PAST, FUTURE MEET IN THE NORTH FORK VALLEY

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By Caitlin Switzer

NORTH FORK VALLEY-(January 1, 2014)   The physical location suggests a resort town, but if you’re not willing to roll up your sleeves and get to work, you probably don’t live in the North Fork Valley. This gorgeous Delta County region, which includes the towns of Paonia, Hotchkiss and Crawford, remains a blend of traditional, blue collar industries—both agriculture and mining continue to be mainstays of the local economy.

Though the first orchards planted by white settlers were started just after the relocation of the Ute Indians in the 1880’s, today’s North Fork agricultural community has kept pace with the times— an emerging culture of agritourism, winemaking, craft brewing and distilling, combined with a rich history and a vibrant arts scene–have already made the valley a draw for tourists from across the nation and around the world. And while traditional ranching is still part of the fabric of daily life, the range of livestock raised here has expanded and diversified to include non-traditional and organic offerings.

The Paonia Chamber of Commerce notes that the North Fork emphasis on locally-produced, high-quality (often organic or chemical-free) products has earned the region a nickname, “the American Provence.” An active local citizens’ advocacy group, Citizens for a Healthy Community, has challenged efforts by the BLM to open up lands in the North Fork for energy exploration and fracking, while encouraging the BLM alternative plan, in the interest of preserving the health of the valley’s the land and water for future generations and for agriculture.

However, the North Fork Valley’s heritage includes more than farming and ranching; traditional coal mining is also very much alive in the North Fork, as anyone who has witnessed one of the daily coal trains snaking its way through the valley can attest. Recent layoffs of close to 300 miners by Oxbow Mining, one of three mining companies operating in the North Fork, have focused attention on the state of this longtime local industry. Other mining operations in the area include Arch Coal’s West Elk Mine, which currently employs 350 full-time, and Bowie Resources’ Bowie #2 Mine.

The web site of the Colorado Mining Association points out that miners are the highest paid industrial workers in Colorado (which ranks ninth among the nation’s coal producing states) with average annual wages of $98,250. Despite the loss of a number of such high paying jobs, however, the economic outlook for the North Fork Valley remains stable, observers say.

“We took an eight percent hit to our economy from the Oxbow cuts,” Hotchkiss Merchant Herald Publisher and longtime community activist Tom Wills said. “But it’s not the end of the world—in the 1990’s coal represented 25 percent of the local economy, now it’s less than 20 percent.

“This is the kind of change that has come to a lot of former mining towns.”

Though only Oxbow has recently announced major cuts, Wills said he does not expect the local mining industry to continue indefinitely.

“The reality is that nobody has more than ten or 15 years’ worth of coal left,” he said. “I do feel for the miners—these are high paying jobs that are hard to find, and many of them will leave the area to find work.”

Though many locals are holding onto their wallets after learning of the mine layoffs, the impact should not be as concentrated as many think, Wills said. Because of improvements to roads throughout the region, many miners today reside in other communities and commute to the North Fork.

“We also have our wineries, and agritourism,” he said. “If you are not a coal miner, things are actually going well–it’s still ok to go into business here. Our economy is also based on access to high end markets—Big B Juices has grown 30 percent every year, and Leroux Creek Foods has done very well too.

“A house in Hotchkiss is the best investment ever,” Wills said, and said that the area’s economy also benefits from assets attached to retirees and transplants.

“What is the future of the North Fork Valley? It’s obvious—look at Ridgway, or Carbondale,” said Wills, a lifelong Coloradoan. “We have advantages over those places—better climate, longer growing season. You can’t grow cherries in Aspen or Ridgway, it’s too cold.

“But you can grow cherries here.”