Question: Who are the largest employers of petroleum engineers in the Uintah Basin?

Answer: Burger King, Pizza Hut and McDonalds. And you need a master's degree to get a job there.At least that's been the long-standing joke in the Uintah Basin since the bottom fell out of the oil industry in the early 1980s. That collapse pushed unemployment in the basin to 20 percent, left cities and counties holding the bag for millions of dollars in loans and created a potpourri of social and economic problems the region is still struggling to address.

But there's a hint things are starting to get better. "I think the bust is over," gushed Uintah County Commissioner Max Adams.

But not everyone shares the same optimism. Most, however, agree the future is brighter than it's been in more than a decade.

"Maybe the economy hasn't turned around just yet," said Vernal Mayor Leonard Heeney. "But people are feeling better. It's like when it's three below zero outside, you don't feel it as bad if the sun's shining. And the sun is shining in Vernal."

The Uintah Basin is familiar with economic downturns. Over the years, basin residents have watched roller coaster oil prices play havoc with the local economy, watched the once booming gilsonite industry go sour and watched as the livestock industry went belly up.

But the 1980s oil bust was a particularly hard pill to swallow. In the 1970s, the federal government encouraged local governments to build roads, water and sewer systems, housing projects, golf courses, schools and recreation facilities - all in anticipation of a huge petroleum boom that was to boost the basin population to more than 90,000 people.

That was in the days when federal officials were brimming with optimism over the development of tar sands and oil shales, as well as undeveloped oil and natural gas fields. Government optimism fueled unbridled speculation by the private sector.

"Then when (President Jimmy) Carter pulled the rug on the Synfuels Corp. all those dreams went down the tubes," said Ken Bassett, Vernal city manager.

The dreams are now nightmares for some. Vernal City alone borrowed $5 million for roads, sewer and other infrastructure, not counting the millions the state and federal government pumped into Central Utah Project water developments. Vernal still owes about $3 million on various loans.

"The infrastructure was built, but the people never came," Bassett said. In fact, there are almost 1,500 fewer people living in Vernal today than 10 years ago. Apartment complexes and condominiums built to handle the boom have never been occupied.

The bust brought a whole new agenda of problems. The police force was cut from 24 to 13 officers, yet crime did not decrease. Unemployment, child and spouse abuse, teenage pregnancy and an assortment of other social ills began appearing in unprecedented numbers. Dozens of businesses in the downtown business districts of Vernal and Roosevelt are still boarded up.

"All we could do is tighten our belts. There wasn't any other choice," Heeney said.

Belts are still tight, and officials are nervous about any talk of another boom. But they all optimistically point to the fact that oil service companies - the heart of the Uintah Basin oil industry - are once again hiring, and there is promising new explorations for natural gas. And with paychecks once again in the bank, local businesses are restocking shelves and painting store fronts.

"Our unemployment rate is now down to about the state level, property values are creeping back up, vacancy rates are down, and people are spending money again," smiled County Commissioner Lorrin F. Merrell.

For example, unemployment in Duchesne County is down to about 5.1 percent, compared to 19 percent to 20 percent during the worst years of the bust. It's down to 4.4 percent in Uintah County.

And population in both counties is up over what it was 10 years ago, by almost 10 percent in Uintah County.

"You see more service trucks on the road, more activity on the streets. Of course, that's an unofficial windshield survey."said David Baum, human resources manager for Pennzoil in Roosevelt. "I can't predict the future, but my gut tells me things are going to stay good for awhile."

That kind of positive attitude prevails throughout the basin. For example, there are plans to build a huge new pipeline from the Vernal area to pipelines in Wyoming. Maximum capacity for the new pipeline has already been sold and the pipeline hasn't even been built yet.

There are plans for 150 new natural gas wells this year, and at least another 100 next year. Basin-wide, an estimated $40 million has been spent bringing old wells back into production, and Pennzoil alone has spent $6 million on "reworks."

And each rework means more jobs. "Thousands of people left when things turned sour. Now they are coming back," said Kent Stringham, a member of the state's Board of Oil, Gas and Mining.

Most of the renewed activity is the direct result of two different tax incentives, one passed by the Utah Legislature that offers state tax credits to companies who reopen or improve the production of existing wells, and another passed by Congress to boost natural gas production in "tight sands" like those in Utah.

Almost all of the renewed activity in the Uintah Basin are in those two areas. Virtually no new oil wells are being drilled, and nothing is being done to develop tar sands or oil shale.

Tomorrow: While much of the Uintah Basin is poised for economic recovery, political turmoil on the Uintah-Ouray Indian Reservation has stagnated oil and gas development there.