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Know the West

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.