A path to an unexpected place


What will happen to Paonia, Colo., when our three coal mines close? That's a question almost everyone in this rural valley has asked at one time or another. But ever since the Elk Creek Mine, which is owned by billionaire Bill Koch, laid off more than 300 employees last year, our musings have taken on new urgency. Rumor has it that a second mine is also struggling, unable to secure long-term contracts from utilities that are shifting increasingly to natural gas for power production.

At a somber community forum in February, miners spoke of having to leave the valley and perhaps even move to Mexico or Australia, to find comparably paid mining jobs. The public school superintendent noted that student enrollment, already on a downward trend, will drop further as mining families move out, forcing more teacher layoffs and fewer extracurricular activities.

No matter how green their leanings, most of my neighbors have come to appreciate the economic and cultural diversity the mines have brought to our valley for the past century; they don't want to see a mass exodus that could depress the area for years. At the same time, the mine closure has forced us to realize that change is inevitable, and that we'd better start planning now if we don't want our fate to be determined solely by outside forces. The communities that adapt best, as HCN senior editor Jonathan Thompson points out in his cover story on another struggling Western town, are those that find creative ideas in unexpected places.

For Gallup, N.M., an old coal-mining town in the heart of Indian Country, that unexpected place is the surrounding public and private land, home to a growing network of outstanding mountain bike trails. Over the past decade, a savvy group of local leaders has begun promoting the town of 20,000 as an up-and-coming adventure tourism destination. And though Gallup may never become the next Moab, Utah, its new hotels and businesses  – even a bike park built on a derelict industrial site – provide evidence that the town has found a new path.

Gallup's greatest challenge, however, is not just to fill a few more hotel rooms, but to use its nascent recreation economy to benefit the entire community. To do so, the town must bridge the deep cultural and economic gap between local Native Americans and the mostly Anglo biking community. The recreation revolutionaries are working hard on this: As one bike race promoter told Thompson, they see the bike "as an agent of change."

At Paonia's community forum, officials and volunteers talked about job-retraining programs, state grants to boost existing businesses, saving the downtown theater and bringing broadband to our valley. No one knows what we'll be when the coal era ends, but like Gallup, we're determined to create a future, not just inherit one.

Julie Heins
Julie Heins Subscriber
Jun 23, 2014 03:03 PM
I've just joined the ranks of subscribers of HCN. All the writers, editors and designers I know here in Boulder, CO refer to your magazine as the best voice for the environment in Colorado and west. It's easy to see why; the writing and editing is high quality. My adult son has recently gone back to school to study environmental science with an emphasis in hydrology. I can see he'll benefit from my subscription.

Your editorial about Paonia and the difficult changes it is facing really wrenches my heart. Those kinds of changes are particularly difficult given the political underpinnings and families leaving the home they've know for at least decades if not generations. I wish you all courage as you face your challenges, and vision as you face an uncertain future.

Gallup, NM is not the only town to reinvent itself. Take a look at Jerome, AZ; there's a new book out, "Home Sweet Jerome" by Diane Sward Rapaport that tells the story of this nearly dead copper mining town that reinvented itself and is now a thriving community. Great read and inspirational for towns that find themselves on the same treacherous path.