NUCLA — Hardship rides the wind in the West End, a lonely basin where Colorado’s Uncompahgre Plateau joins Utah’s canyonlands.
It started more than 30 years ago, when the collapse of the uranium market and the failure of the country’s nuclear-energy renaissance decimated the town of Uravan and idled mines along the region’s bountiful Uravan Mineral Belt. Now, the looming closure of the region’s largest employers — the Nucla power plant and New Horizon Mine, both owned by Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association — promises even more calamity for the dwindling number of hardscrabble residents of the economically moribund Paradox Valley.
But the threat of extinction has spurred hope in the West End, buoyed by innovation and a bohemian embrace of a new Montrose County economy that moves away from a traditional reliance on mining.
It’s a scene unfolding across the West as rural communities tire of the roller-coaster ride of dependence on old-school extractive industries. Coal plummets and communities huddle. The oil market slows and belts tighten. Mining hopes sputter as other countries move mountains to get at valuable ore. The boom-bust cycle eats away at a rural region’s vibrancy, as young people flee and economies wither between booms.
“The closure of the plant and the mine — it’s really galvanized this community and it’s really made us realize that something has to be done,” says Deana Sheriff, who leads the West End Economic Development Corp.’s culture-shifting crusade to find new economic engines in a region overly reliant on fickle international mineral markets. “This is really a group of people who have that entrepreneurial spirit. We are not asking for a lot of handouts or help, but we are taking opportunities as they come our way.”
In remote communities across Colorado, business owners and economic-development types aren’t scrambling for a holy grail enterprise to replace fading monopolies so much as seeding a more diverse economy with recreation and broadband. In the West End, agitators are doing just that with a revamped airport, high-speed internet, alluring amenities and a wider embrace of any and all innovators and entrepreneurs.
But mainly, they are championing hemp.
“This field right here will be full of hemp. Our high school kids — the 4-H and ag students — they are going to be tending the field,” says Sheriff, kicking tumbleweeds away from a dormant Nucla school where a host of new businesses — many hempcentric — will soon set up shop. “It’s going to be an advanced technology incubator, dependent on hemp. We already are about 85 percent full.”
The school — a 79-year-old, native-stone building that hasn’t hosted students in more than a decade — is the spring that area innovators hope will quench the West End’s economic drought.
“Despite everything out there right now, this is the highest level of optimism I’ve seen in several years,” said state Sen. Don Coram, a Montrose native whose Paradox Ventures is betting big on hemp.
Coram’s new company will take over most of the schoolhouse, with processing machines in the old gymnasium extracting medical-grade CBD oil from hemp. The company plans to provide high-end hemp seedlings to area growers and then offer harvesting equipment, oil processing and fiber processing from the school plant. The idea is a one-stop shop from seed to sale.
Coram, a Republican, reflects the economic situation in the West End with the fable of the frog in the wagon rut. The frog can’t hop out and his friends can’t help. As night falls, everyone expects to find him squashed in the morning. But there he is the next day, sitting on a lily pad. How did he get out? He had to, he says. A wagon was coming.
“In the West End, the wagon is coming. Necessity is the mother of invention, as they say,” Coram says. “We’ve been waiting on the uranium industry for years. There’s a lot of talented people out here who are willing to go out and work hard and take a risk. Life is a whole lot simpler when you control the end result.”
But the cultural shift toward hemp, tourism and new businesses should not be seen as a rejection of mining. The rare minerals tucked into the Uravan Mineral Belt — the third-largest reserve of uranium in the country and once the world’s richest supplier of radium — could someday become as essential as they were years ago when Uravan mill workers spurred the development of the world’s first atomic bombs.
The West End’s arc of once-bustling communities — Naturita, Nucla, Uravan, Bedrock, Redvale and Paradox — never really recovered from the collapse in uranium in the mid-1980s. Without a single operating uranium mine, the region has faded into one of Colorado’s most impoverished areas, with about 18 percent of the area’s residents living in poverty, compared with 11.5 percent for Colorado.
The shadow grew darker last year when Tri-State, settling a lawsuit by environmentalists over air pollution, announced it would close its Nucla power plant and coal mine, cutting 83 jobs by 2022. The plant is already mostly idle, turning on when demand spikes from Tri-State’s increasingly coal-averse 43 utilities that deliver electricity to more than 1 million people in Colorado, Nebraska, New Mexico and Wyoming.
But it’s not just uranium locked in those hundreds of dormant mines. The region has abundant stores of vanadium, which is used to strengthen steel and build large, rechargeable flow battery systems that can store solar and wind energy.
The price of vanadium has more than doubled in the last year, reaching $11 a pound.
Western Uranium Corp. is working with state and federal officials on how to regulate mining and processing of vanadium, which is not radioactive.
“As vanadium prices continue to rise, it’s more imperative that we get this figured out,” says Patrick Siglin, the vice president of operations for Western Uranium.
George Glasier, the financier and uranium industry veteran who owns the not-yet-built Piñon Ridge uranium mill in the Paradox Valley and serves as president of Western Uranium, says uranium and vanadium “are the salvation of this area.”
Glasier has reasons to be both hopeful and discouraged that uranium-fueled nuclear energy will see a resurgence in the U.S.
The optimism flows from a Department of Energy report recommending regulatory shifts that would bolster coal and nuclear power plants. The 187-page report released in August supported a diverse electric grid that includes increased reliance on nuclear energy. The report recommended that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission improve its permitting process for new and existing nuclear reactors “without unnecessarily adding to the operating costs and economic uncertainty of nuclear energy.“
Still, the reasons to fret about the future of uranium and American nuclear energy are plentiful.
Westinghouse Electric Company, one of the biggest drivers of domestic nuclear energy development, with massive nuclear projects in South Carolina and Georgia, filed for bankruptcy in March. In July, two South Carolina utilities abandoned unfinished nuclear reactors that were expected to showcase the latest in nuclear technology. The changing energy market — including a flattening demand for electricity as energy efficiency improves, a glut of cheap natural gas from fracking and growing wind and solar alternatives — has weakened the appeal of nuclear power.
And the historically volatile uranium market remains anemic, largely due to decreased demand from Japan’s Fukushima nuclear reactors. Before the reactors were damaged by a tsunami in 2011, uranium sold for almost $70 a pound but has languished at less than $20 a pound for the past several years.
That’s rough for Glasier and West End workers. They’re eager for the revival of uranium mining and the eventual construction of the Piñon Ridge mill, which sits amid 25,000 acres of dormant uranium lease tracts managed by the Department of Energy. Those leases could spring to life if the market improves or, per the undying hope among the West End’s mining champions, the new federal administration deems uranium a “strategic mineral.”
“If (President Donald) Trump were to declare uranium and vanadium strategic minerals, everything changes here. That’s something we’re waiting for,” says Reed Mitchell, a 19-year resident of the Paradox Valley and owner of the Rimrock Hotel in Naturita, one of the region’s largest employers, with 18 full-time workers. “We are hopeful that mining will come back and we are ready and we have prepared ourselves for it. The table is set.”
These days, there are no miners, but Mitchell’s 46-room hotel is filled by government contractors working to assess and remediate the valley’s uranium mines. But their work will end sometime — and then what?
The federal workers will still come. The Paradox Valley is made up of million of acres of Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service land that need stewards who need beds. And the tourists — drawn by the Dolores River and remote trail networks, including the Rimrock Trail, that welcome both mountain bikers and motorized users — are flocking.
And then there’s the upcoming revamp of the Nucla Hopkins Field airport, which this past summer received a $4.6 million grant from the Federal Aviation Administration. That money is going toward improved runways and guidance systems that would allow the airport to accommodate regional jets and private aircraft detoured from Telluride, 55 miles away.
A lodging tax in the valley, collected largely from Mitchell’s Rimrock Hotel, supports a new campaign — Fly Faster to Fun — that hopes to lure airborne visitors to the West End, maybe in partnership with the luxury Gateway resort, 50 miles to the north.
“That’s going to change our world here,” Mitchell says. “All the rich people are going to come here and land at that airport and look around, like I did so many years ago, and say, ‘Geez, I want to be here.’ “
Glasier says the Piñon Ridge mill can easily be designed to process vanadium as well as uranium. He’s certain that America soon will turn back to production after years of focus on cleanup.
“We are optimistic that uranium prices will recover just because of worldwide demand and now the DOE saying it supports nuclear plants,” he says. “This is more important than ever for us out here. The West End just doesn’t have an economy without a resource-based approach.”
More West End residents are wondering, though, whether the resources that can fuel an economic renaissance in the region are larger than minerals. Maybe those resources can include recreation, tourism and agriculture.
“We are in no way saying what we are doing out there is going to make up for the power plant closing or lost mining. It’s not going to make up for that loss, but we are working with other business plans,” says Coram, whose ideas include fields of West End greenhouses supplying organic vegetables to Western Slope resort communities.
He envisions crowdfunding as a tool for rural communities seeking investment in innovative ideas. His Paradox Ventures launched a campaign this month under a Colorado law passed in 2015 that allows people to solicit investments of up to $5,000.
Hemp Adobe, which manufacturers building materials with hemp, won the region’s first Rural Jump-Start Zone Tax Credit as the first hemp business approved by the Colorado Economic Development Commission.
The company is moving its headquarters from Washington state to Montrose, with hopes of setting up fields of hemp in the West End. The company could use as much as 55,000 acres of hemp to fuel demand for its lightweight composite materials that are resistant to water and mold. The company’s proprietary materials can replace wood, bricks and concrete with lighter, stronger and more insulating panels, pillars and walls.
Kevin Hodge, the founder of Adobe Hemp, said the willingness of economic development officials in Montrose County, coupled with the affordability of industrial space and low humidity that allows his materials to cure quickly, made western Colorado his best choice for a new home.
“What I’m bringing is technology that will put both hemp and Montrose County on the map,” Hodge says of his work to revive hemp technology stymied for almost 80 years by its connection to botanical cousin marijuana.
Hodge pitched a co-op model for hemp in the West End, where hemp and CBD businesses can work in community.
His plan: Cultivate more than 50,000 acres of hemp to create 35 to 60 jobs. He will pay farmers $1,200 per acre for their hemp every year. Those farmers can make twice that if they sell seeds from the plants. Hodge hopes to then deploy earthworms into fields and use their castings — poop — to prep more fields for more hemp and use that hemp in his manufacturing of building panels, drywall and other construction materials.
“We could have 130 new jobs in a matter of a few years. These are good-paying jobs, and that wealth will spread around the community,” Hodge says. “If they really want to run with the manufacturing, I can show them how to build airplanes and surfboards and skis and snowboards using hemp. It will be a very happening place.”
Aimee Tooker is ready. Along Nucla’s Main Street — where pots of fresh flowers, pocket parks and new building facades are part of a beautification project — she has opened Tabeguache Trading Co., a few steps from the school-cum-incubator where both she and her daughter attended kindergarten.
She bought the building at an auction last fall, and now she’s selling maps, artwork from 15 local artisans, and hunting and fishing supplies. Her walls are adorned with old photos from the Rimrock Historical Society, and she has plans for a barbecue food truck in the empty yard out back.
“This is the time to do it. Optimism is higher than I’ve ever seen it. It’s a time when we can finally steer our own course. We are not depending on Uravan or uranium or the coal company or the power plant to be there for us. We are being proactive after being reactive for too many years,” she says. “And we are aligning ourselves with our historic culture and our outdoor activities.”
Paul Koski walks down from his woodworking shop up the street. Tooker tells him about a new family that just moved to town. Word is that dad likes to mountain bike.
“Yes,” Koski says, “it looks like our local trails group just doubled!”
Koski has spent the past decade developing the West End Trails Alliance, a group that has traversed hundreds of miles of old mining roads to create a vast network of mountain biking trails that explore some of the most remote corners of Colorado.
“This is a mountain biker’s paradise, and it’s unknown,” he says. “You will never see another rider out here. Hopefully that changes though.”