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