Hope in coal country

Gillette, Wyo., the self-proclaimed energy capital of the nation, fell on hard times as coal mines laid off workers. But residents are confident their fortunes will improve under President Trump.

A pair of coal trains travel through Gillette, Wyoming.
(Image credit: AP Photo/Matthew Brown, File)

The resurrected feeling of American possibility came not from pontificating TV pundits or a radio host in a studio miles away. Optimism arrived here in Gillette, Wyo., because of what people were seeing: the unemployment lines getting shorter and their daily commutes getting longer.

Tom Gorton, 41, drove through those increasingly congested streets in his Arnold Machinery truck late on a spring afternoon, under the watch of mountains covered in white from a spring snowstorm. As Gorton settled behind his desk, he was heartened to see how messy it was with orders, one year after hundreds of layoffs at two nearby coal mines cost him his job and delivered a gut punch to a county that produces more than a third of the nation's energy supply.

In another room at Arnold's, branch manager Adam Coleman fixed his eyes on statistics tracking economic trends. Electricity had flatlined, and to Coleman, this was good news.

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"I can't put fully into words this feeling I'm feeling, but it is much better," Coleman said. "I believe the economy as a whole is going to recover and when it does, electrical use will increase. It's not going down, so that's a good thing. We'll be back."

In Gillette and nearby Campbell County, people were beginning to feel the comeback they voted for. Unemployment has dropped by more than a third since March 2016, from 8.9 percent to 5.1 percent. Coal companies are rehiring workers, if only on contract or for temporary jobs. More people are splurging for birthday parties at the Prime Rib and buying a second scoop at the Ice Cream Cafe.

Maybe it was President Donald Trump. Much was surely because of the market. But in times when corporate profits are mixed with politics, it was difficult for people here to see the difference.

"I'm back to work," Gorton said. "It's real. Did Trump do it all? I don't think so. But America voted in a man who was for our jobs."

In a divided nation, optimism had bloomed here, in a part of the country united in purpose and in support of the president. Close to 90 percent voted for the same presidential candidate, and 94 percent of the population is the same race. And everyone has some connection to the same industry. They felt optimistic about the tangible effects of the Trump economy, which favors fossil fuels, and the theoretical ones, which favor how they see themselves. Once on the fringes, their jobs had become the centerpiece of Trump's American mythology.

"I happen to love the coal miners," Trump said last week, in announcing U.S. withdrawal from the Paris climate accord. Trump said he backed out of the global agreement, in part, because it "doesn't eliminate coal jobs. It just transfers those jobs … to foreign countries."

Even so, Trump's decision on Paris wasn't what many here wanted, because they felt it was better for the U.S. to be part of an agreement that so directly impacts their livelihoods.

"Given that several of the coal companies in the Powder River Basin have expressed their desire for the U.S. to stay in the accord," Gillette Mayor Louise Carter-King said, "it would be prudent to heed the wishes of the industries to be most affected by the accord."

At least, though, they had a president who was trying to protect their jobs.

When the mines laid off workers in March 2016, the city spiraled down into a period of job- and soul-searching. Environmentalists on the coasts had long derided their type of work as toxic. Democrats, led by presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, declared their jobs passé. Gillette had coal, oil, and gas, but so much attention was placed on wind and solar power and turning miners into computer programmers. In an increasingly interwoven country, residents grappled with whether there was still a place in America for their kind of community — even if it kept the lights on.

"We once powered the nation," Gorton said. "But you got the feeling that things are not quite the same and that political forces are encroaching on your livelihood. It's like they are willing to take away your town."

Now the fear of what might be taken away was carried by someone else. There was another side of this American story, a tenser and more terrifying one, in which immigrant families worried about deportation raids, and liberals marched with witty placards to protest the "war on science."

Far beyond the borders of this isolated town, many Americans were gripped by the latest evidence of the president's coziness with the Russians, and wondered why the white working and middle classes hadn't abandoned their increasingly unpopular president. In that America, the early optimism about Trump was fading. A Quinnipiac poll released last month noted that 52 percent of Americans were pessimistic about the country's direction, 20 percent higher than when Trump was inaugurated.

Gorton found it difficult to reconcile those two polarized feelings; it seemed that either you had to believe in the country's pending prosperity or in its impending doom.

"I know there are people who are scared about where the country is headed, but before, I was scared," Gorton said. "Either they're dreaming, or I'm dreaming."

There was a time when residents here were thankful for big government. In the 1970s, as the federal government stiffened environmental regulations, energy companies looked westward in search of cleaner coal. They found it here in the Powder River Basin, a prairie soaring 4,500 feet above sea level, where coal lingered just below the surface. It created less energy than the coal of Appalachia, but it also emitted less carbon dioxide and sulfur. There was oil and gas, too, and a place whose best-known landmark was a pile of rocks turned into an American boomtown.

Strip malls and highways and schools and a Rockpile Museum were built, and over time the population swelled from a few thousand to 30,000. In 2016, the median income in mining was about $78,000.

The problem with being a one-industry town is that the economy lives and dies on how the market performs. During the oil crisis of the 1980s, Gorton recalled, he walked into school one day and saw that half his class was missing. "It's just how it was," Gorton said. "But by next year, the classes were filled back up again."

Carter-King said the city didn't despair in those down times because the market was cyclical. If oil and gas production was down, that would generally mean companies were buying coal. If coal prices were too low, jobs in oil and gas provided some relief.

The last great boom came with the advent of fracking in the mid-2000s. Although most of the country reeled from a recession, officials in Gillette were recruiting workers from job-starved Michigan. Developers carved out subdivisions on the southern end of the city. The county and school district built a gleaming, elaborate recreation center, complete with indoor tennis courts, modern gym equipment, and a 42-foot rock-climbing wall in the shape of nearby Devil's Tower, a national monument.

So confident was the city in its growth that officials spent $2.5 million to purchase 320 acres of barren land from the state. Leaders encouraged residents to think beyond their wildest imaginations about what could be done with it. They built four softball fields and drafted plans for a water park. They nicknamed the place the "Field of Dreams."

Yet it seemed the federal government had another vision, Carter-King said. In January 2016, President Barack Obama issued a moratorium on leasing federal lands for coal exploration that was a direct hit to Gillette, where most mining was done on federal land. The environmental regulations that had helped propel the industry were now stifling it.

Carter-King said Obama's antipathy toward fossil fuels stripped the city of the ability to develop more environmentally friendly ways to burn coal, prevented leaders from researching different uses for the material, and complicated efforts to export the city's prized possession to China and other fast-growing markets.

Then came a warm winter, which led to less need for fuel. "I've never seen low oil and gas prices and low coal prices all at once," she said. "And then we had a president who didn't want to help us. It was a perfect storm for things to get downright depressing."

By all accounts, it did. After the warm winter, Arch Coal and Peabody Energy laid off close to 500 people in two of the area's 12 mines, in March 2016. Coal production dropped by 34 percent during the first half of 2016, according to state data and news reports, and the state lost nearly $300 million in tax revenue.

This downturn didn't seem like the ones they once knew. It felt intentional, political, personal — from people who they thought didn't understand them. Many seethed at "the environmentalists."

"I love to fish, hike, and hunt," Gorton said. "Why would I work in an industry that would hurt my family? I try to avoid the politics and look at the facts. And the facts are my sky is blue and my water is clean."

Two months after the layoffs, more than 400 houses were placed on the market and about 500 children left the local school district. Residents started spending less, and the city's sales tax revenue plummeted 40 percent. Nearly one in 10 people were unemployed. The city cut 10 percent of its staff, and plans for the water park were indefinitely tabled. There would be no more development on the Field of Dreams.

Five months after Gorton returned to work, he was sitting at Pizza Carrello with his co-workers and boss. "A round of jalapeño poppers!" Coleman demanded as the place buzzed. Coleman was feeling bullish, and told his staff that the numbers looked good and more hiring was on the horizon.

"Even Hillary couldn't have changed this short-term," he said, noting that coal prices were up again after a colder winter. But the new administration was also giving firms more confidence to invest in coal, he said. "Long-term, Trump will be the difference."

The restaurant's co-owner, Ariane Jimison, came to greet him. She moved here from small-town Montana and achieved her dream of opening a restaurant. In 2014, she and her co-owner Rachel Kalenberg became the first same-sex couple in the county to get a marriage license. They were nervous about how a conservative city would respond to them and their business.

Her customers responded by heading to the restaurant armed with cards and balloons. That was the Gillette she loved. Now she worried that, with its revival, it may be fading.

As Trump rose to the presidency, Jimison said, more customers mocked her sexual orientation. Someone recently etched "Bull Dike Queers" in one of the restaurant's tables. She wondered whether Trump's rhetoric excavated a hate that lingered as close to the surface as the coal.

"You have so much support here," Coleman told her. "No one here cares if you're LGBT, or a woman — I mean, person — owning a business. And everyone is more positive now that things are better."

"But there are people still hurting," Jimison said. One of them was the man pouring their beer. He made $39 an hour as a land surveyor, if only someone needed his services. A local furniture shop and clothing store were closing downtown, and the city had lost a Sears and a Sports Authority.

In Gillette, the new American optimism was tenuous and shaky. It was bedrocked on that age-old patriotism, preached by its leaders, that it is never a good idea to bet against the ingenuity of the American intellect or the industriousness of the American worker.

Gorton considered himself one of those industrious workers. When he was laid off, he thought about brewing beer or learning a trade or even moving out of state. But that seemed like he was betting against himself.

"What choice do we have but to be optimistic?" Gorton said, almost embarrassed to invoke the president's trademarked phrase. "I just have to believe that Gillette will be great again."

Excerpted from an article that originally appeared in The Washington Post. Reprinted with permission.

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