A time to reflect on our shared heritage in the vast spaces of the West
By Suzanne Dean
I had a conversation a couple of weeks ago that brought home to me, poignantly, the heritage so many of us share and some of the ways our lives are changing here in the West.
Some of that conversation seems to be worth sharing at this time of year as family members come home from all over the United States and as snow falls gently on our small towns, farms, ranches and vast open spaces.
The conversation was at an open house for John Keeler marking his retirement after more than 40 years with the Utah Farm Bureau. I sat down next to Kim Chapman, director for USU Extension in Sevier County.
Given that the whole gathering was ag oriented, the logical question seemed to be, “Did you grow up on a farm?” Kim’s answer was yes and no.
His grandparents had homesteaded land outside Craig, Colo., which is located in the far northwestern corner of the state. When they started out, they had cattle. Then the depression hit and the bank called in some notes. Kim’s grandfather sold all the cattle, which gave him enough to save his land.
Kim’s grandparents switched to sheep and dry-land wheat. When Kim was growing up, his father, he and other family members helped out on the ranch. But like so many western ag operations, the property didn’t kick out enough cash to support the second-generation family, so in addition, his dad ran an auto mechanics business in Craig.
But the ranch had some attributes that went beyond monetary value. A migration path for deer, antelope and elk went right across their land. Every year, they got to watch more than 12,000 elk that were making an enormous circle from mountain, to valley (where the ranch was), and back up into the mountains.
Over Kim’s lifetime, Craig has grown significantly and now has a population of just under 10,000. Moffat County has 13,000. But the growth hasn’t been because of farming and ranching.
Coal mining, especially at what is known as the ColoWyo Mine, is the third largest source of jobs in Moffat County behind retail trade and local government. The mining jobs, which pay $70,000 to $75,000 per year, are by far the largest source of wages. There is also a large coal-fired power plant in Craig.
In 2006, the U.S. Interior Department approved a plan to expand the ColoWyo Mine. But a couple of years ago, an environmental group, the Wild Earth Guardians, filed a lawsuit with a goal of stopping coal-fired power generation. The suit culminated in a judge ordering a rewrite of the mine expansion plan.
But a rewritten plan may not matter much. Not only has coal received a lot of negative publicity, but power plants are finding they can generate power at less cost using natural gas and other fuels. That’s what’s happened at the Intermountain Power Project (IPP) in Millard County.
Between 2006 and 2013, coal mining in Moffat County dropped 46 percent. The Denver Post ran a feature on the area with the headline, “Moffat County facing fate of the changing West.”
I can relate. My great-grandparents on my mother’s side were Mormon pioneers who settled on inhospitable land in northern Arizona. When you see the land, it’s hard to figure out how they survived.
My grandparents lived in a house that fronted on Route 66 in Joseph City, Ariz. Their lot took up most of the block. About a fourth of the property was filled with a vegetable garden. No wonder I’m now a devotee of home canning.
Behind their house were the chicken coops and the old outhouse. When, as a little girl, I visited my grandparents, I got to lean against the fence and pet the horse. I gathered eggs with my grandmother and took them to the “egg house,” the egg marketing building up the street.
My uncles who stayed in Joseph City did whatever they could to eke out a living. Two of them became truck drivers. One got into chicken ranching. The chicken rancher was just starting to make good money when competition came along and drove him out of business.
Then came the saving grace—the Cholla coal-fired power plant owned by
Arizona Public Service (APS). My uncle who had been raising chickens went to work for the power plant and rose through the ranks. By the time he retired he had a big savings account. He was known for knocking on doors of people in Joseph City who were struggling and handing them $1,000 checks. His funeral was huge.
Most of my Joseph City male cousins have worked at the power plant. A couple who got college degrees ended up as the finance officer and IT specialist for the plant. Some have taken their Cholla experience elsewhere. One is the power superintendent for a municipal power operation in Nevada and one is in the top tier of management at IPP.
Last year, APS started closing the plant. The company said the action was in response not to environmental regulations but to low natural gas prices. When I heard about it, I almost flipped out. “Oh no, I thought. What is going to happen to my family down there? What will happen to the town?”
But back to Craig, Colo. and Kim Chapman, the Sevier County extension agent. I asked him if his family still had the ranch.
He seemed to get wistful. There was a time, he said, when he thought about going home and becoming a full-time farmer and rancher, but it just wasn’t in the cards. Piece by piece, his grandparents sold off their ranch, mostly to neighboring ranchers, until there was one piece left.
His grandfather is dead now. And a month or two earlier, his grandmother sold the last piece. Kim said it was one of the hardest things she ever had to do.
So what do we make of all of this. Above all, we who have our feet firmly planted in the West have our memories. We can’t stop the engine of change. We have a responsibility to protect the land and our right to use it. Hopefully, in many places, Sanpete County being one, the remnants of the western lifestyle will continue for quite a few years to come.