It takes an hour for a commuter propjet to cover the 230 miles of desolate salt flats and sagebrush between Salt Lake City, Utah, and Elko, Nev. By the time passengers glimpse the alpine meadows and snowfields of the Ruby Mountains just east of Elko, the aircraft is already making a bumpy descent toward an airport that seems to be in the middle of nowhere.
once on the ground, visitors quickly find that Elko, despite its
remote location in the wide-open Great Basin country of
northeastern Nevada, is hardly a cow town. An impressive, new
airport terminal that hosts 20 commercial flights daily, a busy
city center, a new regional hospital and a sprawl of motels,
restaurants and malls leave no doubt that something big is driving
the local economy.
That something is gold
Elko is just 20 miles east of the Carlin trend, a
40-mile long geological area rich in deposits of microscopic gold
that is the world's third most productive gold-mining region. Each
year, Carlin trend mines produce some 4 million troy ounces of gold
worth $1.3 billion. With several thousand highly paid employees of
major mining and mining-service companies cashing their paychecks
in Elko, gold mining supports the lion’s share of the humming
For more than a century, Elko survived
mainly on ranching. But things changed abruptly in the early 1980s
when Carlin-trend gold discoveries, high gold prices, and
innovative, cost-reducing mining technologies combined to create a
gold-mining boom. For the West’s working miners, the timing
was perfect. As uranium, copper, molybdenum, and silver prices
collapsed and many mines began closing, miners in Colorado,
Montana, and New Mexico put busted mining towns in their rearview
mirrors and headed for Elko.
As its population doubled
rapidly to 18,000, Elko worked hard to provide the services
demanded by explosive growth. Then, when mine employment and
construction leveled off in the 1990s, Elko settled back to enjoy
the good times.
Historically, mining towns have given
little thought to the day when metal prices would crash or the ore
would run out. When that inevitably happened, miners simply moved
on to other mining towns, leaving those who stayed behind with
broken economies and desperate, unrealistic hopes that their local
chambers of commerce could somehow manage a miraculous economic
Assuming that gold prices remain reasonably
strong, Elko’s gold-mining economy probably has a good 10,
maybe even 20 years left, so it shouldn’t be concerned about
its future just yet.
Yet, admirably, Elko is concerned.
After peaking in 1997, Carlin trend gold production has since
declined slightly, but not nearly enough to slow the local economy.
Nevertheless, in 1998, Elko hired Ralph McMullan, a proven tourism
developer, to head its Convention and Visitors Authority. Back in
the 1970s, McMullan transformed Jackson Hole, Wyo., from a gas stop
on the drive to Yellowstone to a world-class destination resort. He
believes Elko can achieve similar results.
we’re doing in Elko is preparing for life after mining,"
McMullan says. "History tells us that we can’t wait for the
mines to close, that we have to be ready before they close.
"Our big resources here are accessibility and space," he
continues. "We’re surrounded by millions of acres of public
lands with unlimited outdoor recreational potential, and
we’ve got a fine airport and a location right on I-80.
That’s everything we need to interest people and to bring
them here. Elko’s future lies in building a strong tourism
economy, and building it now."
Elko is already attracting
tourism with casino gambling and events like its Basque Festival,
which celebrates local Basque culture, and its internationally
acclaimed National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, which together draw
more than 10,000 visitors each year. Meanwhile, as the town commits
$1.5 million annually to promoting tourism, the Elko County
Economic Diversification Authority is busily promoting industrial
The mining community itself is even
involved, something that has not happened in other mining towns.
Why? Because while gold mining at Elko has boomed, western metal
mining elsewhere has all but died, leaving Elko's miners with no
place to go when their own mines eventually close. So the miners
who help to build Elko’s future are also working for their
No other western mining boomtown has ever
made this great an effort so early to prepare for the inevitable
bust. Elko’s timely quest to assure life after mining may
make it not only the last boomtown, but the last and smartest