In 1982, the recession found a home on the range.
After cruising prosperously through 1980 and 1981 -- while most of the country was sinking into economic doldrums -- the Rocky Mountain and Plains states last year found that they, too, are vulnerable to hard times.
Although the downturn has not hit as hard here as in some other areas -- the region's highest unemployment rate, in Montana, is 9.4 percent, below the national average -- there is no question that the bloom is off the boom. Almost every sector of the economy here is in poor health; the energy business, once viewed as the West's economic savior, is on the critical list.
The recession's arrival in a part of the country that had considered itself immune has dealt a blow to the region's self-esteem as well as its pocketbook.
The concept of independence, of self-reliance, is vitally important here. Colorado Gov. Richard Lamm wrote a book -- "The Angry West" -- on the subject last year, complaining that the area has been "exploited" and "ripped off" by the federal government.
Today, the anchor of the region's economy -- the only really stable business -- is the federal government. Without the enormous presence of civilian agencies and stepped-up spending by the military, analysts here note, the area's encounter with recession would have a much sharper sting.
"Government is always an important component of the economic scene in the region," says Marvin Duncan, a vice president at the Federal Reserve Bank in Kansas City. He points out that the federal government is by far the largest single employer and landowner in the Plains and the Rockies. "But now it is even more important because the other anchors of the economy -- agriculture, energy, recreation -- have flattened out," he says.
The recession also apparently has punctured the belief here that this part of the country could prosper regardless of what happened elsewhere. "There was a sense," observes Lucy Creighton, corporate economist at Intrawest Financial Corp., a big Denver-based bank holding company, "that we were insulated. That's why you saw this great office building boom in downtown Denver when the rest of the country was falling into trouble.
"Now it is clear we are very dependent on national economic developments. We are not going to see improvement here until consumer demand begins to come back nationally."
The economic crunch has been a devastating shock to hundreds, perhaps thousands of people from the East and Midwest who have swarmed into "boom towns," such as Denver, Salt Lake City and Cheyenne, Wyo., hoping to find jobs.
Instead, the economic migrants have found that major employers are doing more firing than hiring.
Energy analysts estimate that up to 10,000 jobs were lost in the region's oil patch last year. Mountain Bell, the area's largest private employer, reduced its payroll from 53,000 to 49,500 in 1982 and expects to cut another 3,000 jobs this year, according to spokesman Ted Sandquist.
Even Coors beer had to lay off 11 percent of its work force last fall and forego plans for a new brewery in rural Virginia. The impact of all this shows up vividly in unemployment statistics. Every state in the region experienced a sharp jump in jobless rates last year.
Agriculture traditionally has been the dominant business in the Plains and Rocky Mountain states, and in that sector the recession hit even before 1982. But the overall economic picture remained rosy, explains Duncan of the Federal Reserve, because "most of these states -- the mountain states, western Kansas, the Dakotas -- were riding the energy boom."
"In 1982, that boom clearly went bust," he says. "The general recession bit into demand for coal. Oil prices and demand just went flat."
The most dramatic evidence of the energy bust was the virtual demise of the oil shale business. "Eighteen months ago, there were four or five [shale] projects starting up," notes Creighton, of Intrawest. "Now there's only one left, and it's the smallest."
The biggest blow came on May 2, when Exxon Corp. stunned the industry by shutting down its $5 billion Colony Oil Shale Project. That decision -- chosen as the biggest news story of 1982 by editors here -- terminated 2,100 jobs overnight.
A visitor to the Colony site today sees only a vast spread of rusting pipe and vacant buildings on a bleak, rocky stretch of desert. The shutdown has left a bitter aftertaste in the nearest town, Parachute, Colo., which had expected a grand business boom. "Jesus came to Parachute," reads a popular local bumper sticker. "And Exxon laid Him off."
There is still one shale project -- rum by Union Oil -- but it is a testament mainly to government. Union is going ahead because the federal government has agreed to buy its oil at a price that will assure profits, a price that will almost certainly be far higher than the price of regular crude.
Tourism has been another key aspect of commerce here, but that business is particularly sensitive to shifts in the general economy.
"In most places, numbers of visitors have been as good as ever," notes Duncan. "But spending per visitor is going down... So you don't see the kind of dollar growth that the recreation industry had been used to."
Several states in this region had hoped to broaden their economic bases by bringing in manufacturing operations. Development officials prepared blueprints of a major new high-tech corridor (to be called "Silicon Mountain") along the foothills from Colorado Springs to Cheyenne. Those ambitious ideas were shortcircuited by a slowdown in growth of the electronics business.
The only major sector that held its own in 1982 was the federal government. There are more than 150,000 federal civilian employes in the region, according to the Office of Personnel Management -- 35,000 of them in the sprawling complex known as Federal Triangle West on Denver's Federal Boulevard. Including military personnel, the government provides jobs for well over a quarter of a million people in the region.
In places like Calvert County, N.D., a broad expanse of prairie dotted with missile silos ("If Calvert County were to secede from the union," reported the local newspaper, "it would be the world's third greates nuclear power"), military payrolls and purchasing have helped make up for agricultural losses.
That is one reason people around Sheridan, Wyo., were agreeable when President Reagan decided to put the MX missile there.
It is a hard pill to swallow for people who love to boast of their independence, but the future here will probably depend largely on what happens elsewhere. "This region will follow the general economy out of the recession," Duncan predicts. "Until there are higher levels of [economic] activity on the national and world stage, the economy of our area will stay where it is -- weak and flat."