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.

High Country News Classifieds
  • MEMBERSHIP MANAGER
    For more information visit www. wyofile.com/careers/
  • THRIVING LOCAL HEALTH FOOD STORE FOR SALE
    Turn-key business opportunity. Successful well established business with room to grow. Excellent highway visibility.
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    For more information, visit www.wyofile.com/careers/
  • SONORAN INSTITUTE, CEO
    Chief Executive Officer Tucson, Arizona ABOUT SONORAN INSTITUTE Since 1990, the Sonoran Institute has brought together diverse interests to successfully forge effective and enduring conservation...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY
    STAFF ATTORNEY POSITION OPENING www.westernlaw.org/about-us/clinic-interns-careers The Western Environmental Law Center (WELC) is a high-impact, nonprofit public interest environmental law firm with a 27-year legacy using...
  • PROJECT MANAGER
    Position Summary Join our Team at the New Mexico Land Conservancy! We're seeking a Project Manager who will work to protect land and water across...
  • SEEKING PROPERTY FOR BISON HERD
    Seeking additional properties for a herd of 1,000 AUM minimum. Interested in partnering with landowners looking to engage in commercial and/or conservation bison ranching. Location...
  • DIRECTOR OF PRODUCT AND MARKETING
    High Country News seeks a Director of Product and Marketing to join our senior team during an exciting chapter of innovation and growth. This individual...
  • OUTREACH DIRECTOR
    Upper Missouri Waterkeeper seeks an Outreach Director to play a key role designing and leading activities and initiatives that engage citizens in water resource decisionmaking,...
  • WILDLIFE HAVEN
    Beautiful acreage with Teton Creek flowing through it. Springs and ponds, lots of trees, moose and deer. Property has barn. Easy access. approx. 33 acres.
  • ARIZONA CONSERVATION CORPS PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Arizona Conservation Corps is seeking a Program Director in Flagstaff or Tucson
  • COPPER STAIN: ASARCO'S LEGACY IN EL PASO
    Tales from scores of ex-employees unearth the human costs of an economy that runs on copper.
  • EXPERT LAND STEWART
    Available for site conservator, property manager. View resume at http://skills.ojadigital.net.
  • CONSERVATIONIST? IRRIGABLE LAND?
    Stellar seed-saving NGO is available to serious partner. Package must include financial support. Details: http://seeds.ojaidigital.net.
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Colorado Plateau Natural & Human History Field Seminars. Lodge, river, hiking options. Small groups, guest experts.
  • WESTERN NATIVE SEED
    Specializing in native seeds and seed mixes for western states.
  • CHUCK BURR'S CULTUREQUAKE.COM BLOG
    Change will happen when we see a new way of living. Thinking to save the world.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • OJO CALIENTE COMMERCIAL VENTURE
    Outstanding location near the world famous Ojo Caliente Mineral Spring Resort. Classic adobe Mercantile complete w/living quarters, separate 6 unit B&B, metal building and spacious...