National Geographic : 1981 Feb 28
ESTION: Why do the ranchers here go around in tennis shoes? Answer: So you can tell them apart from all the coal miners wearing cowboy boots. This cynical explanation for the profusion of fancy tooled leather boots and other cow boy gear in Gillette, in the heart of Wyo ming's Powder River Basin, reflects a revolution. Gillette, once a cattle-loading stop on the Burlington Northern railroad, is now a steamed-up energy boomtown, rapidly shedding its cow-town past. But out in the lonely reaches along the Powder River, ranchers are trying to hold to old ways and values in spite of stunning change. On his 11,000-acre ranch, shirt off but with sweat-stained cowboy hat on the back of his head, Ed Swartz tugged, pulled, and finally yanked a calf into the world. "We were touch and go there for a min ute," he said over his shoulder, as the calf lay panting next to its mother on the barn floor. "He's an awful big critter to squeeze out of such a little heifer." It had been several years since I last saw Ed, a 39-year-old, third-generation cow boy. At first glance not much had changed. Other heifers, swollen with their first calves, watched from their pen. But the peaceful ness of Ed's ranch, with its tiny drama of new life, made a sharp contrast with the larger drama taking place around us. After a century of comfortable isolation, walled off by the Bighorn Mountains on one side and the Black Hills on the other, the rumpled, lonely plains of the basin's cattle country have been caught up in a massive energy boom. A dozen strip mines gape new and raw against prairie dusted blue with flowering lupine. A mile-long coal train cuts through grassland where no track existed two years before. Once sleepy ranch towns swell with thousands of miners, construc tion workers, railroaders. And more, much more, to come. Another 20 coal mines are planned, waiting for the call for more coal from Chicago, Houston, Tokyo. Slurry pipelines may use billions of gallons of precious basin water to carry that coal south and west. Half a dozen billion dollar synthetic-fuel plants may rise to con vert Powder River coal to oil and gas. All this is about to transfigure a land as "Nothing to do there" and three days of rainsend Chuck Voglewede out ofGillette, Wyoming, capital of the coal boom. On a ride that had begun in Los Angeles, he worked spring roundups,got his dog G. L.