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Western Slope Resource Reporting: West End

Chris Marcinek

Naturita means “little nature” in Spanish, but the thousands of acres of high-desert canyons that surround this mining town are anything but little. Located roughly thirty miles from the Utah border on the Uncompahgre Plateau, this tightknit rural community is no stranger to the boom and bust cycle of the mining industry. Still, the forty five employees that currently work at the local coal-fired power plant will be out of a job once it fully shuts down by 2022. And, with a population of just 11 people per square mile on the West End, that has one woman concerned for its future.

Deana Sheriff is the Economic Recovery Coordinator for the West End of Montrose County, and she says that one of the industries that people are really optimistic about is agriculture. Despite being in legal limbo, some farmers are betting big on industrial hemp.

SHERIFF: “We have about 5,000 acres that are in production on this end of Montrose County right now, from a variety of farmers. A lot of folks that are looking at it as just a test thing to see if that will work for them. Others that are all in and looking at it as a CBD medicinal product that will come from that hemp. Other industrial items that come from that hemp are animal feed, twine, clothing, lubricating oils. There’s roughly about 35,000 different uses for industrial hemp. It’s one of those unique plants that every single portion of the plant can be utilized.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell recently introduced a bill titled The Hemp Farming Act of 2018. It’s yet to be voted on, but the bill currently has twenty eight co-sponsors. If it makes it through congress and the president signs it, the bill would remove hemp from The Controlled Substances Act, allowing hemp farmers to access banking and insurance services.

Another area with potential for growth is outdoor tourism. This runs the gamut from hunting and fishing to mountain biking and off-road vehicles. According to Colorado Parks and Wildlife, some hunters wait up to twelve years to draw a permit to hunt elk near Nucla and Naturita. During hunting season, local businesses notice the influx of activity around town.

Paul Koski is a professional woodworker and mountain bike enthusiast. He’s lived in Nucla for 39 years and he heads the development of local mountain bike trails. He shows me a huge map of the West End he has hung up on the wall of his woodshop.

KOSKI: “And you can see, it’s kind of highlighted with a topo relief, so this is a very usable map. The thing about West End riding out here, or hiking, anything you do out here, there’s just literally hundreds of miles of old two-track that are existing, and the BLM recognizes all of those, anything you can see from satellite imagery, we were told, they would recognize.”

We head out to ride a new trail system just outside of Nucla. It’s a typical bluebird summer day in western Colorado as we cruise singletrack that winds across sandy arroyos and twisty juniper woodland. The trail could easily be mistaken for a popular mountain biking trail in Moab, but the notable difference is, we don’t see a single other person on our two hour ride.

Establishing new singletrack trails on BLM land takes a lot of time and money. For any development on public lands, proposals must satisfy National Environmental Policy Act requirements that involve environmental and archaeological studies. It took nine years and close to $70,000 to complete a seventeen mile re-route of trails near Nucla. Meanwhile, in Moab, it took trail users only ten years to build 150 miles of trail. The difference is, the BLM staff in Moab has the manpower to expedite the planning process, while the Uncompahgre Field Office in Montrose has less staff for its 900,000 acre area that spans southwest Colorado. And with the current administration’s decision to shift Department of Interior resources from recreation to oil and gas development on public lands, Paul is frustrated with the slow pace of trail development on the West End.

Aimee Tooker owns Tabeguache Trading Company, a store in Nucla that is part sporting goods, part gift shop. She explains to me that the term Rimrocker is a reference to the rough, wild west legacy of frontier families and miners past. She says the future of the West End is not dependent on the mining company.

TOOKER: We’re moving on without the plant, without Tri State. They’ve definitely helped their employees, and so that’s good. And they’re helping the towns and the area, but we’re not hanging our hats on them anymore.”

Despite the economic challenges facing the West End, the population there is growing. More real estate has been sold in the past year than in the previous ten years, combined.

For Western Slope Resources Reporting, I’m Chris Marcinek.