Hemp is one town’s way out of a uranium mining past

A former mining region embraces a trade with a ‘hippie’ reputation.

 

Richard Linnett is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. He is a writer who lives in Naturita and commutes to work in California.


When locals in western Colorado’s old uranium mining towns of Naturita and Nucla get word that a journalist is coming to town, they reach for their guns. Not to shoot the “fake news” media. No, they dust off their firearms as props for photo ops. Ever since Nucla passed a law in 2013 requiring every household to own a gun, the story has drawn the press like flies on roadkill.

This area was once a uranium mining and milling hub for the Atomic Energy Commission’s Manhattan Project, and later for nuclear power. As cheaper sources of the ore emerged, the industry tanked. There was a brief jolt of optimism in 2007, when Energy Fuels announced plans to build a new uranium mill in Paradox Valley, just down the road from Nucla and Naturita, but depressed uranium prices and opposition soon scuttled that project. 

To outsiders, what’s called the West End of Montrose County has long been a poster child for white poverty and ignorance, a hotbed of hardcore, uranium-clinging yahoos. It was the subject of a patronizing documentary, Uranium Drive-In, and recently was featured in a bleak article in The Guardian, with photos that look like full-color versions of Walker Evans’ famous casualties of the Great Depression.

“Same old story,” says my neighbor, Dianna Reams, a local business and community booster whose family goes back generations. When she was interviewed by the Guardian, the reporter asked to bring out her gun for a photo op. “It’s predictable,” she said. “They think we’re a bunch of hillbillies living in a kill zone, and they’re smarter than we are.”

Burgeoning hemp industries in small towns can offer a way to diversify their economies often reliant on extractive industries.
UK College of Agriculture, Food and Environment/Flickr

Fortunately, a new story has come to town. It’s still badass, in keeping with our popular image. And that’s weed — cannabis, or more precisely, hemp. Thanks to new legislation and good growing conditions (lots of sun and water and dirt), the region has become a magnet for hemp farming. More recently, processing has also begun, in a startup based in Nucla’s old elementary schoolhouse. The facility is run by Paradox Ventures, which is owned by Republican state Sen. Don Coram.

Historically a conservative mining region, the West End has enthusiastically embraced a trade usually associated with illegal grows and “hippies.” Yet everyone here, from miners to cattle ranchers, seems to be trying to get a piece of the action, much the way Coram is. His partners, Reams Construction and its subsidiary, Tomcat Mining, all sponsor the nonprofit West End Economic Development Corporation, which works to promote the hemp economy. This summer, Paradox Ventures planted a hemp field on some of Reams' property next door to my house. A small team of farmers sprayed the crop by hand with natural pesticide, walking the crop rows wearing wide-brimmed hats in the sun. They looked like Vietnamese rice farmers.

Now, you can feel a growing sense of optimism in the area, despite some continuing challenges. This time, in contrast to the uranium boom, the hope is not based on a single industry. Telemarketing and recreation projects are also in the works, along with hemp farming. 

Hemp farmer Buck Chavez, working for Paradox Ventures, pulls down locally grown, dried hemp plants to be processed in the gymnasium of the old Nucla schoolhouse.
Andy Cross/The Denver Post

“It’s the first thing that’s attracting our young people,” said Deanna Sheriff, the economic recovery coordinator for the West End Economic Development Corporation. “For whatever reason, we can hold onto our young people who have been leaving, and get them into agriculture — get them to grow hemp. There’s been nothing else here to attract their attention.”

Uranium still may return, but it will never dominate the region the way it once did. There’s far too much of it available in other places around the world. Vanadium, which also occurs in the region within uranium deposits, holds promise as an alternative to lithium batteries for large-scale energy storage. But at the moment, the story here is hemp, and it’s spreading across the West, especially where mining has died and fertile fields remain. In fact, the development corporation is collaborating with a consortium of hemp growers in other counties outside Montrose, such as neighboring Delta and Mesa, to smooth the path for people to enter into the industry and help them distribute their products.

“The hemp deal is the wild, wild West,” said Sheriff. “Everybody’s looking at it as a great new way to make some money, and that’s not the case. It’s still a very fragile industry. But it’s the first thing that’s come along that’s really positive in a long time. So, I’m looking at it cautiously, with optimism, and also realizing that it’s got about five more years of development.”

So now when the press comes to town, as the Denver Post did recently, filing a positive story for once, we no longer draw our pistols. Instead, we reach for our hemp oils and cannabis dog treats. 

High Country News Classifieds
  • PLANNED GIVING OFFICER
    National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), the nation's oldest and largest national parks nonprofit advocacy organization seeks a Planned Giving Officer. Do you find energy in...
  • DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    The Methow Valley Citizens Council has a distinguished history of advocating for progressive land use and environmental values in the Methow Valley and Okanogan County...
  • ACTING INDIGENOUS AFFAIRS DESK EDITOR
    High Country News is seeking an Acting Indigenous Affairs Editor to oversee the work of our award-winning Indigenous Affairs Desk while our editor is on...
  • GRANTS PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    The Cinnabar Foundation seeks an enthusiastic, team-oriented and knowledgeable Grants Program Director to work from their home in Montana. Established in 1983, the Cinnabar Foundation...
  • ARTEMIS PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Artemis Program Manager will work with National Wildlife Federation sporting and public lands staff to change this dynamic, continue to build upon our successful...
  • ALASKA SEA KAYAK BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Well-known and successful sea kayak, raft, hike, camp guiding & water taxi service. Sale includes everything needed to run the business, including office & gear...
  • MEMBERSHIP AND EVENTS PROGRAM COORDINATOR
    Great Old Broads for Wilderness seeks a detail-oriented and enthusiastic Membership and Events Coordinator to join our small, but mighty-fun team to oversee our membership...
  • PROGRAM DEVELOPMENT FACILITATOR
    ABOUT THE HIGH DESERT MUSEUM Since opening in 1982, HIGH DESERT MUSEUM has brought together wildlife, culture, art and natural resources to promote an understanding...
  • LAND STEWARD, ARAVAIPA
    Steward will live on-site in housing provided by TNC and maintains preserve areas frequented by the visiting public and performs land management activities. The Land...
  • DEVELOPMENT WRITER
    Who We Are: The Nature Conservancy's mission is to protect the lands and waters upon which all life depends. As a science-based organization, we create...
  • CONNECTIVITY SCIENCE COORDINATOR
    Position type: Full time, exempt Location: Bozeman preferred; remote negotiable Compensation: $48,000 - $52,000 Benefits: Major medical insurance, up to 5% match on a 401k,...
  • EXECUTIVE ASSISTANT
    ArenaLife is looking for an Executive Assistant who wants to work in a fast-paced, exciting, and growing organization. We are looking for someone to support...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Mountain Lion Foundation is seeking an Executive Director. Please see our website for further information - mountainlion.org/job-openings
  • WASHINGTON DC REPRESENTATIVE
    Position Status: Full-time, exempt Location: Washington, DC Position Reports to: Program Director The Western Organization of Resource Councils (WORC) is seeking a Washington, DC Representative...
  • REGIONAL CAMPAIGN ORGANIZER
    Position Title: Regional Campaign Organizers (2 positions) Position Status: Full-time, exempt Location: Preferred Billings, MT; remote location within WORC's region (in or near Grand Junction...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Driggs, ID based non-profit. Full time. Full job description available at tvtap.org. Submit cover letter and resume to [email protected]
  • ENVIRONMENTAL AND CONSTRUCTION GEOPHYSICS
    - We find groundwater, buried debris and assist with new construction projects for a fraction of drilling costs.
  • SPRING MOUNTAINS SOLAR OFF GRID MOUNTAIN HOME
    Located 50 miles northwest of Las Vegas, Nevada in the pine forest of Lee Canyon at 8000 feet elevation. One of a kind property surrounded...
  • MAJOR GIFTS MANAGER - MOUNTAIN WEST, THE CONSERVATION FUND
    Cultivate, solicit and steward a portfolio of 75-125 donors.
  • NATURE'S BEST IN ARAVAIPA CANYON
    10 acre private oasis in one of Arizona's beautiful canyons. Fully furnished, 2123 sq ft architectural custom-built contemporary home with spectacular views and many extras....