(Centennial Fellow) In my lifetime, I have had the good luck to visit the Empire State Building, the Eiffel Tower, the Palace of Versailles, Westminster Abbey, the Vatican and, just recently, the Campbell County Recreation Center in Gillette, Wyo.
It's a $55 million exercise castle in a 33,000-population city reached after driving miles through flat, brown, empty plains with relatively few signs of human presence. That is, until you start closing in on Gillette. Then you see a train that never ends, or almost doesn't, a mile-long, coal-carrying, sleek-looking, 135-car colossus.
What gives? A friendly woman at a Wyoming information center explains that this region contains more coal than anyplace else in the country, producing 40 percent of all that Americans consume. Little, old trains won't get it to where it's needed.
Thus educated, my wife and I are soon enjoying the company of my lately relocated sister, her husband and then her son, his wife, a blue-eyed baby named Brycen and not least, Patrick, the smartest 4-year-old grand nephew in the United States.
At various points during the visit, it's see-Gillette time, and on one drive my sister tells me how an unskilled worker can make $50,000 to $60,000 a year in the mining business, and I say, "Wow." On another drive as we approach a metallic, new-age rec center I say "Wow" again and then I repeat it inside: "Wow!"
I've been to rec centers hither and yon, but never before to 190,000 square feet of high-ceilinged architectural dazzle with a 42-foot climbing tower, a six-lane, 1,000-spectator running track, a pool for fun and working out, another for swimming laps, tennis courts, gyms -- there's much more, and it's incredible. I'm not poking fun. From what I am told, the facility has plenty of health-inducing use, though it sure enough also struck me as symbolizing exceptional prosperity.
During quick tours of Gillette, I bumped into multiple other examples of what it means to thrive. Growing from several thousand citizens in 1960, the city is ranked number two in economic strength of communities between 10,000 and 50,000. Coal mostly did the deed, its creation beginning 60 million years ago in what's now the Montana-Wyoming Powder River Basin. Swamp plants soaked up sun, died and became watery, mushy peat before ground pressure and other factors converted it into combustible black rock -- coal.
It happened to be low-sulfur coal, and in the 1970s, the government got tough on high-sulfur coal, helping the basin coal business to begin booming. Next thing you know, Wyoming was distributing 420 million tons a year, much of it heading East to generate electricity. That means 65 of those near-interminable trains take off daily to help keep our society humming.
At present use rates, there is said to be 200 years worth of black gold in them, thar plains, but it does not follow that the industry has a sure grip on the future. Part of the problem is market competition from natural gas. There's another related biggie.
While this coal is low in sulfur, all coal is high in carbon, and the government believes carbon is the root of all evil. It has therefore made it hugely expensive for utilities to burn while aiming to replace fossil-fuel jobs with so-called green jobs.
Wyoming coal firms are looking to anti-carbon technologies and exports to Asia for rescue, but the Environmental Protection Agency keeps issuing punitive regulations threatening to render the business an extinguished species. It's done in the name of halting global warming but will do no such thing in the absence of a meaningful international treaty unlikely to be achieved before the next ice age. Even the treaty would work only if you believe the alarmist talk.
While there is no imminent threat of the Gillette rec center becoming a state-of-the-art homeless shelter, city officials are wisely seeking to diversify the local economy, a task that would not be quite as pressing if the fevered federal government took a couple of aspirin and went to bed for a while.
(Jay Ambrose, formerly Washington director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard newspapers and the editor of dailies in El Pasoand Denver, is a columnist living in Colorado. He can be reached at SpeaktoJay(at)aol.com.)