There’s an economic debate we often have in this western Colorado valley, and it centers around our underground coal mines. How big a hit would our community take if the mines, which have been part of the landscape for a century and directly provide for some 800 people and their families, suddenly closed?
The debate is not merely hypothetical. The mines have
partially shut down in the past, most recently during the early
1980s. Locals still remember the shuttered storefronts, the
repossessed houses, the reduced number of kids in the schools. And
the coal mines undoubtedly will close for good someday: Even mine
officials acknowledge that they will tap the largest and
highest-quality coal seams in the next couple of decades.
But the economy of our valley has changed since the 1980s. New
people are pouring into the area, buying up land, building houses,
and sometimes starting businesses of their own. We still have a
county fair with a traditional demolition derby, rodeo and
livestock auction, but we also have a burgeoning wine club, a
sandal-manufacturing plant that employs 100 people, and a growing
number of nonprofits, several of which inhabit storefronts on
main-street Paonia (High Country News included).
We also have a natural gas industry that is poised to keep the
energy sector a strong player in our county.
So with each
passing year, the debate has swung more and more in favor of those
who believe the North Fork Valley will weather a downturn at the
mines just fine.
Not all communities are so lucky.
Pockets of the West are still spectacularly dependent on a single
industry, as writer Stephen Lyons discovers in this issue’s
cover story. And the industry that has perhaps engendered the
strongest dependency is the United States military. Unlike coal
mines or old-growth timber, the military has always seemed like a
renewable resource that would last forever. After all, the U.S.
will always need a strong national defense.
military, like other industries, is not static. Base closures and
realignments, done in the name of efficiency, military readiness
and savings, have become a regular and on-going phenomenon in our
region, despite the vigorous objections of individual communities.
The communities that have staked everything on the bases
will suffer the most, and those that lack charm, resources or
proximity to vibrant urban areas will recover the slowest. On the
other hand, the West has a long history of starting over. The
departure of the military is an opportunity for Westerners to wean
ourselves a bit from the federal trough, and to create new
economies that are indigenous and diverse.