Boom! Boom!

In western Colorado, an energy boom of unprecedented proportions has been layered on top of a thriving amenity economy. Which will come out on top?

  • Rush hour traffic in Glenwood Springs, Colorado, where workers pass through on their way home from resort towns like Aspen to down-valley bedroom communities. ED KOSMICKI

  • Gas wells and their supporting truck traffic have boomed along the scenic Colorado River in Garfield County, Colorado, where more than 2,500 gas well permits were issued last year. ED KOSMICKI

  • In Rifle, Colorado, the average home now goes for $350,000. ED KOSMICKI

  • Barber Mike Wood has held on through Rifle's ups and downs. FRANCISCO THARP

  • The East Fork of Parachute Creek - home to rare plants and animals and one of Colorado's tallest waterfalls - runs through the 70,000-acre Roan Plateau in the heart of oil shale and gas country. Despite strong public opposition to drilling on the top of the scenic plateau, the BLM has released plans to allow 193 well pads there in the next 20 years. COURTESY COLORADO ENVIRONMENTAL COALITION

 

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Rifle and its neighbors - towns like Parachute to the west and Glenwood Springs to the east - also became popular places for people to retire, with their easy access to public lands, hot springs and downhill skiing. Darla Dean was one of these amenity migrants, moving to Glenwood Springs from Austin, Texas, in 1996. She soon found herself drawn to Rifle's even more rural atmosphere. She would head down valley for dancing and small-town nightlife, the kind that sometimes featured someone getting drunk and riding a horse into the bar. "It was like stepping back in time. The town was Old West, quaint, like it hadn't changed in 100 years," she says. Dean moved to Rifle three years ago and started her own business detailing cars, becoming part of the region's slow but steady rebirth.

Within two decades of the bust, Rifle and the surrounding communities were back on their feet without the help of the energy industry, says Lambert. Rifle's population had grown from just over 3,000 people in 1980 to nearly 7,000 in 2000. Super Wal-Mart and Taco Bell abutted still-thriving old-time establishments like the Winchester Motel and the Cowboy Calf-A. Each fall, hunters streamed through town on their way to the nearby Roan Plateau and other wildlife-rich areas, spending some $30 million per year on hotels and food and gear. Upstream, Glenwood Springs bustled with growth, while downstream, new McMansions sprang up around the emerald-green golf courses of Parachute and Battlement Mesa - small communities that served as man-camps before Black Sunday. Grand Junction, meanwhile, fed off the national housing boom, and provided services for the rest of the growing Western Slope.

Then, in 2001, just when many of the nation's traditional oil and gas fields were nearing their limits, the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks drove home the need for increased energy independence. The Bush administration had already begun pushing for aggressive energy development on federal land. New technology became available to tap previously inaccessible gas deposits. On top of all this, natural gas prices shot through the roof.

The energy boom hit Garfield County hard and fast, whipping the already smoldering economy into an inferno. Since 2000, natural gas production in the county has increased fivefold, wells are being drilled at a rate never before seen in Colorado, and Garfield is poised to surpass La Plata County as the leading gas producer in the state.

The Buckshot Barber Shoppe sits just around the corner from the Basecamp Cafe. It's one of the last true barbershops around, says Mike Wood, the owner and barber for 29 years. Bullets, trophy heads, rusty tools and an old barber pole deck what he jokingly calls his "walls of shame."

Wood, who makes it clear he's a barber, not a stylist, wears his own hair short and spiky in the front with a long braid down the back. He treats his regulars well, with a straight-razor neck shave, a slap of Bay Rum, a shoulder massage and detailed haircut analysis after every trim. With the gas boys in town, business is "clipping right along,"he says. "That's a rough-and-tumble bunch, and that's good for me, because I don't do no foo-foo haircuts."

Wood's community has so far been able to glide through the national economic slump largely unscathed, thanks mostly to the omnipresent energy industry.

National unemployment rates have climbed to just over 5 percent, but northwest Colorado boasts a rate of 3.6, dipping down to 2.2 percent in Garfield County. Rifle's population, which rose to nearly 9,000 in 2006, continues to grow, and building permits shot up by 50 percent between 2003 and 2005. In contrast to the nation's housing crash, the average home price in Rifle has gone from about $250,000 to $350,000 in a year, mostly due to high demand from oil and gas workers. Commuting patterns have changed, too: Today, more and more workers are driving in to Garfield County, mostly from neighboring Mesa County and Grand Junction.

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