Local leaders hope for diversification boost
by Allen Best
At Nucla and Naturita, two small communities in Western Colorado, the transition from a coal economy has begun. As for a just transition?
No, not yet says Sarah Bachman, a local attorney who, like many others in these towns an hour west of Telluride, wears a lot of hats.
Bachman and others hope that the proposed Just Transition appropriation bill being heard in the Colorado Legislature for the first time on May 6 will deliver money for their communities, to continue the work already underway.
“I don’t feel like we have a just transition, but hopefully if this bill passes, (the money) can be allocated quickly so that we can continue our efforts to transition our community,” she says.
Nucla Station was a 100-megawatt plant that was closed by Tri-State Generation and Transmission in September 2019 in response to anti-haze enforcement by the federal government. The plant faced more stringent regulation of emissions of nitrous oxide, a component in haze, also called smog, and upgrades to the aging plant would have been expensive.
The first unit at Craig Station will also be closed by the end of 2025 as a result of the same settlement.
Nucla Station had 76 employees and the accompanying mine 35 at one time. At closing in November 2019, they had 35 and 23, according to Tri-State. Ten remain at work on reclamation of the sites.
As for the roughly $2 million in property taxes paid annually by Tri-State, that is mostly gone, too. The plant and mine represented about 43% of property tax valuation in the west end of Montrose County, where the communities are located.
This is from the April 30, 2021, issue of Big Pivots, an e-journal covering the energy and water transitions in Colorado and beyond. Sign up at Big Pivots.com.
In small communities, a few people tend to wear a lot of hats. It’s often the same faces on the water districts, chamber, historical society – you name it.
Bachman is one of those in addition to being a young mother. She says that the prevailing vision in the communities is of developing an economy more strongly reliant on tourism. Tourism has its weaknesses, she says, but it’s not boom or bust. And, if far off the beaten paths of Colorado, Nucla and Naturita have much to work with.
Telluride lies an hour to the east, and some in the community work there or have businesses catering to the Telluride economy. Moab lies 90 minutes to the west, and Grand Junction a little longer to the north.
There are slickrock canyons of the San Miguel River, the eye-pleasing forests of the Uncompahgre Plateau. In the west end of Montrose County, a place with 2,500 residents in the 2010 census, there is a place called Bedrock, located in the Paradox Valley, so-named for its queer geology. It is bisected by the Dolores River.
There’s also a place called Uravan, from which the uranium used by Madame Curie in her experiments during the 1920s was mined.
The Manhattan Project of World War II spurred a boom in uranium mining. That boom petered out in the 1960s and 1970s, leaving widows who, as Peter Hessler documented in his 2010 piece in the New Yorker (and this writer learned in a 2006 visit), pined for the good old days and a return to uranium mining. It hasn’t happened yet. See: “The Uranium Widows”
With this focus on tourism, not uranium, the effort is on drawing visitors for events such as the dark skies festival, scheduled for June. In this, the community will be in the company of Idaho’s Sun Valley and Canada’s Banff resort communities in celebrating dark skies.
Another multi-hatted community doer is Aimee Tooker, the president of the West End Economic Development Corporation since its founding in 2014.
“We have been working on economic development ever since then,” she says. In 2017, the group got a $836,000 economic development grant to pay for programming funding., but that grant will be exhausted within the next year. She hopes that Colorado funding will continue to put wind into the sails of this effort.
The coal plant’s closing was done two years earlier than expected. Tri-State was paying $2 million in property taxes to local jurisdictions. That’s not a huge sum in many places, but these are small places. The population of Nucla is 644, and that of Naturita is 486.
“This is 67% of the tax base of our emergency services district,” says Tooker.
Tri-State is providing a $500,000 grant to the communities over the course of five years to West End Pay It Forward Trust. It’s welcome but not enough, say those in the Nucla-Naturita community trying to build a bridge to a new, more diversified economy.
How will state funding help these two communities? “By keeping our boots on the ground,” replies Tooker. She cites a plan to beautify the main street in Nucla.
Paul Major has worked with the Nucla-Naturita community. Until recently, he operated the Telluride Foundation, a philanthropy. He remains on Colorado’s Just Transition advisory committee.
He credits Tooker, Bachman, and others for their drive and ambition. Instead of whining about the closing of the plant, he says, they’re working hard to make their community a great place to live. “It’s a cliché, but they are really leaning into it,” he says.
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