Boom and bust, military style

  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.

But the 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.