Home to just a few hundred people, the town of Nucla, Colorado, isn’t just tiny. It’s far from just about everything. Tucked into the western edge of Montrose County, it’s 350 miles from Denver and 60 miles from the nearest stop light.
For generations, this area — known as the West End — was a hub for mining. Most famously, they dug for uranium here and the area saw a big boom thanks to the Cold War era. Later, coal arrived to support a local power plant.
“You think things are going to boom forever,” said Jane Thompson, a 62-year-old longtime local. “They’re always going to need uranium. They’re always going to need coal.”
“Always” isn’t really a word you can use with mining. When uranium prices tanked in the early 1980s, the mines closed, and so did shops, bars and both movie theaters. Hundreds of people moved away and the area never really recovered.
No, It's Not Named For Nuclear: "Nucla was supposed to be the nucleus of this socialist bunch of people."
Decades after uranium fizzled, a new blow was delivered when Tri-State Generation agreed to shut down Nucla’s power plant and the coal mine that supplies it to settle a clean air lawsuit. The plant and the mine were the town’s biggest employer, with more than 80 workers.
The mine is now closed and the plant will shutter in 2022.
When the news first hit, a former town official told the press that Nucla was “liable to dry up and blow away.” At first Donna Morris, who’s been Nucla’s mayor for years, worried that might be true, that this could be the death knell for this little place.
“That doesn’t last very long because we’re fighters,” she said. “You know, we have to pick our britches up and just keep going.”
Plenty of locals hope that mining returns in some form to West End. Nucla’s newspaper still prints the price of uranium on its front page. But people don’t talk about mining being the area’s savior anymore.
“There’s got to be more than one answer,” Morris said of any economic solution. “There’s got to be more than one thing.”
People across the area — from Nucla, Naturita and Norwood to the smaller communities of Redvale, Bedrock and Paradox — are hard at work to figure out what those things should be. They’re casting a bunch of seeds to see what takes root.
Paul Koski, who’s lived in Nucla for 40 years, looks to its dark skies and wide-open spaces for answers.
“Because we are so wildness-like, so isolated, that’s what we have to offer people, is that solitude,” he said. “There’s so much public land here, and that’s our gem.”
Koski and other volunteers built a section of the Paradox Trail to help showcase it. As he trekked over the dusty, rocky path, Koski pointed out the bright blooming cacti and snowy mountains in the far distance. It was sunny and silent and there wasn’t a soul around.
While he spends as much time as he can out here, he knows some locals are still skeptical about the value of attracting outdoor recreation.
“But for the most part, I think people realize that we have to do something, and we have to do something fairly soon, that time’s running out for us,” Koski said.
Recently, he met a gaggle of cyclists camping nearby. They were totally enamored with this swath of Montrose County, especially since they had never even heard of it before. Koski thinks a key to the West End’s future is letting people know it exists.
That’s where Deana Sherriff comes in.
“If you like the type of stuff you find in Moab, but you don’t like the crowds, this is where you should be,” she said. That’s one of the snappy lines she uses to market the area.
Though the area’s outdoor opportunities make for beautiful brochures, Sherriff knows that it can’t be the only thing in its future. She’s with the West End Economic Development Corporation, which started only a few years ago, and now has a renewed sense of urgency with coal operations soon to wind down. The organization has made a commercial kitchen and coworking space available to locals and offers classes on how to start a small business.
Sherriff explained that her hope is to help people develop a vision beyond mining.
“You’re going to be able to do something you want to do,” she said, “and you’ll do it by choice.”
So far, nearly 30 businesses are in the works. Sherriff is working with entrepreneurs from out of town, too. One industry that has its eye on the area is cannabis. The first two dispensaries are in the works for nearby Naturita, plus a hemp co-op.
While much of this is yet to come, Sherriff said locals have seen things pick up here.
“Even if just noticing that you’re having to stand in line at the hardware store,” she said. “You know, you didn’t have to do that three years ago.”
There’s more investment too. The area has won a bunch of grants to develop the airport and beautify parks, and residents themselves have set up a charitable fund to support local organizations. The money comes from right here, with much of the trust made up of small monthly donations from valley families.
The West End Pay It Forward Trust just awarded its first grant to a new early learning center in Naturita, something Jane Thompson hopes will help families for generations to come. She remembers how the money flowed back in the West End’s mining heyday.
“What if they had put some away and saved it,” she mused.
Instead, the money left just as the jobs and people did. So, Thompson and others want to start investing in this place now and not repeat a mistake of the past. Thompson thinks there’s only so much change she’ll see from these efforts, but hopes “in the future, when I’m gone, and my grandson’s living here, that they’ll be some money to pull from.”
The hope is to help build a community that doesn’t need coal or uranium, regardless of whether mining ever comes back.
Mayor Morris thinks, fundamentally, Nucla has something plenty of people want: a quiet life.
“When you go two hours in any direction, you’re in a city, and it’s very hustle bustle and very fast pace,” she said of Grand Junction and Montrose.
Morris only goes sparingly, to visit family and get her nails done. And every time she heads back on the highway to Nucla, she feels a sense of calm that she doesn’t get in a place with traffic and strip malls and fast food joints.
“And most people discover when you’ve lived here, going to those places, and coming back home, is the best thing in the world,” she said.