Northwest Colorado turns to tourism as coal industry fades

NATIONAL DINOSAUR MONUMENT, Colorado – All 10 rafts are moored on the banks of the Green River. The tents are set up. The sun is setting on the sandstone walls of the canyon. As 30 rafters dig into steaming chili bowls, it’s time to start planning for the future.

How can Northwest Colorado attract and manage visitors, protect natural landscapes such as the stunning Lodore Gates of the Green River, and support an economy poised for the imminent departure of coal mining?

“As our coal goes, what do we have left?” Asks Jennifer Holloway, executive director of the Craig Town Chamber of Commerce, where she grew up. “We are having an incredible experience that can change lives. How can we share this, but also protect it? “

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Three years ago, Moffat County “had issues with our identity,” says Holloway, describing how her father, when she was little, left the family farm to work in the highest paying coal mines. “Not everyone had a job in coal, but we focused on coal and neglected other things.”

These other things – like tourism, agriculture and outdoor recreation – are no longer overlooked. It’s been a year since Tri-State Generation and Transmission and Xcel Energy announced that they would shut down their coal-fired power plants and nearby coal mines from 2028. The shutdowns will cost up to 800 jobs in northwestern Canada. Colorado.

A community transition plan focuses on growing the region’s tourism and recreation facilities while protecting agricultural heritage and natural resources. The communities of Moffat County, downstream from the bustling resort town of Steamboat Springs, are essentially a blank slate. They are taking inspiration from other communities on the Western Slope, hoping to learn lessons about what works and what doesn’t. And the wheels are turning.

“Our community is about to do big things, transformational things,” Holloway said.

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Craig has requested a $ 1.8 million federal grant for the roughly $ 2.7 million Yampa River Corridor project, which hopes to renovate boat launches and add a water park. lively as part of an effort to make the region more attractive to runners and paddlers. An additional phase of the plan would be to build a trail from Craig to the Yampa River.

Last year, the Town of Craig purchased the historic Yampa Building from the Moffat County School District. The building has been converted into a visitor center as well as a home for artists, a center for the elderly and several local nonprofits and private businesses.

Josh Veenstra said investing in the river will help shape a new identity for Craig and Northwest Colorado.

“It’s the last stop before nature begins,” says Good Vibes River Gear co-owner who was born and raised in Craig and worked in both the coal mines and the power plant.

Veenstra learned to sew at the powerhouse and now he and his wife Maegan sew and sell all kinds of sturdy handmade mesh bags and gear for paddlers. They also own the Good Vibes River Gear store in Craig.

“This outdoor recreation thing is a hit and it’s happening fast,” says seasoned veteran Veenstra, who is concerned that recreating visitors could impact resources and experiences if the community doesn’t plan. “We have always lived in this cycle of boom and bust which may not be the best solution for us. We may need to grow a little slower, but in a more sustainable way. “

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Nathan Fey, head of the Colorado Outdoor Recreation Industry Bureau, joined the Office of Economic Development and International Trade to recruit University of Colorado students to map Moffat County’s recreational assets as well as commercial infrastructure.

This case study will inform a larger project that will include local residents in how Northwest Colorado is presented to visitors and outdoor recreation businesses. This larger project is part of Colorado’s new Rural Technical Assistance Program, or RTAP, which provides rural communities with technical training that deploys online tools to help community leaders identify needs and develop a plan for growth. future. The second phase of the rural program concerns technical assistance in planning, and finally the State will help the community to implement its strategic plan.

Moffat County is among the first communities to go through the rural technical assistance program.

Say, for example, that a snowmobile company or manufacturer approaches the state with the idea of ​​moving to Colorado. Fey can suggest Craig and Moffat County, offering maps of snow-covered runway systems where the company can test designs as well as information on supply chain management, broadband and commercial space. And the residents of the community have already expressed their interest in hosting this kind of business.

The rural assistance program would allow Moffat County to find a business “that fits into the community without necessarily impacting community culture,” says Fey.

“I think there is a lot of money available to communities like Craig now,” says Fey, who dips his oars in the water as he suggests a way to spend it locally – by completing the trail. the much sought after Yampa Valley. “We are sitting on money that could do that.”

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Tourism communities go through three development cycles: preparing for visitors, figuring out how to entertain them, and managing their impacts when they arrive in droves.

“I think Moffat County is ready for all three,” says Andrew Grossmann, director of destination development for the Colorado Board of Tourism.

But before a plan is launched, Grossmann says residents need to weigh and describe their expectations and desires for an economy that, in part, caters to visitors.

“I think places like this have the opportunity to proactively grow and rethink what it means to be successful,” said Grossmann, who suggests new metrics should be considered when building a dynamic tourism economy.

As he gazes at the huge sandstone cliffs above the Green River near its confluence with the Yampa River, he ponders what a shifting valuation might look like for tourism economies. Does it attract richer visitors who leave more money in the community? But what if these big guys arrive on a private jet and emit a lot more carbon than a less affluent visitor? One thing that is going away: the old measure of success which relied solely on the number of visitors.

“Maybe it’s time we applied a triple bottom line that takes into account residents’ feelings, carbon footprint, and economic benefits? Said Grossmann. “We need to redefine our value proposition. “

In this photo from Wednesday, August 18, 2021, rafters navigate the Winnies Rapids in the Gates of Lodore stretch of the Green River near Maybell, Colorado.  As coal mining fades, a diverse coalition of Moffat County residents and leaders are planning the next chapter focused on protecting resources while managing recreation and tourism.  (Jason Blevins / The Colorado Sun via AP) ORG XMIT: CODES105

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Jon Miller, who grew up in Craig, is on the raft with Grossmann. He has some ideas on how to better include locals in the planning and management of outdoor recreation in Northwest Colorado. First of all, take them out when they are young.

Miller is helping build a 50,000 square foot skatepark, which would be the largest in Colorado. His Craig Skatepark Alliance is organizing supporters and lobbying for state support.

“I imagine the skatepark connects our kids to the outdoors and the great outdoors,” says Miller, who grew up skating to Craig.

Donors, like the anonymous benefactor who recently gave the Yampa Valley Housing Authority $ 23 million to purchase 536 acres west of Steamboat Springs, recognize the impacts of earmarking beyond resort communities, said Tim Wohlgenant, executive director of the Yampa Valley Community Foundation.

“It’s a connected ecosystem and they got it,” he says.

The list of donors supporting the foundation values ​​leadership and Wohlgenant says his goal is to highlight local leaders outside of Steamboat. More and more of its donors are lining up to support nonprofits and community work in places like Craig, Meeker and Moffat County.

“Our job is to help them see leaders in these places that they may not know as well,” he says. “Leaders who really make a difference get them excited. It’s like they’re investing in a start-up of some sort.

Paul Scolari, the superintendent of Dinosaur National Monument, said his approach to managing National Park Service property is to support the work and wishes of the local community. He demonstrated this community approach that day by spending 30 minutes in a downpour holding an umbrella over the lunch team, then cooking the team’s chili on the second night of the rafting trip.

Just look around this gathering, says Scolari, pointing to the circle of federal land managers chaired by camps, conservation advocates, local entrepreneurs and economic development champions, all working to develop the northwest. of Colorado in a sustainable manner.

“This group represents a lot of power,” says Scolari. “If we just get on the same page, we can do amazing things. If we all work together, there is a tremendous amount of power to make these changes happen. “

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