Wyoming is undergoing a fundamental change in how our state is organized. Last month, the U.S. Census released its state level numbers, showing that Wyoming’s population growth rate was one of …
Wyoming is undergoing a fundamental change in how our state is organized. Last month, the U.S. Census released its state level numbers, showing that Wyoming’s population growth rate was one of the lowest in the country and far below our neighboring states. I noted that this was cause for concern, as failure to grow will leave Wyoming further and further behind, losing our population and economic opportunities to other states and risking further decline.
This month, the census released more data. The 2020 city and county level population estimates came out the Thursday before Memorial Day also tells us some interesting things about Wyoming. (Editor’s note: These so-called “vintage” estimates should not be confused with the actual Census counts for cities and counties, as that data is expcted to be released in September.)
Put simply, Wyoming is moving on two separate tracks. Areas with larger existing populations and economic activity that are not dependent on natural resources and agriculture are growing. Areas with economies based primarily on agriculture and natural resources are shrinking. If these trends continue, most of Wyoming’s population will soon be centered around a few population centers, while the rural areas of our state become less and less populated.
In the 2020 city and county level data, it showed that Wyoming’s modest growth is largely concentrated in a few areas. In fact, if you take out counties including Cheyenne, Laramie, Casper and the Jackson metro area (I include northern Lincoln County in the Jackson metro area), Wyoming actually lost population. In those four areas, the population grew 8.74%between 2010 and 2020 — about the same rate as the state of South Dakota.
In the rest of the state, the population actually declined by 0.79%. Of the 18 counties outside of those listed metro areas, only three had growth rates over 2%: Sheridan, Park, and Crook counties. Thirteen counties had negative growth rates, meaning they lost population, and Johnson County only grew by 19 people.
What does this tell us about Wyoming’s future? It tells us that Wyoming is not immune to national trends of increased urbanization. More people are moving to large metro areas and even though none of Wyoming’s cities could be classified as “large,” the migration from smaller to larger is evident here. This means that the future of Wyoming is likely to be less focused on the natural resource and agriculture-based communities and more focused on the more economically diversified communities and their interests.
This data also shows that population follows economic opportunity. The areas with the highest growth were the areas with the most diverse local economies. The other areas of the state that also had growth between around 4 and 7% percent — Crook, Park and Sheridan counties — all have economies that have significant tourism sectors. While this is oversimplifying the issue somewhat, it is a useful shorthand. The areas in Wyoming that have been least affected by loss of population, especially loss of those raised in Wyoming who choose not to live here as adults, are those that provide the most economic options to its population.
This should serve as yet another call to arms for our rural communities. If they are going to thrive in the future, they must look for economic diversification beyond our legacy industries. We must seek out businesses based on new technologies and new areas of the economy. With an increasingly interconnected world, and especially in the wake of adaptations from COVID-19, it is less important than ever that someone providing a service be in any particular location. Remote work may very well be the savior of small town Wyoming, but small communities must actively work to recruit new business and new industries.
To be clear, this article is not an attack on the agriculture or natural resource communities. They are a vital part of our economy — and our heritage — and they will remain that way for a long time. However, economic changes outside of our control mean that they are 1) not likely to be growth industries in the foreseeable future and 2) not likely to be able to support small town populations in the way they have in the past. Rather, to keep our small towns vibrant, we must add to the economic opportunity mix in these places.
I am not advocating that we turn Wyoming into Colorado or Utah or anyplace else. Wyoming must stay Wyoming, but if we do not adapt, small town Wyoming and “urban” Wyoming may have very different futures.
(Khale J. Lenhart is a partner at the law firm Hirst Applegate in Cheyenne, where he has practiced since 2011. He is a former chairman of the Laramie County Republican Party.)