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1841 - The future of news is spelled LOCAL

Is it possible that there are more than 100,000 news reporters in the state of Wyoming?

         That is a number I pulled out of the air while pondering the future of news reporting in the Cowboy State prior to participating in an intellectual freedom panel recently Tuesday with other journalists.

         As the senior member of the panel (I started writing news stories 56 years ago), I recalled writing a cover story for Presstime Magazine called “The Era of the Editor.”  In that story, I described how we live in crazy times of information overload and instant gratification.  In wild and unpredictable times like these, it has never been more important to identify quality editors who can cut through all the clutter and noise and help us find the truth about important news stories.  Sounds pretty good, right?

         I wrote that 33 years ago!

         Matthew Copeland of Lander thought the future of news might fall more often on the shoulders of reporters at non-profits like WyoFile, the company he heads.

         As Wyoming’s newsrooms continue to cut back both in quantity and quality of their staffs, independent outfits like WyoFile are becoming more prominent.  Copeland’s digital media platform played a prominent role in the political coverage of the most recent primary election, for example.

         Ernie Over of Pavillion thought the future was to focus on local news. During Ernie’s long career, he has been a newspaper editor, radio announcer and now works for County 10, a digital news platform based in Fremont County.

         Amanda Nicholoff is a media instructor at Central Wyoming College in Riverton and says she was pleased with the large number of students signing up for her courses – over 40.

         She said they were energized and well informed. She was confident of the future of news coverage based on this experience.

         The panel was organized by Shari Haskins as a way to recognize “Banned Books Week,” so our panel turned its attention to censorship and national media.

         Steve Peck is the publisher of the Riverton Ranger and he lamented that folks keep predicting the demise of newspapers.  He said the arrival of a new media system does not automatically mean its replacement of the entity previously providing the news.

         Moderator Holly Hendrix asked us if we had ever experienced censorship in our careers.

         Peck and I, as newspaper owners and publishers, admitted to being the administrators of censorship, rather than the victims of it. Peck said, as a proprietor, it is your obligation to be in charge of your reporters.  However, he could not recall a time when he censored his staff.

         I recalled a time many decades ago when tribal leaders asked me to quash some stories we were doing about suicides on the Indian Reservation because of the fear of copycats. I then toned down our coverage because I thought it was the decent thing to do, much to the chagrin of my over-zealous reporters.

         The panel talked a lot about what President Donald Trump calls “Fake News,” and we blamed much of it on the president himself, and also the increasing reliance of people to get their news from the internet and Facebook.

         As a group I think we were able to convince the audience there is a big line between national news and local news. Because local reporters know their sources (and their sources know them), it is mighty hard for local news outfits to get away with publishing or presenting news that is slanted or inaccurate. You will get called on it by someone.

         To me journalism will always be a noble calling and I have always been proud to call myself a “journalist.”  But in today’s world, just about everyone can pretend he or she is a journalist.

         The key, though, is something that was drilled into me from day one, which is that the three rules of journalism are accuracy, accuracy, accuracy. 

Also, when I started in this business the word I heard a lot was “objective.”  Then the word I heard a lot was “accurate.” And most recently, the word that I hear a lot is “fair.”

         Even amateur journalists can do a great service if they can remember these three words – objective – accurate – fair, when they write items to be posted on the internet, FaceBook or wherever.

         As the longest serving journalist on this panel the moderator asked me about the future of the media?  My conclusion is the key word for survival going forward is “Quality.”  Excellence will almost always prevail.

 

1840 - Three big boys and Matt Mead coincidences

One of the most interesting people in eastern Wyoming is Patsy Bixby Parkin of Wheatland.

         Not only is she a wonderful historian; she and her three sons should be in the Guinness Book of World Records.

         Some 40 years ago, Patsy gave birth to the heaviest triplets ever born in the entire world.  Well, here is how she recalls it:

 “I was just notified that Dave, Dan, and Donny hold the record for the heaviest triplet birth in the U.S. - 23 pounds, 4 ounces. As soon as they verify my records, the boys could be listed in Guinness Book of Records! Considering they were a total surprise and were born full-term in a normal birth, they really are a miracle now they`ll be famous!

“I know you`re probably tired of hearing about my kids, but this past weekend my son Donny pulled his girls around the yard in the little yellow Yamaha cart my dad put together for my kids 40 years ago. My good friendwell, everyone`s good friendCharlie Coleman wrote a poem for us when the boys were born and we used it on this tractor and cart when we had the kids in the fair parade. It said, ‘As every poker player knows, and every player`s wife, when you have a pair, then draw 3 of a kind, you have got a full house.’

“Well, my quest for the Guinness record for the biggest triplets might not make it. I spent all afternoon trying to figure out the complicated final application and when I finally hit the submit button, my Internet connection went down (again).  Also, they want the signature of the attending physician who has been dead for several years. My sons are now 40, after all, but still weighed more at birth than the current record holderswhich makes it even more amazing. So they may never show up in Guinness, but you and I will always know the truth about how special they are.”

And speaking of three of a kind, Gov. Matt Mead recently made a trip to San Diego and ran into three Wyoming natives in the oddest of places.

         Matt Mead has a Wyoming connection wherever he goes

         He was invited to visit the Aircraft Carrier Stennis in August. He drove to Denver and flew on Southwest Airlines. The captain of the plane invited him to the cockpit to look around. He was from Star Valley.

Later on the Navy carrier, Mead was able to take off and land, which was an amazing experience.  He went from 0-160 mph in less than two seconds.  Lots of G-forces.  He was only able to stay on the carrier for one night.  The sailor in charge of steering  the giant ship was a small woman, who really knew her stuff, according to Mead.

His pilot on that plane was a Naval Academy graduate from Jackson Hole.

On his Southwest flight back to Denver the co-pilot of the plane was from Cody. Those Wyomingites are everywhere!

         And that includes Hollywood, too.

         Dave Lerner operates a fine Internet Company in Cheyenne called Wyoming Network.com.  He recently shared with me some good news about his son Steve Lerner, a very talented screenwriter, who works in Hollywood.

         The team that created the super successful cable TV show The Americans has announced they are doing a pilot for a new TV show called Breckman Rodeo based on Steve Lerner’s scripts and characters.

         A news story in the showbiz bible Variety recently detailed that the team of Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields (who created The Americans) has teamed with Lerner for the new TV series.

The new show is about a high school rodeo team in Cheyenne.  “It will center on a character named Ashley, described as a rodeo-as-hell sparkplug who refused to stay within the lines that have been drawn for her, and her boyfriend Brant, a rodeo prodigy, torn between a content quiet life and the rocky climb to superstardom. Ashley, Brant and their friends will have to reconcile the traditional values of their sport and their upbringing with the changing realities of the 21st century,” according to the story in Variety.

Young Lerner concluded: “Growing up in Wyoming, I loved going to the rodeo. I’m excited to bring the stories and people of my hometown to the screen.”

Sounds like a great show about Wyoming and the West. It will join Longmire and Yellowstone as recent shows based on our part of the country.

 

1839 - Big windmills and big rivers on fall road trip

We often describe Wyoming’s four seasons as: Early Winter, Winter, Still Winter . . . and Construction.

         Yes, we are definitely in the construction season.

         As anyone who has traveled anywhere across the country recently knows, America is tearing up and repairing its highways.  We encountered an amazing amount of highway re-construction projects during a quick road trip from Wyoming to Nebraska to Iowa and Illinois earlier this month.

         As readers of this column know, Nancy and I love trips like this.  Here are a few highlights.

         I always love rivers, and this trip included crossing lots of them.  First was the Wind River at Boysen Reservoir, which is still running high late in the season.

         In Casper, the North Platte is such a classic river. We rolled down Interstate 25 and crossed this river again at Douglas, where again it was broad and powerful.

         Once in Nebraska, we caught up with the rainy weather that had bedeviled the Midwest in late August and early September. Interstate 80 was busy with semi-trailer trucks and lots of cars and non-stop construction.

         In Iowa, windmills are everywhere.  The Hawkeye State now gets 37 percent of its power from wind, which is the highest percentage of any state.

         Wyoming may be catching up soon in the number of windmills, though.  Kara Choquette of Rawlins reminded that the $5 billion Chokecherry and Sierra Madre project is coming along. The  $3 billion Trans West Express Transmission line will carry all that power.

         In the Omaha area and southwest Iowa, we caught the end of the torrential rains, which had drenched those areas and caused previous high temperatures to dip into the 60s. When we were packing for the Iowa trip, we figured on lots of shorts and tee shirts. We replaced those items with jeans and long sleeve shirts.

         I would highly recommend checking out the Omaha marina area if you get to that part of the country. The Bob Kerrey Walking Bridge is spectacular with a wonderful view of the Missouri River.

         We crossed Iowa amid amazing construction sites and found ourselves in Cedar Falls, a neat college town.

         We drove scenic Highway 3 from Cedar Falls to Dubuque – great views. Dubuque is Iowa’s oldest city and one of the most amazing small cities in the Midwest. Julien Dubuque founded this historic locale in 1788. It contains classic structures including two breweries, churches, big and unique bridges, and even an ancient shot tower.  A railroad bridge that swiveled to make room for big barges to pass through is located there on the Mississippi.

         One of my favorite sayings when enjoying a spectacular view with good company goes something like this: “there is nowhere on earth I would rather be than right here, right now.”

We were there on a magnificent fall day and as we sat along the River Walk along the Mighty Mississippi, I repeated to my brother Jim and his wife Laura this comment. It was just a spectacular moment. Not Yellowstone or the Tetons, but one heckuva of a pretty nice spot.

         Backbone Park, which was Iowa’s first state park is located an hour from my hometown of Wadena. It was closed because of the high rains. My sister Mary, who lives next to Backbone in Dundee, endured 12 inches of rain over a five-day span.  My brother Jim called the rain “biblical.” It was seemingly not related to Hurricane Florence but the timing was similar.

My hometown is located in a part of Iowa known as Little Switzerland. My brother John lives there. We went to the cemetery and visited the grave of my dad, Tom Sniffin Sr. Sure enjoyed John’s homegrown watermelon and fresh tomatoes for a late afternoon snack.

         Earlier we had stayed in Harlan, in western Iowa, with Nancy’s sister Patsy and her husband Roger.  This little town, where I worked for six years at the newspaper and met my wife, is the nice bustling little county seat of Shelby County. Nancy’s kid sister Tami, who is battling cancer, was in high spirits and doing well.

         Enroute home, we stopped in Omaha, to spend time with relatives at Big Fred’s, a famous pizza joint in the western part of the city.  Some of the best pizza ever!

         We traveled 2,000 miles through four states in seven quick days. Saw many loved ones and visited former stomping grounds. It was a wonderful time but it is sure good to be back home in Wyoming!

 

1838 - Is this Wyoming`s biggest project ever?

The announcement Wyoming would be seeing a $5 billion investment in the FE Warren Air Force Base in Cheyenne got me wondering:

         Is this the largest financial investment of any single project in the history of Wyoming?

         The number “five billion” takes my breath away. Not sure what the total value of all the homes are in the state or all the oil or all the coal, but billions would measure that.

         But it is always hard to compare military hardware with ordinary items.

         Some 40 years ago, we had a newspaper cartoonist who drew a cartoon showing a map of the United States with a bulls-eye located in Cheyenne.  This gave us an idea of where the Soviet Union was aiming its missiles.  It was assumed they wanted to cripple the ICBM (InterContinental Ballistic Missile) headquarters at the start of a nuclear war between the USA and the USSR. The message of that cartoon was that the rest of Wyomingites would bear a big brunt of that onslaught.

         Today, all those silos and those 400 missiles need a serious upgrade.  The current facilities are decades old and one news story claimed the crews still use floppy disks on ancient computers.

         Yes, it is time to re-boot and it looks like the number it will take involves ten digits at $5,000,000,000.

         Some time ago ExxonMobil spent $1 billion on the Shute Creek plant northeast of Kemmerer.  Supposedly it was built on a creek of a similar name – the creek name described the location a person would go when being in dire circumstances – but wiser heads suggested changing it to Shute Creek!

         What would our Interstate Highway System cost today?  Might be $5 billion based on recent contracts showing what it costs to re-build a mile of Interstate highway.

         The Buffalo Bill dam west of Cody was the biggest dam in the world when it was built in 1912. It was also the tallest and probably the most expensive. Would it be $5 billion in today’s dollars?

         What about the entire campus for the University of Wyoming  - would it cost $5 billion if you started from scratch?

         Some of our coal-fired power plants might have cost of a billion dollars in today’s money.

         Also those huge windmill farms plus the transmission lines are being mentioned as billion-dollar projects.

         Rob Black of Cheyenne reminded me that I missed probably the biggest project in our state’s history and the project that literally defined Wyoming. He writes:

         “How about the Union Pacific Railroad? Although only a portion crossed Wyoming, Congress in 1862 paid $32,000 per mile to the two companies building it, and the total length was 1,776 miles. Total cost would have been $56,832,000.

         “One online source just rounded it to $50 million. Based on an inflation calculator I found, that would be equivalent to $1.43 billion in today`s dollars. Not quite $5 billion. And Wyoming`s portion would be even smaller. If Wyoming is about 400 miles wide, then 400 divided by 1,776 = 22.5 percent. And 22.5 percent of $1.43 billion is a paltry $322 million.

         “Still, if you built the same railroad today, I`ll bet labor and materials would cost a lot more, plus environmental impact statements, taxes, lawyers, much higher overhead, etc. etc., maybe it would be close to $5 billion in Wyoming alone.”

         One of Tucker Fagan’s many careers was instructing President Ronald Reagan on the codes for the ICBM missile launchings. He knows this subject.

         But Cheyenne being the biggest missile target in the world? He begs to differ:

         “You are correct that a very large amount of Defense money is headed to replace the Minuteman ICBM system.  As for Cheyenne being a bulls-eye, my guess it is not.  Both sides now are limited to 1,550 warheads.  When you look at the vast target structure facing the Russians, a weapon focused on FE Warren is not likely because the message from the President to the missiles crews goes directly to the missile capsules.

         “Northrup Grumman and Boeing are honing their solutions to win the contract. I expect a lot of people moving to the southeast corner of the state and whichever company wins the contract will buy lots of material and supplies for the project.”

         For some perspective, that $5 billion earmarked for Cheyenne is a tiny fraction of the $140 billion planned by the military for an upgrade of all our ICBM facilities all over the world.

         So I guess we are glad Wyoming is getting its piece of this huge pie.  And yes, that cartoon showing Cheyenne as the bulls-eye is still very much applicable, but as Tucker explains, it would not be the only bull’s-eye in this modern world.  Some consolation, I guess.  

 

 

1837 - 30 years ago, Yellowstone was burning up

Looking out the airplane window, it was a hellish scene.  My Yellowstone, a place I have loved forever, was changing right before my eyes.  Fire was destroying it and I seriously wondered if it would ever be the same again.

         That was my exact thought as I piloted a small, single engine airplane over the vast expanse of Yellowstone National Park in the early fall of 1988 during the fires that year.

         Flying with me on that day was the late Larry Hastings, one of the best pilots and instructors in Wyoming history.  Also along and helping take photos was the late Mike McClure, a legend in his own right, as a premier photographer.

         Both men lived in Lander. We had been talking about making this flight for some time.

         It was my bright idea.  We had seen TV coverage of the fire but no one seemed to have a good aerial view.  I always want to figure out a way to take a big picture in the easiest way possible and flying over the park seemed the best plan.

         Hastings was aware of the altitude restrictions, which caused us to fly quite high as we soared over the world’s oldest national park while it was literally burning up.

         The view was impressive because as far as the eye could see was smoke.  It was unimpressive because it was almost impossible to make out landmarks.

         What was visible were a large number of hotspots where fire would shoot 300 feet in the air.  It was hot down there.  The park I loved was going to be changed forever.

         That event three decades ago was unprecedented in the history of the National Park Service.  There were contrasting programs of fire suppression and “controlled burns” in place, which caused the people responsible for the park’s existence to be incapable of dealing with the conflagration.

         The Park Superintendent was Bob Barbee, who became known as “Barbecue Bob.”

         Today we are again enduring smoky air and brilliant sky scenes   from California fires. Back in 1988, cities and towns in a wide circle around the park enjoyed the most colorful sunsets in history.  Here in Lander, which is a two-hour drive southeast from YNP, the evening views were unprecedented.  Like now, it was an awful time for folks with respiratory problems.

         Numbers do a good job of telling the Yellowstone Fire story.  It covered some 800,000 acres or over one third of the park. 

         Much like many mountain areas today in Wyoming, the park was overdue for a huge fire event.  Extremely dry conditions (drier than ever measured before) plus controlled burns plus accidents   plus mountain pine beetle tree kills plus lightning, well, the die was cast. Though hellish at the time, those fires improved the health of Yellowstone’s forests. Often, the West’s ecological health often depends on fire.

         Some 250 different fires ignited between June and September in the park and the surrounding national forests. Seven fires caused 95 percent of the damage. Fighting the fires in 1988 cost $120 million, which is $230 million in today’s dollars – almost a quarter of a billion dollars.

         Biggest fire was the North Fork fire, which was started July 22 by a cigarette dropped by a man cutting timber in the neighboring Targhee National Forest.

         Aug. 20 was dubbed Black Sunday as more than 150,000 acres were consumed in a single day. On that day, one of the biggest fires, called the Huck Fire, started when a tree fell on a power line near Flagg Ranch.  This fire burned in the John D. Rockefeller Jr. Memorial Parkway and then crossed into Yellowstone on Aug. 30.

         One of the most amazing scenes of this fire was when embers from it were sent airborne across the massive Lewis Lake by 80 mph winds, setting new fires on the other side of the lake. Firefighters were hopeful the lake would provide a natural firebreak. Alas it did not.

         This complex of fires burned 140,000 acres and was finally extinguished when some welcome snow and rains fell later that fall.

         It took valiant efforts by more than 13,000 firefighters, 120 helicopters and slurry bombers, plus National Guard and civilians. But to little avail.  Important structures like Old Faithful Inn and the Lake Hotel were saved but efforts to completely stop the fires proved to be impossible.

         Mother Nature wanted those fires to burn and they did until she was ready to put them out.

         On that day 30 years ago we were flying above a scene right out of Dante’s Inferno. I experienced a memory that I would like to forget yet will always recall.