Call this “The Tale of Two Valleys.” I’m talking, of course, about the Telluride Valley and now the Paradox Valley, two equally beautiful valleys in southwest Colorado, where the efforts to “save” each one offer both unique contrasts and similarities. The Telluride Valley made history recently by raising $50 million to win ownership of some 574 valley acres just west of this high mountain resort community.
Against huge odds as the result of the town’s condemnation action, the Telluride community and its supporters managed to raise the $50 million to pay off the land owner, California industrialist Neal Blue. The top award was set by an unfriendly Delta jury in a condemnation case that took 10 years to run its course. Interestingly, Blue’s mother, Virginia Neal Blue, was a wealthy and prominent Colorado Republican and financial whiz who was a highly acclaimed Colorado State Treasurer. Neal Blue, in turn, heads General Atomic, a La Jolla-based government contractor, dealing in everything from nuclear fusion to supercomputers.
Curiously, the Paradox Valley, a pastoral gem in Montrose County a couple of hours west of Telluride, is now the planned 880-acre site of a new uranium mill. And like the often controversial effort to save Telluride’s valley floor for public open space, a major public confrontation is fast developing over the plan by Energy Fuels, Inc. to build and operate the new Paradox mill. The sparsely populated valley is an isolated jewel, enclosed by rusty red high canyon walls that often take on a mystical glow when the sun ignites their colors. Along with other San Miguel County folks, my family and I treasure this place as the perfect spring and fall getaway.
With the Dolores River running crossways though the Paradox Valley at Bedrock, river rats from everywhere flock there in the spring to paddle the river through the gorgeous Dolores River canyon. Not exactly a legitimate rallying cry, though, in the face of a severe economic crisis in the west end of Montrose County. People like Paul Koski, a longtime Nucla resident and a generally progressive civic leader, earlier told me that he’s supporting the mill, even though he’s not much into nuclear development. He says West Montrose is in the throws of a deep depression and the mill will bring critical jobs to this economically troubled area.
Telluride, of course, is a runaway economic success, sharing chronic needs with other prosperous resort communities such as affordable or “employee” housing and immigrant worker issues. Opponents of Telluride’s long-held goal of saving the valley floor for public open space said those acres were critically needed for housing and other economic development proposals. Sadly, the Paradox mill proposal appears to have divided the Paradox community and raised some troubling questions about open meetings and public participation in the upcoming mill site debate.
Like the Delta jury that openly resented liberal and prosperous Telluride, Montrose County officials could be facing a nasty fight over the Paradox mill question. Already, a July 31 meeting in Paradox, set to discuss the Pinion Ridge uranium mill plan, simply shut out those who’d come to oppose the plan. Montrose County Commissioner Allen Belt offered a lame explanation of this clear breach in open meeting rules, and promised that in the future Colorado’s Sunshine Law would be observed. But the meeting set a sour tone for the beginning of what should be a very open, very democratic public review process. Then, a letter to the editor from one Paradox resident seemed to suggest that the matter of the new mill was Paradox business and outsiders should, well, butt out.
Uranium mining and milling is serious business. Air and water quality and toxic waste disposal are just a few of the issues that can have serious impacts on the public health and safety of the whole region. Some years ago, a group of San Miguel and Montrose county folks who worried a lot about the environment and regional health and safety issues helped defeat two separate proposals to build low-level nuclear waste dumps near the San Miguel River in the Naturita and Uravan areas. But many of us have vivid memories of how those big corporate schemes played out.
Back then, local community leaders, in some cases, got the corporate jet treatment and were wined, dined and wooed. Convinced that each waste dump would bring jobs and untold benefits to nearby depressed mining communities, local officials became loyal boosters. The history of mining in the American West is synonymous with “boom and bust.” But when mining ran out in Telluride, Aspen, Crested Butte, and other historic old mining towns in the Colorado’s mountain enclaves, snow – and big time skiing – saved the day.
With its often stark, high desert beauty, what can save the lower San Miguel River Basin and the Paradox Valley from the next round of energy development? (Or exploitation, depending on your point of view.) Bedrock and its picturesque, 19th century Bedrock store played an important scene in the wonderfully entertaining and now classic 1991 film Thelma and Louise. Somebody, please call the film’s star and political activist Susan Sarandon to see if there’s a sequel in the works.