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Route 50 ‘Roadmap’ series examines boom and bust economies on Colorado’s Western Slope

March 24, 2015, 9:04 am

Uravan, Colo., towards the end of the EPA Superfund clean-up process in 1994 (Mathew Stephen photo).

Over the past seven years, for a variety of online and print publications, I’ve covered the energy industry on Colorado’s Western Slope, especially where it intersects with public land management, politics, the environment and outdoor recreation.

There are some in the conservation community who feel a more sustainable economy based on tourism, outdoor sports and real estate development cannot coexist with the state’s boom-and-bust extractive industries such as mining, oil and gas drilling, logging and agriculture.

Of course, these industries have coexisted for many years, but conflict between the various sectors is becoming more intense as a growing number of people discover the diversity, lifestyle and climate of Colorado’s Western Slope.

There are some proponents of the so-called extractive industries who resent the rising chorus of opposition from increasingly progressive pockets of residents in resort areas. Then there’s the reality of people just trying to make a living somewhere in between on the ideological scale.

Boom-and-bust energy, agriculture, logging and mining towns such as Rifle, Delta and Montrose are now looking to attract more permanent residents with infrastructure such as broadband Internet, whitewater parks, trails, open space and more retail and restaurant options.

That’s the focus of a story I wrote recently for Atlantic Media’s Route 50 channel, which is an expansion and rebranding of Government Executive State & Local. That site within a site was launched last summer under the umbrella of Government Executive Magazine – a go-to source for federal managers for nearly 50 years. Route 50 is launching this spring with a cross-country, multi-week article series called “The Roadmap”, and my story is the second installment.

Montrose Mayor Bob Nicholson told me new jobs from a proposed uranium mill in the west end of Montrose County would have been nice, but that mill never materialized in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011 and the ensuing drop in uranium prices.

Nicholson said most Montrose residents were somewhat neutral on the uranium mill proposal 70 miles west of town, but overwhelmingly supported a municipal broadband network in a vote last spring. Many of the well-heeled residents of neighboring San Miguel County – home to Telluride ski area – had zero interest in more uranium mining and processing,

“There were a group of folks in Telluride who were definitely opposed to [the mill], and for the life of me I’m not sure I could get on that bus,” Nicholson said. “My wife and I travel around the country in a motorhome, but we have not found a conflict really in existence between recreation and extraction industries.”

In 2009, when I was writing regularly for the Colorado Independent, I covered some of the Montrose County hearings for the proposed Piñon Ridge Mill – interviewing activist and actress Daryl Hannah, a San Miguel County resident.

“The earth doesn’t know about these sorts of lines that we draw,” Hannah said. “These boundaries and these borders are manmade, but the air and the water and the soil and the wildlife don’t really recognize those boundaries.”

But Brad Harding, a fifth-generation member of a coal-mining family in Delta — just up Route 50 from Montrose — said there are very clear economic lines being drawn between resort and non-resort areas on the Western Slope, and the great equalizer can be broadband.

“We’ve been dependent here in Delta County on mineral extraction and extraction industries in general for a long, long time,” said Harding, president of both a local bank and economic development council. “We’ve got to bring in things that allow us to have a level playing field with the rest of the world, and at the top of that is broadband.”

The coal mines to the east of Delta have seen sweeping job cuts in recent months, and Harding knows his town needs to offset those losses. A former banker in Aspen, he’s keenly aware of the disparity in wealth between the agrarian and coal-mining lifestyle in Delta and the service-oriented, tourism and real estate economy in Aspen.

As recently as 2012 I wrote about a new energy project where those two seemingly disparate worlds came together when the Aspen Skiing Company, owned by the Obama-backing Crown family, partnered with Bill Koch, owner of Oxbow Mining and the local Elk Creek coal mine.

The project captures coal-mine methane and converts it to electricity instead of simply venting it into the atmosphere and further contributing to global climate change through heat-trapping greenhouse gas emissions.

“I really do not believe in manmade climate change because I believe man is giving himself too damn much credit,” Elk Creek Mine President Jim Cooper told me at the time. “I’m thankful every morning that I walk out on my porch in [nearby] Paonia that I’m not faced with a saber-toothed tiger.” But he acknowledged the feel-good value of the project.

“We put a lot of money into it, and I told Bill Koch this, ‘If Oxbow Mining doesn’t get anything but some PR out of this, it may be worth it to me,’” Cooper added. “We took something that has very negative public views to it and now it’s something that’s useable.”

That’s the kind of innovation Route 50 is interested in, from both a public and private-sector point of view, and while the state and federal political arenas will continue to be polarized on how best to extract energy resources in the West, towns and counties on the Western Slope will struggle to find more practical solutions to stabilize local economies.

The last section of my “Roadmap” story focuses on Rifle, a gas-boom town in Garfield County, where drilling has been king for a long time. Rifle is trying to transform itself by better connecting to the Colorado River, revamping its downtown core and diversifying its retail and economic offerings. It will be a an uphill battle, but it’s clearly a fight worth fighting as gas prices plummet and drilling activity wanes dramatically.

Click here to sign up for Route 50’s “Roadmap” series.

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David O. Williams

Managing Editor at RealVail
David O. Williams is an award-winning energy, environmental, political, entertainment, outdoor and sports writer based in the Vail Valley. His work has appeared in publications such as The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Denver Post, LA Weekly,, SKI Magazine, Powder and People Magazine. He also regularly contributes to The Colorado Statesman and Atlantic Media's

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