, and those and other wind farms will tie into that and other lines.”

Adelman notes that even though the coal industry has been hit with declines in demand and production, the industry — along with the railroads — is still responsible for most of the long-term energy employment in the area.

He sees development of other energy sources causing the Converse County economy to soar in a short time span.

“Of course, such a surge in growth – with employment spikes, drastically falling unemployment and the accompanying shortage of housing – is not without its struggles, but it is certainly a welcomed relief from the 2016-2018 crash in oil and gas prices and near-standstill in new exploration here,” Adelman concludes.

Converse County Bank President Tom Saunders echoes:

“Those of us that have lived through energy economic cycles remember how quickly the spigot can turn off when commodity prices fall out of bed and the workers spools their rags overnight and head back to Houston.

“When dealing with fossil fuel economies, 12-month budgets are considered long-range planning. Oil and gas economies are good until they’re not. The best cross on an Angus cow is a Lufkin pump.

“Our growth seems manageable at the present time, but the seams on our jeans are starting to get stretched tight. Any help in adding lanes to State Highway 59 would be welcomed. Those of us in energy counties understand the importance of mineral taxes paid in to the State’s coffers, as well as the strains our cities and towns undergo to meet the needs and costs of their development and production… we hope all our citizens of our wonderful State understand as well.”

The situation is different in Fremont County, where the unemployment rate in June was 4.7 percent, the highest in the state.

But in Fremont County’s seat of Lander, business owner Joe Quiroz said he sees opportunities ahead:

“I think we’re holding and have potential for growth. Last week in Jackson, three people asked me quietly and seriously about life in Lander. In fact, they’re all prosperous people who earn and spend, and are tired of the glitz and glam of a ski town.

“And the traffic. But they also need fast connectivity and transportation by a reliable air carrier. 

“I’m encouraged by the arrival in Lander of an interventional cardiologist and a vascular surgeon. These are people who will draw patients from around the state. Our future is not going to be based on employment of a large skilled workforce, but of small operators working in a knowledge based economy. 

“Lander has physical advantages that many places in Wyoming do not have. The sense of community is paramount. My wife Andrea runs a global enterprise from Lander, a place that will be our base camp as long as we are able to live here. We may have an apartment in London or Paris, but Lander is home.” 

Albany County is keeping steady with the University of Wyoming as a stabilizing anchor:

“The Laramie area economy is holding on, which is about all it ever does,” says John Waggener, an archivist for the American Heritage Center. “The tax base here is low due to the fact the largest employer, UW, is a public entity.”

UW historian Phil Roberts says:

“Hard to read the Laramie economy without reference to UW and, so far, I detect a ‘wait-and-see’ feeling about the interim and forthcoming new leadership. The mystery on departure of Laurie Nichols still spawns rumors. We’ll see in the next few weeks what the new semester holds.” 

Up on the eastern slope of the Big Horns, things are green and growing, according to retired community leader and former state Rep. Doug Osborn:

“I feel like the Sheridan-Buffalo area is doing well. The towns are clean and well kept, people seem generally happy and there seems to be building going on throughout.”

Retired Buffalo Bulletin Publisher Jim Hicks largely agrees, although he acknowledges the difficulty posed by the deterioration of coal-bed methane in the region:

“I believe Buffalo is holding its own economic issues.  The area has seen a sharp decline in Coalbed Methane activities and a lot of those jobs and supporting industries have gone away. Buffalo expects to see some negative spin-off from the decline of coal production, but that should be minor.  Tourism is up this year and cattle prices remain at a level to keep at least a small smile on the faces of ranchers.”

Pat Henderson, executive director for Whitney Benefits in Sheridan, describes his town:

“Our Sheridan area is doing very, very well.  Tax receipts are up.  Housing prices continue to increase. Lots of people moving here.  California, Texas and Colorado. We have diversified a lot with our economy. 

“One big dark cloud is Cloud Peak mine operating up north of here in Montana. Most of the employees live in Sheridan County. Very good wages but great uncertainty with them staying open. Going through bankruptcy currently and looking for a bidder.  If this mine closes, it will be a considerable loss.  Need to pray for them and their families.”

Gillette attorney Tom Lubnau II, a former Speaker of the Wyoming House, remarked on oil’s temporary ability to mask the struggles of the Powder River Basin’s coal economy:

“I live in Gillette.   The economy is average to below average.   Oil is covering for the slump in coal, for awhile.”

Up in Park County, things are plugging along:

Powell real estate agent Dave Reetz says, “Our area is holding its own in my opinion.”

Powell Tribune Publisher Toby Bonner added:

“I would say our economy here in Powell has been holding its own… but unfortunately we’re beginning to see a downturn due to closings of key retail stores like Shopko and others. Amazon and other e-commerce have really hit our Main Street hard. Closings of these retail stores locally have really put a damper on retail advertising in the Powell Tribune as well. We have more doctors, dentists, legal and insurance offices now than retail.”

Snuggled up against the Idaho border, Lincoln County’s Star Valley is benefitting from spill over of the robust tourism economy in Teton County plus agriculture and agribusiness operations.

“The Star Valley area is doing well economically, says Sarah Hale, editor of the Star Valley Independent in Afton.

Up in Newcastle, Newcastle News Letter Journal Editor Alexis Barker says:

“Economically I think we are holding fairly steady, we have had low unemployment rates, a recent increase in our valuation and increases in our taxable sales. I wouldn’t say that these increases necessarily make us above average but are definitely making Newcastle not have to struggle as much as we have in the past. We are also looking at an increase in new businesses in the area with a new grocery store being built, a new travel center (truck stop) and a new private practice (doctor’s office) opening locally.” 

John Davis, a retired Worland attorney and author, says:

“We are below average. Worland has not recovered from the oil slowdown of a few years back, when all activity in the oil field slowed.  Especially ruinous was the closing of the Worland Schlumberger office.”

Cheyenne attorney Jack Speight says:

“Economy is very good here in Cheyenne thanks the government, Walmart distribution plant, and the other warehouse giants on the east and west side of town. You can’t forget F.E. Warren Air Force Base, which is huge boost to the economy and to the volunteer base for Frontier Days.”

Tom Satterfield, a retired member of the Wyoming Board of Equalization in Cheyenne, says:

“Cheyenne is doing above average thanks to the college, the air force base, good medical hospital and being the center of Wyoming government all contribute. The new renovation of the Herschler/Capitol complex was a big factor for the last four of five years.  Good little theater and a great symphony orchestra as well as a very active arts group and a fine Civic Center add to the enjoyment of every one. Also a very active economic organization LEADS are all factors making Cheyenne an enjoyable place to live.

But the former director of one of the state’s most visible business advocates is glum:

“I think the state is in serious trouble given future spending obligations and current revenue streams. Tourism is fine; coal–a transitional mainstay– is getting hammered,” says Bill Schilling. 

Former Sweetwater County Commissioner Paula Wonnacott says:

“I think our economy is OK. But, there are uncertainties and I think everyone is worried. There are numerous homes for sale.”

Cowboy State Bucket List covers 97,000 square miles!

in Bill Sniffin/Column/Travel

By Bill Sniffin, My Wyoming columnist 

What is on your ‘Cowboy State Bucket List?”

By definition, the term “bucket list” stands for those places you want to visit or those things you want to do before you die.

For some time now, I have annually been publishing my own version of this list and have gradually been checking a few off my list. 

In a land of 97,000 square miles full of mountains, canyons, rivers, historical trails and outposts, Native American sites, and modern marvels, it is easy to compile such a list. 

And yet, there are so many more places to see it seems like my list is getting longer rather than shorter. 

For example a dinosaur dig or a buffalo jump have zoomed to near the top of my list.  Our family had never been to either and Wyoming has some of the best in the country. The dinosaur digs near Thermopolis is of the most prominent dino dig in the country.  The Vore buffalo jump near Sundance is amazing. I also want to get out in the Red Desert and see the one on the summit of Steamboat Mountain between Rock Springs and Farson.

Among the things that I wanted to do, and did do, included finally seeing Sybille Canyon between Laramie and Wheatland and driving the back road over the Snowy Range Mountains between Saratoga and Laramie.  

Also, I finally took that Red Desert back road from Rock Springs to South Pass and visited Boars Tusk and the Killpecker Sand Dunes. On my earlier list was a visit to Bill, Wyoming, which I managed to do one Sunday afternoon while listening to a Bronco football game on the radio. 

Also finally I drove that fantastic Wild Horse Loop from Green River to north of Rock Springs above White Mountain. We also re-visited the fantastic petroglyphs just south of Dubois. Amazing.

But I still have not made it to some very important events. So here goes my Cowboy State Bucket List for today: 

  • Am hoping to take a closer look at Vedauwoo area outside of Laramie.  I have driven by it hundreds of times. It is time for a closer look. Also, to spend some time at Curt Gowdy State Park. 
  • Between Jeffrey City and Muddy Gap is an odd rock formation I call Stonehenge. Locals call it Castle Rock.  Reportedly it has names written in it including John Sublette. Sometime this summer I hope to have it finally checked off.
  • I want to spend more time in extreme western Wyoming from Afton to Evanston. Lots to see there. 
  • Our family lived on Squaw Creek for 23 years outside of Lander and our view looked out at the imposing Red Butte.  Hope to climb it this summer.
  • If Fossil Butte is not on this list, my friend Vince Tomassi will scold me about it.  He serves incredible meals every Thursday night in Kemmerer-Diamondville at Luigi’s. Perhaps a tour and dinner, Vince?
  • In 1993, I spent a very nervous time hunting a bighorn ram in the Double Cabin Area northeast of Dubois.  Would love to go back for a more relaxed trip this time around. There were petrified forests above timberline and a place that included a meadow full of vertical rocks standing on end. 
  • I still need to take the time to tour all the new parts of UW with a knowledgeable guide and see first-hand all the new buildings and new programs. 
  • Some 48 years ago, I photographed what looked like a horrible scar on Togwotee Pass where the area was clear-cut. Would like to go back to those areas and see if the timber has recovered or not.
  • Historian Phil Roberts says he will give me a tour of the “breaks” north of Lusk?   I flew over that area by private plane many times and looked down in awe at this rough country.
  • A tour of Wyoming’s giant coalmines makes sense.
  • On the Wind River Reservation, I finally visited the Arapaho Ranch and also visited the mountains at the extreme north end of the rez. Saw the Legend Rock petroglyph site in that neighborhood –fantastic. 

To wrap this up, my friend Tom Hayes does not like the term “bucket list” and calls his a “leap list” for a list he does every leap year to plan their visits over the next four years.   

Jim Hicks always offers perspective on these kinds of lists when he says he always wanted to break par, then he always wanted to break 80.

“Now I just want to be able to get out there and play,” he concludes. 

So that’s my Cowboy State bucket list.  What’s yours?

Check out additional columns at www.billsniffin.com. He has published six books.  His coffee table book series has sold 34,000 copies. You can find more stories by Bill Sniffin by going to CowboyStateDaily.com.

What’s your take? Cowboy State Daily readers respond to traffic fatality story

in Bill Sniffin/Column/Transportation
Wyoming road fatalities

By Bill Sniffin, Cowboy State Daily

My column about the increased danger on Wyoming roads this year generated some interesting responses from people around the state.

In that column it was pointed out that fatalities on Wyoming highway by Aug. 1 titled 92 compared to just 57 a year ago (in the intervening 10 days that number has climbed to 98). Why has it spiked so much?  My column (published on Cowboy State Daily) laid out some examples and possible reasons. Here is a collection of comments from some other folks around the state:

Vince Tomassi, Kemmerer-Diamondville:

“If the speed limit is 70, I get passed regularly by people going I would estimate 80-plus.Same for the 80 MPH sections (of Interstate 80), people are going 90. I agree with your friend about distracted drivers with cell phones, texting and driving.”

Jean Haugen, Lander:

“I have never seen the fatalities so bad, even back when my dad was a Patrolman.  A lot of the time, fatalities around here are either lack of wearing a seatbelt or falling asleep at the wheel and crashing. Wyoming used to have the reputation of having the best highways in the U.S.   It is very concerning.  It was certainly sad about those two ladies being killed that were from Riverton.”

Susan Gore, Cheyenne:

“Cheyenne Police Chief Brian Kozak cites striking Colorado statistics, re: THC marijuana increasing traffic fatalities. THC alters time-distance perception even after the high is gone.  That is a difference from alcohol. His tragic Wyoming example is a high school senior with great life prospects going home after a graduation party.  Brian was there.”

Tucker Fagan, Cheyenne:

“I agree with Steve Peck’s editorial about information screens in cars (that was reprinted in the column). The Air Force uses displays on the wind screen to keep the pilot’s eyes outside the cockpit. Saw this several years ago on vehicles I rented but the technology has not achieved widespread use. Also since Alexa, etc. can do so many things, voice activation should be incorporated in vehicles.”

 Geoff O’Gara, Lander:

“A couple of thoughts about the rising death tolls on the roads. I think we all agree that drivers are often distracted by social media devices, even when they are specifically to aid drivers, like route mapping. Quite a few years ago I was driving back from work at PBS in Riverton and a driver swerved out of the busy opposite lane and right across my path – she went off the opposite shoulder, lucky for me she didn’t try to recover or it would have been a head-on. From the way her head bobbed up, I’m quite sure she was looking down at a screen, or else asleep.”

Here are two other elements to consider, and I’m guessing there are studies out there that I’m too lazy to look for:

1. “The ridiculously big and growing vehicles that so many people drive these days, in our comfort-seeking over-indulgence – for tourists, sometimes rental RVs much bigger than what you normally drive at home. As a bicyclist, watching them weave around, I’m terrified.

2. “The aging American population, and the enormous number of retired oldsters with the wealth to wander around the highways. The driver in the Grand Teton crash was 65. The victims were even older. I’m in my 60s now and my reflexes aren’t all they used to be. Cognitively, older folks process more slowly, and may focus less intently. “It’s dangerous out there! Take the train! (Bring passenger trains back to Wyoming!)”

John Davis, Worland

“I think the usual reason for variation in highway deaths is simple statistical variation.  That is, when you have a large number of random events, there will always be a substantial variation of incidents, simply from the nature of the randomness of chances.  Sometimes you can trace the fact, of, say, extra highway deaths, to specific causes, but not usually.”

Phil White, Laramie:

“It is good you are calling attention to the carnage on the highways.  I’m hearing more and more often from various people, especially about the Front Range madness, that the roads are simply no longer capable of handling the traffic.  They cannot be upgraded fast enough to maintain even a minimal level of safety for a population growing so fast.

“I’m sure you are right about the distractions inside cars.  More important than motorhomes, I would think, is the explosion in the past 15 years of semis on Interstate 80.  Every time I do a casual count I find that semis account for about half of the vehicles on Interstate 80 and there have been a lot of wrecks involving semis.  One of them coming out of Telephone Canyon and onto the flats south of Laramie several years ago plowed into a vehicle stopped in a line of cars because of a previous accident between grand avenue exit and 3rd street exit.  Four members of one family were all wiped out in that one.  Even big heavy SUVs and pickups are no match for semis.  At 80 mph they have no chance to avoid collisions and their mass magnifies the damages.

“As to alcohol, I’ve been trying for years to get (Mothers Against Drunk Drivers) and other parties to push the Legislature to prohibit drive-up liquor store windows.  I believe I read that Wyoming is the only state that still allows drive-up windows.  It’s an easy way for liquor dealers to avoid the responsibility to not sell alcohol to someone who, if made to walk inside, would display obvious impairment.  (Of course the Legislature and the Supreme Court also have refused for years to create “dramshop law” liability for liquor dealers who sell to obviously impaired adults.  As the law now stands, a liquor store owner cannot be held responsible for a drunk driver killing another motorist, even if the liquor dealer sells liquor to and then helps the buyer get into his car because he can barely even walk).

“As to speed, I am always amazed when the Legislature raises the speed limit.  Even before the recent increases it was already well established that at night going 70 mph it is almost impossible for a vehicle to stop in time after an object becomes visible in the headlights.  When they raise the limit they are simply saying ‘We are willing to sacrifice a few hundred lives or a thousand lives over time to save everybody else a few minutes in getting to their destination.’

“I often think of John Muir’s observation after touring Yellowstone in the late 1800s from his Our National Parks (1917): ‘The regular trips–from three to five days–are too short.  Nothing can be done well at a speed of forty miles a day.  The multitude of mixed, novel impressions rapidly piled on one another make only a dreamy, bewildering, swirling blur, most of which is unremembered.’”

Larry Wolfe, Cheyenne:

“I just rode my bike on 365 miles of the State’s road (a bit of that in MT). Those of us on bikes are scared to death of distracted drivers there were many stories of close calls. Good for you for bringing attention to this.”

Sniffin: Why are the Cowboy State’s roads suddenly so dangerous?

in Bill Sniffin/Column
Ashley Emma Skorcz

MY WYOMING

By Bill Sniffin, Cowboy State Daily

Two old friends were killed recently outside Jackson when a van full of tourists crossed the center line and hit them head-on. Carol Roemer, 68, Riverton, and Dorothy “Dot” Ashby, 78, Lander, were two of the nicest gals in Fremont County. On this day, they were in the wrong place at the wrong time.

There was no explanation for why the out-of-state tourist driving the mini-van would have swerved into the oncoming lane. He was also killed with four of his passengers airlifted to area hospitals.  

This deadly crash took the state’s traffic death toll to 92 for the year, compared to just 57 at this same time a year ago. Why have traffic deaths almost doubled this year?

Steve Peck in his Riverton Ranger editorial July 24 thinks he has the answer.

“It’s hard to believe traffic safety is not being affected by the new visual stimuli competing with the road outside the car for the driver’s attention inside the car,” he writes.

The crash we described earlier here occurred in the shadow of the Grand Teton Mountain Range, literally one of the most beautiful views in the entire United States.  Yet, for some reason, a driver veered into the oncoming lane with deadly consequences.

Peck writes that it is not just cell phones that are causing the distraction.  He cited a TV ad for a new car touting the 13-inch display on the car’s dashboard that provides the driver with all kinds of information.  Hmmm. Perhaps the driver needs to be looking at the highway ahead rather than studying a monitor on the dashboard?

Two of the oldest reasons for people dying in car wrecks have not diminished much. Way too many people died because they were not wearing seat belts.  This is an easy fix – if people would just wise up. Slight injuries turn into fatalities when the seat belts are not used.

Second big cause is impaired driving from alcohol, marijuana, or other drugs. A lot of good work in public education and law enforcement has helped but it still is a problem. 

There are many reasons why Wyoming roads should be safer than they are. We have the lowest population of any state (7 people per square mile), we have very good roads, and most Wyomingites are veterans of all kinds of driving conditions. We also drive more miles per capita than any other state. 

It seemed like for years our traffic death toll had been going down, but not this year.

Could it be speed? I loved it when the legislature made the Department of Transportation increase speed limits from 65 to 70 on most roads and put in an 80 mph limit in many places on our interstate highways. Perhaps some of these accidents were caused by that, but I have not seen any conclusive evidence.

WYDOT has spent a lot of money on variable speed limit signs which slow traffic down below the posted limits under certain conditions, such as weather. 

One of my coffee buddies claims that out of state drivers pass more often and more recklessly than Wyoming drivers.  The increase in passing lanes should have dealt with that, you might think.

Perhaps it is caused by all those lumbering RVs and motorhomes (like me?) that clog the highways nine months out of the year and slow the traffic down. Not sure. 

WYDOT has also spent a lot of money on message boards which tell us to watch out for wildlife, motorcyclists, and bicyclists on the roads and other dangers. 

It also seems to me that we have seen a surge in deaths in motorcycle crashes.  More people are riding these days than ever.

One of the more recent fatal car crashes in Wyoming occurred July 28 and carried an old theme. At 4:44 a.m. a 2013 Ford Explorer left highway 191 and rolled. 

Killed was 23-year old driver Ashley Skorcz of Rock Springs. She was not wearing her seat belt. Her five year old daughter Emma was in the car but was also not protected and was life flighted to Utah for serious injuries. 

Miss Skorcz was the manager of a Rock Springs convenience store and grew up in Farson. A fund has been started in Rock Springs for her daughter. 

The fatality brought the state total to 94 deaths on highways in 2019. With the year barely half done, we are close to exceeding the highest annual total in the past 25 years when 102 people died in 1999.

Check out additional columns at www.billsniffin.com. He has published six books.  His coffee table book series has sold 34,000 copies. You can find them at www.wyomingwonders.com.

Sniffin: How Wyoming schools are stopping bullying, school shootings, and suicide

in Bill Sniffin/Column

MY WYOMING COLUMN

By Bill Sniffin, Cowboy State Daily

Earlier this year in opposite sides of Wyoming, students were overcome with emotion as they explored ways to stop school shootings, prevent bullying, and keep fellow students from committing suicide. 

In Cheyenne, Mountain View, and Lyman, the program called Rachel’s Challenge enjoyed a huge success with students, parents, teachers, administrators, and community members. 

I think that the idea of spreading kindness and positivity is just so important.

Jessica Gerwig, a Cheyenne East High School teacher involved in bringing Rachel’s Challenge to the school, told Cowboy State Daily earlier this year.

With school shootings rates and teen suicides rates both rising across the country, the good work being done by Rachel’s Challenge needs to be promoted.  Luckily, schools all over Wyoming are embracing it.

The non-profit Rachel’s Challenge organization claims that its good work prevents more than 100 suicides a year and has prevented seven school shootings in its 20 years of existence. 

Cowboy State Daily’s Robert Geha visited East High School to learn what impact the Rachel’s Challenge program has had on students. Listen for Michelle Puente and Keeley Cleveland’s comments at 2:30 in the segment.

In Cheyenne, East High students Michelle Puente and Keeley Cleveland promoted the program after hearing about it.

“I’ve seen students that typically sit alone at school, now they are sitting with other people. If they were sitting alone, now they have someone to sit with. There are sticky notes on the lockers to show others that it is important to be kind,” Michelle told Cowboy State Daily of the change in student demeanor after the Rachel’s Challenge assembly.

A Wyoming Tribune Eagle article on the assembly reported that East Sophomore Skyler Eidhead, his face blanched and wet with tears after hearing the program said he recently lost some people close to him. Hearing Rachel’s story gave him a sense of hope.

Some 20 years ago, the most publicized school shooting in history occurred at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. The first student killed was a 16-year old girl named Rachel Scott.  After her death, her parents found her personal journal predicting her death at a young age and her hope of ways to help people. 

In a school essay titled “My Ethics, My Codes of Life,” Rachel wrote that she wanted to start a chain reaction of kindness.

Six weeks later, she was dead, the first of 13 to be killed during the 1999 Columbine massacre.

For students at Cheyenne’s East High, who have grown up in an era where school shootings are at the forefront of national conversation, Rachel’s Challenge brought an unexpected twist to those discussions.

After Rachel’s death 120 miles south of Cheyenne in Littleton, her parents, Darrell and Sandy Scott, began reading through their daughter’s journals and papers, and found proclamations of kindness and compassion. They were so moved by their daughter’s words they began speaking to community groups and student organizations on behalf of their late daughter, using the words she’d put down in her journals as the crux of their message: kindness.

These speaking occasions grew into what is now called Rachel’s Challenge, a nonprofit organization that seeks to share Rachel’s message of kindness with high school students across the country.

They focus on a few key ideas. They ask students to fight prejudice, to intervene when somebody is being bullied, and to look for the best in others. Though inextricably tied to the Columbine shooting, the presentation hinges less explicitly on school safety and more on kindness and its byproducts – safer schools among them.

“It’s about students’ hearts and getting them to that place where they are connected,” said Nate Rees, regional partnership manager for the group. “A direct result of that is less violence in schools.”

MORE from Cowboy State Daily: Wyoming schools take Rachel’s Challenge: National anti-bullying program comes to state

Rachel’s uncle, Larry Scott, gave the presentation to East High students Tuesday. He is one of dozens of the group’s presenters, but unlike most, his own children were inside Columbine High School at the time of the shooting. They got out unharmed.

In a description of how this worked in Mountain View, the principal of the school, Ben Carr, wrote:  “Rachel had written about her desire to reach out and show kindness to everyone, but especially to three specific groups, including special needs students, students new to the school, and students being picked on and bullied.”

Carr quoted Larry Scott: “He said one particular student who was being bullied reached out to the Scott family to tell them how her kindness and efforts to defend him were directly responsible for saving his life when he decided not to follow through on a plan to kill himself.”

State Supt. of Public Instruction, Jillian Balow, is supportive of the program and has been encouraging schools to use it to prevent bullying, school shootings, and suicide.

Coincidentally, the biggest donors to Rachel’s Challenge have been Wyomingites Foster and Lynn Friess of Jackson. They gave $2.5 million to the program as a matching grant so more schools can afford to host this amazing program. 

Students who have attended this program in 30 Wyoming schools so far, say it changed their lives for the better.  It makes sense for all schools to use this program. What a great message!

Check out additional columns at www.billsniffin.com. He has published six books.  His coffee table book series has sold 34,000 copies. You can find them at www.wyomingwonders.com.

Massive military museum under construction near Dubois

in Bill Sniffin/Community/News
Alynne and Dan Starks in front of tank collection
Dan Starks and his daughter, Alynne Starks, pose in front of some of the military tanks and vehicles on of the site of their new museum. The Starks have some 400 military vehicles in their collection making it one of the finest and largest private collections in the world.
Dan Starks, National Museum of Military Vehicles founder, explains how the oil and gas industry helped the American military build a better tank.

By Bill Sniffin, Cowboy State Daily

Wyoming’s next great museum is under construction and will open next May.

The National Museum of Military Vehicles is a massive facility located just south of Dubois in Fremont County.

The $100 million self-funded museum has been a dream of Dan Starks, who bought his first Wyoming property in 2011. Construction on the new museum started in May of 2017. It is a 140,000 square-foot facility designed to hold 150 military vehicles.

But it is much more than a display of vehicles.

Starks, 65, is not a veteran but has such a high degree of respect for those who served that he sees this project as his life’s work. And what a life it has been.

He worked 32 years at a medical equipment company in Minneapolis, serving as CEO before retiring in 2017. The company made $6 billion per year and had 28,000 employees working on life-saving devices, specializing on heart catheters and other devices. 

“At one time, we figured our devices were saving a life every three seconds around the world,” he says.

His company was acquired by Abbott Laboratories in 2017. Their web site shows Starks owns over $600 million in stock in the big international company and serves on its board.

Dan and his wife Cynthia’s life’s dream was to settle in Dubois and launch some project to recognize the service of America’s veterans. And boy, is this ever some project.

Despite the gigantic size of the facility, (you can almost put three football fields inside its walls), Starks now worries that it might be too small.  The couple owns more than 400 of pristine historic vehicles from World War II and other conflicts, presumed to be the largest and best private collection in the world.Starks thinks he might only get 150 of them inside the walls.

The Starks’ daughter Alynne is the executive director of the facility.Their plan for the museum has gone far beyond just a place to display vehicles. “We want to create displays that show the landing at Normandy, the surrenders in Germany and Japan, the Battle of the Bulge, and other great moments in our country’s military history,” Starks says.

Starks sees the facility having three components:

  • First, to honor the service and sacrifice of millions of Americans;
  • Second, preserve the history of what happened during these wars, and
  • Third, provide an educational experience.

The vast array of vehicles goes beyond the killing machines of tanks, artillery, and flamethrowers. It also includes dozens of the machines that made the wars winnable.

Starks likes to discuss how the “Red Ball Express” helped secure the victories. This was the truck-based supply chain that seemed to provide endless amounts of food, ammo, and war machines as Allied troops marched toward victory.

He wants to show how America was able to convert its massive manufacturing expertise to enable the Allies to fight two different wars in different parts of the world and win both in just three and one-half years. The new museum will show how the American ability to mass-produce cars and trucks was converted to produce tanks, jeeps, airplanes, and other war machines in record amounts that just wore down the enemy. 

“Germany built beautiful machines, but they did not understand mass production like Americans did,” Starks said. “It was impossible for them to keep up when it came to replacing and resupplying their troops at key moments in World War II. We want to honor everyone who participated in this great victory. This museum will showcase that effort but showing the machines that were built and how they were utilized.”

Dan and Alynne Starks led a handful of people on a tour of the facility Aug. 1, including Lander radio station owner Joe Kenney, Fremont County Commissioner Mike Jones and retired Lander business leader Tony McRae.

Kenney said he was impressed that Starks wants no grants or government money to help with the project.  

“He knows what he wants and he is going to get it,” he said. “Amazing.”

Jones said he was overwhelmed by Starks’ passion. 

“His enthusiasm is contagious,” he said. “This is going to be game-changer for tourism in Fremont County and Wyoming.”

McRae said he did not know what to expect. 

“I was just blown away by the scale of this project,” he said. “I can’t wait to see it after it opens.”

Alynne, as executive director, said the project will probably employ about 15 people.  They have not decided on what admission will cost but one thing is sure: “Veterans will get in free!  My dad insists on that,” she said.

Near the middle of the building’s interior is an amazing vault that will hold Starks’ $10 million collection of historic weapons, including a rifle fired at Custer’s Last Stand and a pistol used by General Pershing in World War I. The collection also includes 270 Winchester rifles.  The facility will have meeting rooms and members of the Wyoming Legislature are convening there in October.It also has the Chance Phelps Theatre, named for the brave Dubois Marine who died April 9, 2004, in Iraq.  The movie “Taking Chance”was about that soldier.

There will also be a large library with one of the world’s largest collections of manuals and other information about military vehicles.

There are over 100 tanks and other impressive war machines parked in row after row in a big field next to the new building. There is even a Russian-built MiG 21 parked in the field that was used in the Viet Nam War against American soldiers. It is flyable. Starks’ other machines are in downtown Dubois, on his ranches and stored in Salt Lake City. Besides the main museum facility, the Starks built a large building just off Main Street in Dubois to hold many of their vehicles and a shop to keep them running.

Eight years ago, their first home in Dubois was an old homestead. Then, they purchased a 250-head cattle ranch and recently they bought a third ranch, which now has 36 bison grazing on it.

“We love Dubois and we love Wyoming. This is our great adventure,” Starks said.

Fires burn historic lodges in Pinedale, Togwotee Pass

in Bill Sniffin/News
Fire at Brooks Lodge in Dubois
Fire at Brooks Lodge on Togwotee Pass between Dubois and Jackson on July 28. (Photo courtesy of the Dubois Volunteer Fire Department.)

By Bill Sniffin, Cowboy State Daily

July was not a good month for beautiful mountain lodges in Western Wyoming.

On July 12, fire destroyed the lodge at the White Pine Ski Resort east of Pinedale.

On July 28, the historic Brooks Lake Lodge on Togwotee Pass between Dubois and Jackson suffered major damage from a fire.

Robin Blackburn, owner of White Pine, said the fire that ravaged the impressive building that contained virtually all of the operations of the ski area, was caused by a fire inside the building. Sublette County Unified Fire Public Information Office Mike Petty said the blaze was completely contained inside the lodge.

“There’s was no brush fire, there’s no damage to the forest. It was totally contained in the lodge,” Blackburn said. “The lodge is a total loss, but the people from the Department of Criminal Investigation are up there trying to determine the cause of the fire at this stage. Nothing has been said.”

Meanwhile, north of Dubois, an early morning fire damaged Brooks Lake Lodge on Togwotee Pass on Sunday, but a quick response rescued much of the historic structure.      

Lodge General Manager Adam Long discovered the fire and tried to put it out with a fire extinguisher. He also called 911 at 2:32 a.m., said Jeff Golightly, chief advisor to Brooks Lake Lodge owner Max Chapman.

Golightly said the fire is being investigated by Eric Siwik of the State Fire Marshal’s Office. Golightly said the fire is suspected to have started in an old fireplace in the historical building.

The fire comes on the heels of a July 2 fire at Cafe Genevieve, a historic downtown Jackson property also owned by Chapman, with other investors.

Meanwhile, back in Pinedale, emergency responders were notified of the report of a wild land fire at the resort at approximately 1:20 a.m. Emergency responders arrived on scene to an active fire in the lodge itself instead of a wild land fire. There were no injuries to responders and no extension of damage to the neighboring structures or forest.

The response included multiple personnel from Sublette County Unified Fire, Sublette County Sheriff’s Office, Sublette County EMS, Sublette County Emergency Management and Bridger Teton National Forest.

Fire crews contained the fire to the lodge building and monitored the surrounding areas to ensure the fire didn’t spread to the surrounding forest or buildings.

Blackburn said she was notified of the fire around 4 a.m. when the fire was all but put out. Now the process of taking the next steps begins.

Following inspections by the insurance company, Blackburn said she and her husband Alan intend to rebuild the structure. She also said it doesn’t appear that any damage was done to the ski lift lines either.

“We need to rebuild it. It’s a really important part of the community,” she said. “The ski area serves not only Sublette County, but Sweetwater and Fremont, and I think it would be a huge loss to everyone if we didn’t rebuild.”

Blackburn said the damage is extensive, including one corner of the lodge that contained the boiler below and extending up into the kitchen area.

Blackburn said they may consider putting up a temporary structure to get them through the winter. With contractors booked out repairing and rebuilding homes in the area following the Roosevelt Fire last summer, it might be some time before the project begins.

“I mean it’s really early days for us to know what to do or what to say. But our intent is to go forward and provide something again for the community,” she concluded.

Meanwhile, up at Togwotee Pass, the response to the Brooks Lake Lodge fire was amazing. “It’s just unbelievable,” Golightly said.

The Dubois Fire Department and Fremont County Fire Department responded in about a half hour and successfully extinguished the blaze over the course of several hours, Dubois Fire Chief Mike Franchini said. The response included eight engines, a water tender and an air unit.

“Firefighters attacked the fire from the interior and cut vent holes on the roof,” Franchini said. “The historic building was saved.”

Eric Siwik of the State Fire Marshal’s office said the fire started in a confined space. It very well could have smoldered for quite awhile before being discovered.

He said his office is working closely with insurance investigators in exploring the cause.

No employees or guests were injured, and damage was limited to the ceiling and roof of the “tea room” and part of the dining room. Golightly estimated about 10 percent of the building suffered damage.

“None of our cabins were damaged, none of our lodge rooms were damaged, the lobby, the bar wasn’t damaged,” Golightly said. “We’re lucky that our GM caught it, and we’re lucky that the Dubois Fire Department and the Fremont County Fire Department all showed up and got it put out in a pretty reasonable amount of time.”

The 98-year-old lodge is still hosting guests although the dining room and tea room are closed, Golightly said. The bar, lobby and lodging remain open.

Golightly said it was a close call, and he’s grateful the general manager spotted the fire in the middle of the night, and for the firefighters’ fast response.

“It was just an incredible job by those guys,” he said. “We were very fortunate. No guests and no employees got hurt, that’s what’s important to us.”

Built in 1922 and originally named the Two-Gwo-Tee Inn, Brooks Lake Lodge is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

(Reporting from Jackson Hole News & Guide, Buckrail, County 10, and other sources contributed to this article.)

Sniffin: Two Cowboy State road trips show state is green and clear

in Bill Sniffin/Column
Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone

By Bill Sniffin for Cowboy State Daily

Road trip! 

Is there any better place in the world to take a road trip this time of year than Wyoming?

Recently, we made two such trips and saw a bunch of wonderful sites in our great state. Two things stood out:

First, I have rarely seen the countryside as green as it is now this late in the year. 

Second, for the first time in a long time, you can see for 100 miles or more.  There are no smoky horizons blocking views because of California or Canadian fires. What a relief that is. 

The book The Big Sky by Montana author A. B. Guthrie Jr., was actually writing about the big sky in Wyoming, not Montana.  The state of Montana was smart enough, though, to grab that as one of their primary mottos. Our Big Sky has never been prettier than now here in the Cowboy State.

We took two trips, both of which ended up out-of-state. The first one headed north. The second headed south. Here are my observations:

Yellowstone National Park is my favorite place on earth. I have probably visited our country’s first national park 120 times. I just cannot get enough of it. This park is the main draw for tourists coming to Wyoming. 

There are three Wyoming entrances to the park.  The northernmost is the Beartooth Highway out of Park County—wow, what a ride that is!

Also, the east gate over Sylvan Pass west of Cody is one of my all-time favorite drives. The Wapiti Valley is a showcase in its own right.

We took the southern gate from Moran and worked our way through the check-in gates for Grand Teton Park and for Yellowstone Park. 

We were traveling on July 2 and the park was at near capacity over the Independence Day holiday.  People from all over the country and all over the world having a great time. We are so fortunate to have Yellowstone in our state. 

Ran into a Mr. and Mrs. Eisenheiner at the Old Faithful parking lot. They were riding a motorcycle to Alaska. They had started in Los Angeles. Wow, what a ride. I believe that the name Eisenheiner is German for “Iron Butt.” 

On this trip, we left Lander about 8 a.m. and took US Highway 287 north through the Wind River Reservation. The gigantic Wind River Mountains were looming on our left and were just awesome.  Next comes Dubois, one of the state’s prettiest little towns and it was jammed with tourists.

From there, we headed over Togwotee Pass, which tops out at about 9,600 feet near Brooks Lake.  As you head over the pass to Jackson Hole, the spectacular Tetons are shining in the distance – a million dollar view. As you descend into Jackson Hole, it is common to see a grizzly or two, but not on this warm day. 

This is one of the most beautiful drives in the state and is just keeps getting better, the closer you get to the national parks.  Then, on this day at least, it got a little crowded.

I was headed to a meeting in Bozeman, MT, one of the fastest growing cities in the country at 112,000 people. 

My trip home involved coming through Cody, Thermopolis, Shoshoni, and Riverton. Everything is so green! 

Our next road trip involved heading to Montrose, CO by way of Rawlins and Baggs. Then over to Denver to see my 95-year old mother and back home via Cheyenne, Laramie, and Rawlins.

Wyoming is famous for its wildlife. No other state in the lower 48 even comes close to the antelope, deer, elk, moose, bear, coyote, and jackrabbits you see along our roadways.

Some of the biggest antelope herds in the state can be seen along the route we took. Not sure we can call them wildlife, but the state’s biggest herd of wild horses roams the Red Desert between Lander-Rawlins-Rock Springs-Pinedale areas. 

Wildlife Worth the Watching was a program used for many years to promote folks visiting Wyoming to see actual wild animals, actually in the wild.  A great program.

We made the mistake of taking Colorado’s Interstate 70 going east into Denver on a Sunday afternoon. Spent an extra two hours jammed in bumper-to-bumper traffic.  Horrible experience.

Cheyenne was gearing up for Frontier Days, Laramie looked prosperous, as did Rawlins, as we sailed through on our way home.

Great trips, but a little too purposeful for me. I prefer to travel slowly and stop and visit interesting folks and interesting places. Will do that on our next trip.

Check out additional columns at www.billsniffin.com. He has published six books.  His coffee table book series has sold 34,000 copies. You can find them at www.wyomingwonders.com.

Bill Sniffin joins team at Cowboy State Daily

in Bill Sniffin
Bill Sniffin

Columnist, author, and journalist Bill Sniffin has joined the  team at the Cowboy State Daily, the state’s foremost digital daily news platform.

The veteran Lander journalist will be writing a weekly column, assisting with the daily newsletter called Coffee Break and will help with strategic planning as the digital site continues to expand and grow.

“I have been impressed by the Cowboy State Daily,” Sniffin said. “Wyoming needs a dedicated statewide digital news source and I am glad to be part of their team.”

Sniffin has written a weekly newspaper column for over 50 years.  It turned into a statewide Wyoming column 17 years ago, after he lost in the 2002 Republican governor primary election.

His column currently appears in more than 20 newspapers and digital services in the state and is exposed to more than 100,000 readers each week. It is the most widely distributed column in Wyoming.

In recent years, Sniffin has published three coffee table books about Wyoming that have sold over 34,000 copies.  Prior to that he published three other books about his columns.

He and his wife Nancy have owned all or part of more than 20 newspapers, magazines, print shops, ad agencies, and internet companies.  They published the Lander Journal for 29 years.

Sniffin was president of the Wyoming Press Association in 1980 and has been awarded a Lifetime Membership.  In 1999, he was given the highest award the Wyoming Tourist industry can offer, the Big WYO award.

The Sniffins live in Lander and have four children, 13 grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren.

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