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President Donald Trump swept Wyoming in 2016: Will 2020 be a redux?

in News/politics
2020 election in Wyoming
2630

By Laura Hancock, Cowboy State Daily

In 2016, President Donald Trump cruised to victory in Wyoming, winning around 70 percent of the popular vote and every county except Teton – one of the highest victory margins in the country. Will 2020 be any different? 

His net approval rating in Wyoming remains strong – having only decreased by 5 percentage points since taking office. In November, his approval rating was 66 percent, according to Morning Consult, the technology and media company that has the only regular publicly released presidential approval ratings that include the Cowboy State. 

“The good news is the president is going to win Wyoming,” said Teton County GOP Chairman Alex Muromcew. Even if he could lose Teton County again. 

“I think it’s a likely possibility, in addition to Teton, we could see Albany County going for whoever is the Democratic nominee for president,” said Joe Barbuto, chairman of the Wyoming Democratic Party. “I think it’s safe to say we’ll not see him winning by as nearly large of margins in other counties.”

Trump infrastructure in Wyoming

In comparison to other states, Trump’s campaign is modest in Wyoming at this point. 

The Wyoming Trump Victory Team has four honorary chairs: Gov. Mark Gordon, U.S. Sens. Mike Enzi and John Barrasso and U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney, said Samantha Zager, a spokeswoman for Trump Victory, the fundraising committee for his reelection effort. 

The campaign at this point is not as involved in Wyoming as, say, battleground states such as Ohio, where the state director for the Trump campaign was announced a month after the 2018 election.

Pennsylvania’s state director was announced in May. Wisconsin’s was in July. Additional staff in each state have been hired. 

In New Hampshire, staff has already been hired and fired. 

In Wyoming it appears there are no paid Trump reelection staff yet. 

Wyoming GOP

In 2016, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz won support from most of Wyoming’s 29 GOP delegates at both the county conventions and the state party convention – Wyoming Republicans use both conventions to apportion delegates before the national convention. 

Wyoming GOP Chair Frank Eathorne declined an interview to discuss the 2020 election, referring questions to Trump Victory.

When asked how the president’s popularity could be leveraged in down-ticket races, Eathorne said a grassroots plan was underway, but he said in a text message he couldn’t discuss it. 

Barbuto predicted in many communities, Democrats will have to campaign harder because they won’t ride the coattails of Trump’s high popularity, as their Republican opponents can. But in other communities, there may be opportunities to talk about the president’s 2016 campaign promises and whether they came to fruition.

“This is an incredibly difficult economic time for Wyoming,” he said. “Everyone knows that. We see our traditional revenue sources declining. Before Donald Trump came into office, he made promises about what he would do for coal in states like Wyoming. Up until 2018, his party controlled the House and Senate. And they weren’t able to get it done. That’s because there’s economic factors that are at play here, beyond the control of the president.”

Teton County, and the Democrats

Muromcew, the Teton County GOP chair, has no doubt of Trump’s support among registered Republicans in the county. But to win a majorty of votes, a candidate has to appeal to independents in addition to Republicans. 

“What makes (Teton County) unusual, politically, is that in terms of registered voters, we are about a third Republican, a third Democratic and a third independent,” he said. “…The challenge for (Trump) is to get that independent vote. And I think that is true for all Republican candidates running for office in Teton County — whether it’s local, state or national.”

It’ll be up to each candidate about whether they want to run on a pro-Trump platform in Teton County. Last year, Muromcew ran, unsuccessfully, for the Wyoming House as a write-in candidate. 

“My sense is, when I ran for office last year, I tried to make my platform more about local issues, rather than it be a referendum on national issues,” he said. 

Barbuto had a similar sentiment. 

“Democratic candidates are going to be talking about the issues facing their community — topics like access to quality health care, diversifying our state economy, finding new revenues and most importantly, jobs to their communities,” he said. 

2016 Presidential Election Totals

CountyTrumpClinton
Albany County 7,6026,890
Big Horn County 4,067604
Campbell County 15,7781,324
Carbon County 4,4091,279
Converse County 5,520668
Crook County 3,348273
Fremont County 11,1674,200
Goshen County 4,418924
Hot Springs County 1,939400
Johnson County 3,477638
Laramie County 24,84711,573
Lincoln County 6,7791,105
Natrona County 23,5526,577
Niobrara County 1,116115
Park County 11,1152,535
Platte County 3,437719
Sheridan County 10,2662,927
Sublette County 3,409644
Sweetwater County 12,1543,231
Teton County 3,9217,314
Uinta County 6,1541,202
Washakie County 2,911532
Weston County 3,033299
Statewide174,41955,973

Year of the Pig sees Wyoming cut the fat, celebrate equality, go gaga for choo-choo trains

in Energy/Jobs/News/wildlife/Agriculture/Transparency/Business
Year of the Pig
2613

By Ike Fredregill, Cowboy State Daily

In 2019, Wyoming celebrated the 150th anniversary of women’s suffrage, welcomed back members of the Black 14 and bemoaned the worsening coal crisis.

Cowboy State Daily was there to cover it all.

Here’s some of our top stories from throughout the year.

Coal

Mineral extraction in Wyoming could enter a slump in the next four years, and the coal industry is slated to experience the worst of it, according to a report produced by Gov. Mark Gordon’s Power Wyoming initiative.

Some of the initiative’s scenarios predicted a recovery period in two years, but most, and the most likely, predicted a devastating decrease in both Wyoming’s total employment and population.

For the residents of coal country, those predictions could be life changing.

“The coal jobs have historically been the stable jobs,” said Alison Gee, a Gillette attorney. “Now, we’re shifting to an environment where we have to look to oil and gas to try and provide some of the stability for our families. And as you know, the oil and gas markets just aren’t that way. They’re very volatile because of the world economy.”

Although several hundred miners returned to work at the Eagle Butte and Belle Ayr coal mines after Eagle Specialty Materials assumed ownership from the bankrupt former owners, Blackjewel, the reverberations of 600 coal miners being laid off in one fell swoop earlier this year are still being felt statewide.

Corporate income tax

Despite dying in the Senate during the 2019 Legislative Session, a legislative committee is once again studying a proposal to impose an income tax on so-called “big box” stores.

The Legislature’s Joint Revenue Committee listened to testimony in September regarding a 7 percent corporate income tax on companies with more than 100 shareholders.

A similar proposal, House Bill No. 220, referred to as the National Retail Fairness Act, was not considered by the Senate Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Committee before a deadline in February.

Both measures were raised as state officials were faced with rapid declines in the state’s mineral tax revenues, historically the biggest contributors to Wyoming coffers.

Irrigation collapse

After an irrigation canal collapsed, leaving more than 100,000 acres of farmland in Goshen County and Nebraska without water for months this summer, officials are looking into ways to prevent similar incidents in the future.

Built by the Bureau of Reclamation more than 100 years ago, the Gering/Fort Laramie Irrigation Canal collapsed in July, causing the governors of Wyoming and Nebraska to declare states of emergency.

Although the U.S. Department of Agriculture later said crop losses would be covered by insurance, a previous economic analysis report produced jointly by the Nebraska Extension and University of Wyoming Extension originally estimated the collapse could cost both states about $90 million combined. 

Opening the books

After a years-long legal battle between Wyoming officials and non-profit organizations over state government transparency, Wyoming State Auditor, Kristi Racines released Wyoming’s checkbook  shortly after taking office in January.

The data dump contained approximately 4.9 million line items of expenditures made by state agencies during the last six years, but it does not include several spending categories such as state employee salaries or victims’ benefit payments.

Racines took transparency a step further and launched a website dedicated to providing the public with basic spending data for the state.

Using the data provided through both the checkbook and website, Cowboy State Daily covered a series of state spending stories including the Wyoming Office of Tourism’s sponsorship of rodeo teams, the Wyoming Department of Correction’s purchases of religious items and a look at Wyoming’s own air fleet

Big Boy

The largest steam engine ever built, the Big Boy locomotive, crossed Wyoming for the first time in 60 years, bound for Utah and the 150th anniversary of the completion of the country’s first transcontinental railway.

“A steam locomotive is a living, breathing piece of machinery,” said Bob Krieger, a former steam locomotive engineer who now runs the UP Historical Society in Cheyenne. “You can see its muscles. You can hear it breathe as it pulls a grade. All steam engines do that. The Big Boy is just the biggest.”

Train enthusiasts from all over the world flocked to Wyoming to witness the historic trip.

Capitol renovations

State agencies started moving back into the Wyoming Capitol building this summer as a $300 million renovation project neared its end.

The refurbishment of the 129-year-old Capitol was the centerpiece for the Wyoming Capitol Square Project that also involved updating the Herschler Building to the north and the space between them.

The reopening ceremony coincided with the celebration of Wyoming’s Statehood Day, and the unveiling revealed a Capitol building considered to be much more accessible to the public, with larger rooms, broader passageways and more open space.

“They’ve done a lot of stuff here that opened up the Capitol,” said Joe McCord, the former facilities manager for the Capitol. “The stairs going into the House and Senate are wide open right now. Downstairs, you’ve got the galley that’s wide open. The rooms are bigger. I just love it, what they’ve done. They’ve done a great job.”

Despite being mostly complete, many agencies were still working with temporary furniture towards the end of the year as the state worked out the details of new furniture request for proposal.

Taco John’s

There was a whole lotta Mexican goin’ on at Taco John’s 50th anniversary this year, some of which the company is taking to Minnesota.

While founded in Cheyenne half a century ago, the fast food chain announced in December it was expanding its corporate office to Minneapolis, where there are more than 200 Taco John’s locations within a few hours drive from the city. But for those readers who can’t get enough oles, the franchise is slated to remain headquartered in Wyoming. 

Women’s Suffrage

State legislators kicked off the 2019 Legislative Session by passing a measure setting aside a day to recognize Wyoming as the first state in the nation to give women the right to vote.

The measure declared Dec. 10 as “Wyoming Women’s Suffrage Day,” which marks the day in 1869 when Territorial Gov. John Campbell signed the bill giving women the right to vote in Wyoming.

Marking the occasion with music, the Wyoming Symphony Orchestra commissioned an original work from American composer Stephanie Ann Boyd. 

“Wyoming, of course, put through women’s suffrage about 50 years before everybody else, and so we’re taking the inspiration of that, and the stories of the women that were instrumental in that, and writing a piece about them, but also writing essentially a 25-minute minute love letter to Wyoming,” Boyd said.

On Dec. 10, women and men marched to the Capitol commemorating the newly declared holiday and highlighting instances of inequality that still need to be addressed.

Black 14 

Fifty years after the University of Wyoming expelled 14 members of its football team, known as the Black 14, for wearing black armbands onto the field, race relations are still strained in the Equality State, said Mel Hamilton, one of the Black 14.

“It’s a shame to say, but it’s pretty much the same as when I entered Wyoming in 1965,” Hamilton said, adding, “with one exception — it went underground.”

Adding diversity to the history books and teaching students how minorities contributed to growth of the U.S. as well as informing them how racism was cultivated by ignorance would be a strong step toward improving Wyoming’s future race relations, Hamilton said. 

“They must be allowed to learn what other races have given this country,” he said. “They are ready to lead the way if we — the old vanguard — just get out of the way and let them do it.”

Chronic Wasting Disease 

The Wyoming Game and Fish Department released a draft plan to address a fatal disease running rampant through the state’s wildlife population.

“(Chronic Wasting Disease) has been documented spreading throughout the state, and there are areas where its prevalence is high enough that we think it could be having significant impacts on some of our herds,” said Justin Binfet, one of the plan’s authors and a Game and Fish Department wildlife management coordinator. “The plan is based on recommendations that were developed through an extensive collaborative process.”

Dubbed a “suite of strategies,” the plan suggests managing the disease by installing wildlife feeding bans, potentially targeting mule deer bucks during breeding season, voluntary and mandatory submission of harvested animal samples and working with landowners, cities and counties to eliminate areas with unintentionally high concentrations members of the deer family.

Wyoming-based group hosts hunts with terminally ill children

in News/Recreation/Community
2606

By Ike Fredregill, Cowboy State Daily

For some terminally ill children, hunting can be a break from the grueling regimen of treatments and a chance to experience normalcy, Muley Fanatic Foundation Co-founder Josh Coursey said.

But for 20-year-old Noah Walters, it could be more — a reason to continue fighting 10 years after doctors predicted he would die, said his mother Denise.

“A few years ago, Noah was dealing with some real depression,” she explained. “If he did not have hunting, I don’t know if he would still be with us.”

Of the 3 million people in Mississippi, Denise said Noah is the only person diagnosed with Morquio Syndrome Type A, a progressive disease that prevents the body from breaking down sugar chains called glycosaminoglycans and can cause abnormal bone and spine growth, resulting in diminished stature and reduced mobility.

Despite his ailments, which include heart and respiratory conditions, Noah harvested his first pronghorn this year in Wyoming with the help of the Muley Fanatic Foundation.

“He may be a little person, but he’s a firecracker,” Denise said. “He does not allow his disease to control him.”

Noah was one of 17 people, mostly children, the Wyoming-based foundation took on hunts through the “Putting the U in hunt” program in 2019, Coursey said. “We know how important this is for children with terminal illnesses,” Coursey said. “We see it as an opportunity for us to do good.” 

‘Furthering the sport’

Founded in 2011, Muley Fanatic is a nonprofit organization dedicated to wildlife conservation primarily in Wyoming, though chapters have recently popped up in Colorado, Utah and Virginia.

“We’ve been facilitating these youth hunts from the outset,” Coursey said. “As a conservation group, part of our mission includes furthering the sport of hunting, and we recognize this as an opportunity to do that good work for these kids who are at a disadvantage.”

The idea for the program came from a friendship between the foundation’s founders and a local family whose child was terminally ill. 

“We knew as a nonprofit we could petition the game commission to have these (hunting) tags allocated to allow for these opportunities in areas conducive to the individual hunter and their needs,” Coursey explained.

Under Section 13 of the Wyoming Game and Fish hunting regulations, the game commission can issue a limited number of licenses for deer, elk, pronghorn and turkeys to nonprofits for the use of terminally ill people between the ages of 12 and 20.

“It allows the youth hunter to be in the area five days prior to the area being opened to the public,” Coursey said. 

To be eligible, applicants must submit their paperwork with a statement from a licensed physician stating the license recipient is clinically diagnosed with a life-threatening or serious illness. The application must be submitted by Jan. 31 of the requested year — a full nine months ahead of the opening of hunting season in some cases.

“It’s a long process,” Coursey said, “but that gives us time to get everything together and the families time to ensure the kids have the green light from their doctors.”

Meeting unique needs

Muley Fanatic provides the young hunters, who come from all over the nation, with an all-expense paid experience for both them and their caretakers.

“They have enough to worry about as is, so we take care of everything while they’re here,” Coursey said. “We buy the tags, provide the meals, pay for the travel and any hotel expenses they might have.”

The average hunt costs about $1,800, he explained.

“We do that through fundraising throughout the year and have donations earmarked just for this program,” Coursey said. “But we couldn’t do it without our volunteers. We have a lot of great resources in Wyoming in our wildlife and wide-open spaces, but our greatest resource of all is our people.”

For hunters with disabilities, the standard array of hunting gear doesn’t always meet their needs. In some cases, the foundation has worked with other organizations such as Holy Pursuits Dream Foundation, based in West Virginia, to supply specialty equipment for the hunters.

“We’ve had five children now that have been able to hunt with a specifically designed firing mechanism using a breathing tube,” Coursey said. “It takes a little practice out on the range to get used to, but we’ve seen some good success with the mechanisms.”

While hunters can request what type of animal they would like to pursue, he said mobility remains a factor.

“We’ve had children that have no motor function from the shoulders down,” Coursey said. “The mule deer hunts require more mobility than the antelope and elk hunts, which takes some of the access away.”

Muley Fanatic volunteer and Red Desert Outfitters owner Jason Faigl said patience is key when looking for an animal the participants could have an opportunity to harvest.

“A lot of the challenge is being able to get the hunter to the area and set up to shoot,” Faigl explained. “We do everything we can to make sure they are comfortable and make sure we’re not affecting their illness in any way.”

Word of mouth

Starting with only a couple hunts in the first year, “Putting the U in hunt” was slow to gain momentum, but participation more than tripled in 2019.

“We typically have about four to five hunters a year,” Coursey said. “This year, we had 17.”

Healthcare data is protected by federal law, so the foundation relies on word of mouth and social media to attract participants.

Having logged about 25 hunts since 2011, Noah and his family are well-acquainted with hunting organizations who help the terminally ill, but it was only recently his family learned about the Muley Fanatic Foundation.

“I’d seen the Muley Fanatic Facebook page, but I hadn’t really reached out until another organization told us about the program,” Denise recalled.

Without word of mouth, Noah might have never discovered his ability to hunt. 

“It was always something he was interested in as a kid, but he wasn’t sure he’d be able to do it,” Denise said, explaining the doctors predicted shortly after birth Noah’s life expectancy would be about 10 years. “The pastor at our church heard him talking about it one day and decided to look into it.”

With the pastor’s help, Noah discovered a group in Wisconsin that was willing to take him bear hunting.

“He’s been hooked on it ever since,” Denise said. “Not every hunt is successful, but Noah says that’s why it’s called hunting. If we were successful every time, he says it’d be called shooting.”

Having hunted all over the country, Noah was excited about the prospect of nabbing a pronghorn.

“We’d seen several antelope that morning, but they were far off or too quick,” Denise recalled about the Muley Fanatic-sponsored hunt. “It takes a long time to set up the shot. Sometimes he sits in his dad’s lap, sometimes he sits in mine. It’s a mom, dad and Noah team effort, but we get the job done.”

The team successfully harvested an antelope during their visit, an experience Denise said Noah cherishes.

“The people are absolutely wonderful, and the state is gorgeous,” she said. “Are we going to visit again? Absolutely.”

For more information about the Muley Fanatic Foundation go to www.muleyfanatic.org or call (307) 875-3133.

Decision on computer science standards expected by Feb. 14

in News/Education
2601

By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

It’s going to likely be an eventful Valentine’s Day for anyone who’s been following Wyoming’s computer science standards saga. 

That is the deadline for Gov. Mark Gordon to make his decision on whether to approve the standards submitted by the state Board of Education.

Currently, the standards are in the middle of a 75-day review period where Gordon, the Legislative Service Office, the Legislature’s Joint Management Council and the Attorney General’s office will look over the standards, possibly make small amendments or recommendations before they are finally signed into effect. 

If the various offices determine there are too many issues with the standards, the promulgation process must begin again. Either way, Feb. 14 is the final day in the review period. 

Laurie Hernandez, Standards and Assessment director for the state Department of Education, noted that Attorney General Bridget Hill recently completed her assessment of the standards, allowing them to move forward in the final step of the promulgation process. 

“There were a couple of minor things noted that I needed to adjust, but that was all from the AG review,” Hernandez said. 

Small adjustments to the language are common, but if a major issue is found in the standards, it could mean sending them back to the early steps of the promulgation process, meaning it would have to go through weeks of more reviews and public comment. 

“Restarting the process would come with some type of change that wouldn’t be considered natural outgrowth,” Hernandez said. “When the LSO and AG offices review the standards, they’re looking at whether or not the letter of the law is being met or if there is anything egregious being covered.”

The last major changes to the standards were made in November, when the State Board of Education reviewed an opinion from Hill about them. She noted to the board that some of the terminology in the standards was confusing and certain words weren’t used consistently.

The board made two amendments, clarifying that “enhanced” benchmarks for computer science education would be available to, but not mandatory for, all students. The other amendment removed performance level descriptors (PLD) from the standards for kindergarten through fifth grade. The PLDs will still be available to teachers in a guidance document, though. 

The standards under review are based on those created by the Computer Science Teachers Association. The standards set by the organization are intended to develop a clear understanding of the principles and practices of computer science.

Gordon’s communications director Michael Pearlman said he expects the governor to review the standards later in the 75-day period, as Gordon is deliberative and wants to ensure he’s considering everything.

“Obviously, we don’t want to take too long, because we’re all cognizant of how long this process has been,” Pearlman said. 

Lachelle Brant, an education policy advisor to Gordon, said she couldn’t speak about what was in the final version of the standards since the LSO is still reviewing them. But she said she hoped to get the standards approved by the governor quickly to give districts enough time for implementation. 

By law, the standards have to be in place by the beginning of the 2022-23 school year. Some districts like Laramie County School District No. 1, Platte County School District No. 2 and Sheridan County School District No. 1 are already working to implement standards, but other schools will need more time to learn them and incorporate them into the curriculum. 

“Some of these districts knew the Legislature passed a law and that these standards would be an expectation down the road, so they’ve worked to be ahead of the game,” Brant said. “I think some larger districts are concerned because these standards were passed and there was no additional funding for training. The Department of Education is working to fill that financial gap by applying for grants, so that’s helping.” 

Hernandez noted that the standards team has created a three-year implementation process plan calling for the Department of Education to provide professional development for educators across the state on the standards. 

The review committee that helped write the standards earlier in the year found ways that educators could cross-reference other curriculum with computer science in an effort to make the integration process easier.

“These courses ranged from language arts and social studies to electives like (physical education) and fine performing arts,” Hernandez said. “The committee knew that with a brand new set of standards, there would be some angst by adding computer science to these educators’ plates. The intent was to provide resources to help implement these as easily as possible.”

Holiday lights go high-tech

in News/Community/military
Christmas Lights
2567

By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

No one really can remember when the Cheyenne Veterans Affairs Medical Center, built in 1934, began displaying its impressive holiday lights and decorations. It’s just been something Cheyenne and Laramie County residents, as well as regular tourists, expect every winter. 

Whether you’re driving by on Pershing Boulevard and just happen to catch a glimpse of the lights or you take a stroll through the campus, you can see the VA’s extensive collection of decorations, from Santa guiding his reindeer to a nutcracker saluting incoming and outgoing guests. 

For many years, the decorative display was unique in Cheyenne because it was considered more “high-tech” than displays seen across the rest of the city. In recent years, the community has begun to step up the size and scale of its decorations and lights, but that doesn’t mean that the VA is going to fall behind. 

“The grounds guys actually came to me this year and were pretty insistent that we needed to get some more lights and decorations for the display,” said Sam House, VA public affairs officer. “We’ve built new additions along the campus, but we hadn’t expanded our holiday display and they wanted to change that.” 

Some of the new decorations included inflatable characters that are shown every evening — as long as it’s not too windy — more lights, a new wreath and pop-up sculptures. 

Since the VA is a federal building, the decorations also reflect the Jewish and Muslim faiths, featuring a menorah for Hanukkah and a painted sign with Islam’s crested moon symbol. 

While not decorated, there is also a sacred area on the property for Native Americans that features a traditional medicine wheel that people can visit.

Since the VA expanded its decorations for the entire campus, House noted that there has been an uptick in visitors this winter. 

“We put those there for the community, so we definitely want them to come onto the campus and take a look around,” he said. “They’re also great for the veterans who stay in our nursing homes, because they love to look out their windows and see these gorgeous lights.” 

The groundkeepers begin looking over the lights and decorations in early November, ensuring none of the lights are broken or burned out and checking to see if any decorations need repair. After Thanksgiving, they get to work setting everything up, stringing lights and posting the decorations all over the campus. 

It’s a lot of work for a display that’s seen for a little more than a month, but House said it’s worth it because the community loves it so much. 

“Cheyenne is a very traditional community and these decorations are a part of our tradition,” he said. “There are so many federal entities that kind of peel away and don’t take part in their community. The Cheyenne VA has been an integral part of the city since the 1930s. Some of our patients were mayors of the community. We want to make sure people know it’s OK to come onto the campus and that our VA hospital belongs to the community.”

But the VA isn’t the only place you can see beautiful lights or stunning decorations. Little America is another location with a sprawling campus with a breathtaking display that guests or community members can walk through.

Cheyenne’s City Hall on O’Neil Avenue is covered with around 3,000 LED lights, with more being added every year. The building is decorated on Thanksgiving and the lights will come down in January. 

There are also lights displayed along the streets downtown, which are put up by the city’s traffic division. These will also be up until January. 

The Cheyenne Community Recreation and Events Department also placed more than 70,000 lights on the Cheyenne Depot Plaza this fall. The white lights that hang on the trees downtown will stay up until April 1. 

But if you’re looking for some more home-spun decorations and lights, the Cheyenne Trolley Tours offers the chance to bundle up in one of the city’s classic trolleys, sip hot chocolate and cruise the streets in search of the best Christmas displays at private homes throughout town. 

The buses depart every evening from the west end of Frontier Mall, 1400 Frontier Mall Drive., at 6 p.m. and 8 p.m. Tickets are $12 for adults and $6 for children.

Yellowstone opens for winter visitors

in News/Recreation
Yellowstone in winter
2580

By Wendy Corr, Cowboy State Daily

Yellowstone National Park is open for over-snow travel for the season, allowing travel by those who may want to see the park in the solitude of winter instead of the busy summer season.

All entrances to the park opened for the winter season Dec. 14, meaning staff has been busy with grooming trails, stocking gift shops and opening restaurants at the Snow Lodge and Mammoth Hot Springs.

Rick Hoeninghausen, director of marketing and sales for Xanterra, Yellowstone’s concessionaire, said people who visit the park in the winter are often looking for a different experience than they can get in the summer.

“We’re at 4 million-plus visits in the course of a year,” he said. “Winter time, it’s closer to 100,000, plus or minus. So that gives you an idea of the difference between winter and summer. And I think that’s the appeal for some people.”

Visitors often have much of the park to themselves in the winter, Hoeninghausen said.

“There’s a chance for a little more of an experience if you’re out on a trail on skis or snowshoes and it’s quiet,” he said. “There’s a lot less people here.”

Much of the attraction stems from the appearance of the park itself in the winter, Hoeninghausen said.

“It’s gorgeous in the winter,” he said. “You’ve got that clear, blue Wyoming sky, there’s no moisture, the snow is just sparkling. Geyser basins are like nothing else. In the winter time, they’re special. They’re magical places.”

Despite its isolation, a winter break in Yellowstone should not be considered a hardship, Hoeninghausen said.

“There’s a perception in the world that it’s too rugged, it could be too severe for folks,” he said. “We have these snowcoaches that are very comfortable and heated and warm with big windows and big tires. And then (visitors) realize ‘I’m traveling in basically a mini-bus and I’m staying in a nice hotel, eating in a nice restaurant. Everything else is the same, it’s just colder outside.”

Accommodations are especially luxurious at the Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel, where a major renovation was completed this year that put bathrooms in every room, replacing the communal bathrooms that were part of the hotel until recently.

Donations down at Salvation Army kettles around the state

in News/Community
Wyoming Salvation Army
2585

Donations to Wyoming’s Salvation Army kettles have declined this year, due in part to this year’s calendar, according to officials with the charity.

Officials said with Thanksgiving and Black Friday coming late in the year, people had less time to donate than usual. In addition, a blizzard in eastern Wyoming slowed traffic past kettles posted at different locations.

In Gillette, Salvation Army Director Jenny Hartung said donations have declined by about $6,700 from 2018. She attributed part of the decline to the closure of Gillette’s Kmart.

In Cheyenne, donations are down about $22,000, while in Casper, Penny Shoemake estimated the decline at $45,000.

Cheyenne Salvation Army Lt. Chad Lamb said the organization may not reach its goal for the year of $120,000, but added the group is still willing to accept any donations, including change.

“People always apologize for putting change in the kettle,” he said. “Never, ever apologize. We did over $10,000 in just change alone. You pull out a handful of change … throw that in there, because change makes a difference in Cheyenne.”

Kettles around the communities are staffed by both paid bell ringers and volunteers. Rick Flood, president of Cheyenne’s branch of the Platte Valley Bank, said 14 of his employees have been ringing bells for the Salvation Army.

“At this time of year, it is so reassuring and humbling to be reminded of the generosity and kindness of our community,” he said.

Flood and Lamb agreed that Cheyenne residents are generous with their Salvation Army donations.

“In our kettles, in our food donations, in our gift donations, in every respect that I’ve seen in Cheyenne, this is giving community,” Lamb said.

Cameras in classroom would increase school accountability

in Ray Peterson/Column/Education
2583

By R. Ray Peterson, Cowley, WY 

Accountability from our schools has been an ongoing concern for years as the Legislature has struggled to understand how much the state spends for the results received. I remember a bill I sponsored years ago in an attempt to address this issue. 

The measure was nicknamed the “camera bill,” but its actual title was “Improving Teacher Evaluations.” It passed introduction, only to fail in the Senate Education Committee by one vote. Simply put, it was a concept for a pilot program to put cameras in the classroom to use for evaluations and provide security for both teachers and students. 

I thought it was an ideal time to implement the concept as we were building schools at a fast pace. The pilot program was to involve four schools, each of a different size, around our state. The program would continue for one year and a report on its effectiveness would be given to the Legislature.

The nexus of this concept came when I asked a few retired teachers how they were evaluated over the many years they had taught. Their answers were varied and inconsistent, which led me to believe that teacher evaluations across our state were somewhat of a “hit and miss” process. Stories of teachers suing school districts for wrongful termination or superintendents being reluctant to fire teachers with guaranteed contract status because of the personal hits they took led me to take a serious look at the evaluation process or how we might improve the process to address these concerns.

Think of it! The student and teacher would never know if the principal or instructional facilitator were watching! This alone would have a positive affect for both the student and the instructor. 

I only wish that every citizen from our state could have seen my presentation of this bill to the Senate Education Committee. Many certainly would have been entertained while listening to the point/counter-point between the Wyoming Education Association representatives and myself. It was classic. Perhaps this is where I made myself an enemy to these folks. 

Anyway, this idea was meant to be an additional tool an administrator could use to evaluate teachers. No disruption of the classroom with personal visits, no tip-off to give the teacher a chance to prepare. And the best part? Now a recording could be reviewed by the teacher, principal, the instructional facilitator and one of the parents of a student. 

Wait, a parent? How dare we suggest such a thing! Hold on, let me explain. The parent was to attend the viewing and submit a simplified evaluation form. Did the teacher seem prepared? Did he or she seem to maintain class discipline? Simple and basic questions. Then the parent representative would be asked to leave. Then the three people remaining in the room would get down to business while making recommendations and assignments for improvements as needed. The instructional facilitator would be assigned to work with the teacher in certain areas and all three would be required to sign off on the evaluation report. A work plan for improvement would be made, assignments given and a follow-up visit would be set to re-evaluate for these areas to be worked on. Think of the effect this would have on wrongful termination lawsuits. Or more importantly, how the schools could address the strengths or shortcomings of a teacher or administrator!

So why the parent involvement? In order for this to work, we must first, insure that the evaluations are happening. The parents group representative attends the monthly school board meeting to report on how many evaluations parents have participated in that month. Now everyone is on the hook! Not just our teachers and students but everyone from parents to administrators. No personnel problems or employee confidences are threatened. Just a quick report on whether the evaluations are happening to the school board and superintendent. 

Make no mistake, evaluations are the hardest part of school administration, but also the most critical. New school buildings and curriculum have less to do with a student’s education than a teacher’s desire and ability to teach. I would encourage parents around our state to ask their school administrators how teacher evaluations are performed in their own school districts. How often they are performed? How is the follow up performed? Who is involved in carrying out the improvement plans for an under-performing teacher? What you may find out could surprise you. It is as varied as you could imagine, from no evaluations to some. 

When I asked for myself, I was surprised to find out that the teacher was asked by the principal if the principal could attend a class sometime in the future. The time was set by the teacher and I’m sure the preparation began. I’m sure everything went to plan and the evaluation was deemed a success. I thought to myself, ‘How many things were wrong with this type of an evaluation?’ From reporting the evaluation to the effectiveness of the actual evaluation. Where was the hook or accountability for any of the players that we deem critical to our child’s education?

Second, we would reduce the wasteful wrongful termination lawsuits. Not only would we have documentation of the evaluations signed by all parties, but also from the instructional facilitator. This person is the best qualified teacher in each district, assigned the task of assisting other teachers become better instructors. The principal and the instructional facilitator would both work at improving the quality of teaching in our schools. This would also reduce concerns of personal attacks, inconsistent evaluations, new administration, personality conflicts and surprise terminations. Proper and consistent evaluations should remove all of these concerns.

Third, this proposal would involve and make more players accountable than just our teachers. Parents need to be more involved. How could a principal use the recording of a parent’s child struggling in one of their classes? How could parents reporting to the school board each month help improve the performance of our principals in conducting regular evaluations? If I were serving on a school board and the parents reported to us that they had been invited to only one evaluation that semester in a school with more than 20 teachers, I would think that we have a problem in evaluating our teachers consistently and properly.

Finally, this program would focus the efforts of not only our teachers and students but also our instructional facilitators, principals, parents, school board members and superintendents on educational excellence. If we really believe that education is the most important thing we do in this state, then I would ask the question, what is wrong with this concept? These are public institutions of learning and we have the technology to improve our efforts, so why not implement a pilot program to see what the effects might be? 

As a closing thought, having cameras in most parts of a school would only add to the security of our students and faculty. Bullying would be handled properly with video evidence being used to show all parties involved. 

Throwing additional money at a problem does not always solve the problem. Sometimes more effort is required. Maybe some courageous legislator can blow the dust off of my old bill and introduce it again. But beware of those that want nothing to do with accountability in our schools because they will come out in droves in opposition to this effort. More money is what they want.

I remain convinced that if implemented, this one improvement could do more for the quality of education in this state than anything else we could possibly do. More so than additional money or higher salaries, new buildings, more activities or even improved curriculum. This one effort to improve evaluations in our schools would hit the bullseye for boosting the quality of education in Wyoming. It would certainly eliminate the wrongful termination lawsuits. It would blow a hole through the guaranteed contract status of teachers and would provide the proper incentive to continually improve education efforts in schools. 

I’ve always believed that if evaluations were done correctly, we would have better teachers, happier teachers, accomplished teachers and better test scores for our students. Is it any wonder why our friends at the WEA were opposed to this concept? It did not fit with their desire for higher wages, guaranteed positions with less accountability. Perhaps it’s time for a new organization that puts our students first. W4E. Wyoming For Education. I would hope that such an organization would not fear innovation, technology, accountability, and responsibility.

Now who is serious about educating our children?

Ray Peterson served as a state senator for 13 years, from 2005-2018. He lives in Cowley.

Repairs on track for collapsed irrigation tunnel near Torrington

in News/Agriculture
Goshen Irrigation Canal water
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By Ike Fredregill, Cowboy State Daily

As repairs move forward on an irrigation tunnel near Torrington, the Oregon Trail Community Foundation (OTCF) is slated to disperse donations to affected farmers.

“We’re working on the repairs that the (U.S.) Bureau of Reclamation is requiring, so we can run water next year,” Goshen Irrigation District Manager Rob Posten said. “We have to put in some more support ribs and do some void grouting (between the tunnel wall and surrounding soil) still.”

Built by the Bureau of Reclamation more than 100 years ago, the Gering/Fort Laramie Irrigation Canal collapsed in July, cutting irrigation water off to more than 100,000 acres of farmland in Goshen County and Nebraska.

To help farmers recover losses to crops resulting from the collapse, the OTCF announced it would soon start dispersing $300,000 in donations raised by various organizations and events in the area.

On the tunnel repair side, funding is still in the works, Posten said.

“The Bureau of Reclamation hasn’t paid for anything, but they have offered us some loans,” he explained. “We did get some funding from the Wyoming State Land and Investment Board — about $4 million.”

The long-term loan was given at a 2.5 percent interest rate and could pay for about half the cost of repairs, which Posten said were estimated to be about $8 million.

The boards of directors for both the Goshen and Gering-Fort Laramie irrigation districts are considering applying for additional funding from the State Land Investment Board in the near future, he added.

While the initial estimates for economic impact of the collapse varied wildly, Brian Lee, a University of Wyoming Extension agriculture economist, said the affected area’s economical outlook is much brighter than originally estimated.

“I don’t think the damage to the crops was as bad as it could have been,” Lee explained. “I think a lot of people got water at the end of the season, right when they needed it.”

Based out of the James C. Hageman Sustainable Agriculture and Research Extension Center in Goshen County, Lee co-authored a report estimating a total loss of all the crops irrigated via the tunnel could run about $90 million. The report assumed crop insurance would not cover losses, but the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Risk Management Agency has since decided crop losses would be covered by insurance.

“Rather than a payment per acre, which was previously speculated,” Lee said, “(ag producer’s) insurance will work with them on their losses based on the insurance coverage they had at the beginning of the season.”

While the situation is better than predicted, the area could still suffer.

“There’s going to be a cost with all these tunnel repairs, and some of that will come back on these farmers with increased irrigation costs,” Lee explained. “We’re talking long-term loans that are going to be around for awhile.”

Beginning at the Whalen Diversion Dam near Guernsey, the Goshen and Gering-Fort Laramie irrigation districts’ main canal runs through three tunnels on a 129-mile stretch across Goshen County and Scotts Bluff County, Nebraska.

To prevent future collapses, Posten said the district boards voted to upgrade the tunnels with permeation grouting, which could cost an additional $3.5 million.

Once funding is secured for both the current repairs and future upgrades, the projects could be complete in 2021, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln reported.

As the two states work toward preventing future collapses, Lee said ag producers could be considering additional protections.

“I think a lot of people — midway through the season — they didn’t have any water and got to thinking about different ways to get water to their plot or different crops to plant next season,” he said. “In the future, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a little more risk mitigation crops going in.”

Center pivots for irrigation — in which water is pumped to sprinklers that move in a large circle — could be another option, Lee said, but the statutes regulating water usage by center pivots are so complex the equipment might not be viable without new legislation.

Future Proofing our Kids for Tomorrow

in Technology/Column
Microsoft
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By Dennis Ellis, special to Cowboy State Daily

It’s been amazing to watch Wyoming become a national policy leader on growing computer science opportunities for our kids, enriching their education and giving them skills to compete in the future.

It’s no surprise that computing jobs are the number one source of new wages in the U.S. and that nine out of 10 parents want their children to learn computer science. Many even suggest that 70 percent of students will work in jobs that don’t even exist today. Technological change, economic turbulence and societal transformation are disrupting old career certainties and it is increasingly difficult to judge which degrees and qualifications will be a passport to a well-paid and fulfilling job in the decades ahead.

You can bet your paycheck I want my kids to have at least a basic fluency in computer science so they can be more impactful in whatever career they choose, as nearly every job becomes a technology-driven job, and future proof their careers. Our kids need to move beyond just consuming technology, and begin to learn how to create technology.

For Wyoming to continue to make leaps in giving our children a bright future in the face of such uncertainty, it takes a strong commitment from our policymakers, education system, business community and parents. Here are some great examples of this commitment I see around the state:

Governor Gordon signs a 2019 Computer Science Week Proclamation with Array School students on hand
  • Governor Mark Gordon recently signed a proclamation declaring Computer Science Week, recognizing the importance of providing our students new opportunities.
  • In 2018 Governor Matt Mead signed seminal legislation requiring each school to include computer science and computational thinking opportunities for all Wyoming students.
  • The State of Wyoming is developing K–12 computer science standards, blazing trails on how to provide professional development and micro-credentialing for in-service teachers to bridge the gap in teaching capacity.
  • Last year 60 percent of Wyoming high schools taught at least one computer science course. That’s the third highest rated state west of the Mississippi River and eighth best in the country!
State by State offerings for Computer Science in High School

Addressing the STEM Gap

Because I have two daughters, I’m highly concerned about the gap in STEM and computer science participation for females. We all should be.

Alarmingly, in 1995 just 37 percent of computer scientists were women. Today, only 24 percent of women. If we do nothing, in ten years the number of women in computing will decrease to just 22 percent. We can and must do better. 

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Fortunately, for the sixth year in a row, the percentage of female AP Computer Science exam takers rose, steadily chipping away at the gender gap in high school computer science. Closing the participation gaps in computer science will take years, but there are clear signs that states are on the right path. Wyoming has already launched five Girls Who Code chapters to close the gender gap in technology and to change the image of what a programmer looks like and does.

Microsoft recently partnered with the Array Foundation, Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow and Girls Who Code to launch Cheyenne’s first chapter. The chapter will enable girls to learn computer science from a female role model in the tech industry. Research shows that 31 percent of middle school girls and 40 percent of high school girls believe that jobs requiring coding are not for them. Increasing the amount of female role models can play an important role to shift these perceptions.

Girls Who Code Chapter launch with Array Foundation

Anyone interested in bringing Girls Who Code to their town, or get engaged in other areas of building a strong ecosystem of computer science in your community, contact me or the Array School of Technology and Design and we can help show you a simple playbook to help shape a bright future for Wyoming!

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