Without the fossil fuel industry, “I think Rangely would be a ghost town,” Mayor Andy Shaffer said.
Rangely is one of 11 counties that are the focus of the Colorado Office of Just Transition, which state lawmakers created three years ago to support regions whose economies rely heavily on coal.
The bureau has given local governments more than $4 million so far this year for projects that could help replace industry jobs and income. During the 2022 legislative session, lawmakers approved an additional $15 million for the office.
“More ghost towns would be a failure,” said office manager Wade Buchanan. “Ghost towns testify to the brutality of certain economic transitions of our past.”
“I think we aspire to do this differently,” he said.
Coal-fired power plants in Colorado have already shut down or are scheduled to shut down by the end of 2030. Craig and Hayden received millions of dollars in pandemic relief this summer from the federal government for economic development projects. The Cut Inflation Act passed this summer also promises more generous tax credits for cities that replace their fossil fuel operations with clean energy projects.
Rangely’s coal operations are governed by Utah regulations. However, Colorado’s move away from fossil fuels has forced city officials to look for other assets that could keep the city alive, Shaffer said. This includes the local campus of Colorado Northwestern Community College and a regional airport, which hosts the school’s aviation program.
Some folks at Rangely think it’s time to look above ground at the economic potential that outdoor recreation has to offer. The industry adds $9.6 billion in market value to the state’s economy, according to estimates by the state’s Office of Economic Development and International Trade.
“I’m a recreation fanatic and I know how much money people have to spend on recreation,” said Jocelyn Mullen, urban planner and engineer at Rangely.
Industry jobs aren’t well paid, she said, but that should be seen as part of Rangely’s bid to expand its economy.
Rangely has already tapped into some of these activities, including off-road and other tire sports. Mullen is now focused on mapping mountain bike trails and expanding access to another natural amenity: the White River, which stretches from Utah to the White River National Forest, but is hidden behind trees and tall brush in Rangely.
The State Office of Just Transition awarded Rangely nearly $400,000 this year to help build boat ramps and make the stretch of river more welcoming to kayakers, paddleboarders and the rafters. Mullen, a self-proclaimed “river rat,” said the toughest challenge was getting other people on board in town.
“People have been bluntly saying things like, ‘We don’t want kayakers wearing spandex on our property,'” she said.
City revenue from federal mining taxes and leases fell 58% from 2019 to 2020, according to financial documents provided by Mullen. She said the decline has led residents to rethink the economic potential of kayaking, including visitors buying food, filling up their cars or camping.
Mayor Shaffer arrived at Rangely Town Hall on a recent Saturday evening in a red four-wheeler with no windows and lockable seat belts. He takes it on long trips with his daughter and has offered to take this reporter by car to see Rangely from a higher vantage point. Shaffer drove slowly down the main street of town, then accelerated ferociously as he turned onto a dirt road and climbed a rocky hill.
Earlier in the day, Shaffer said recreation can only be a seasonal activity in northwest Colorado and cannot offset taxes and jobs in the fossil fuel industry year-round.
Others are more optimistic about its potential. Jen Rea, associate dean of the Colorado Northwestern Community College campus and friend of Mullen, said recreation and tourism could put Rangely on the map.
“I think the most important thing is just to get us out there…and target the right audience,” said Rea, who often paddles the White River and visits other nearby city features, including the prehistoric cave paintings known as the “Carrot Men”.
Angie Miller, Rea’s colleague and friend, said she was constantly thinking about Rangely’s post-fossil fuel future. It’s one, she says, that won’t depend on just one industry, but on many.
“If I’m really mired in fear, I’m not going to do any good,” Miller said. “I won’t be able to see the possibilities around us.”