The Great Resource Rush; Colorado; Hanging onto a bucking bronco of prosperity
By late last fall, Mark Fischer had tolerated all the bone-chilling Minnesota winters he could take. So he threw his motorcycle and belongings in the back of a pickup truck and headed for what he had always considered an alpine Shangri-La -- Colorado.Skip to next paragraph
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Mike Turner, fresh from a fruitless job hunt in recession-pinched Oregon, drove east to Denver last October to find someone who wanted his graduate degree in water-resources management. Toting a cat, a dog, and an abiding belief that the Mile High City was job-rich, he settled in to slice off a piece of the American Dream.
For more than a decade the turnstiles at the Colorado border have been spinning wildly. Every hour seven more people move into this rumpled part of the West.
Some come to snap up jobs, others just to experience the Colorado mystique--the mountain air and the expansive vistas, which US chronicler John Gunther said ''stretch the eyes, enlighten the heart, and make the spirit humble.''
Economic opportunity abounds, but will too many people and too much development spoil the region?
Rugged, independent, and resource rich, Colorado is at the cutting edge of trying to manage an economic boom.
It is blessed with mineral plenty and a burgeoning high-technology industry. At the same time, however, it does not want to see its pristine character sacrificed to the nation's energy demands and is trying to cope with the pangs of popularity.
As viewed from the executive office here, the gauntlet isn't being taken up quickly enough. ''We're simply not prepared enough for the future,'' warns Colorado's environmentalist governor, Richard D. Lamm.
''We've done a lot of things we're proud of. But . . . Colorado's solutions are not keeping up with its problems.''
Many people are watching its experiment in managing prosperity, the more so since some believe that the economic future of the United States lies in the Rocky Mountain West.
The changes and challenges facing Colorado as it switches increasingly from an agricultural economy to an energy--and technology-oriented one appear starker than those of some neighboring states. Colorado is experiencing the population surge of a Tucson, the energy growth of a Houston, the high-technology boom of a little Silicon Valley.
Its policymakers are now being forced to think about a traditionally Eastern problem - urban sprawl. Throughout the mountainous West, clusters of cities string out like archipelagoes in a dusty expanse of mountain and plain.
But in Colorado the urban clustering is heavier. Eighty percent of the state's approximately 3 million people are shoehorned into an area called the Front Range, a necklace of cities strung out at the foot of the Rockies from Fort Collins to Pueblo. By the year 2000, another 1.25 million people are expected to live there.
Yet even in this, Coloradans have an advantage over their Eastern brethren. ''It is easier to deal with urban problems in a spirit of growth than in a spirit of decay,'' says Lucy Black Creighton, corporate economist with the First National Bancorporation.
The state has not been left unscathed by the national recession and onerous interest rates. A number of mines have padlocked doors, and construction isn't moving along at the usual jack-rabbit pace.
By Detroit's standards at least, the economy is strong. Unemployment stands at a little over half the national figure (5.3 vs. 8.5 percent), using federal reporting methods. By the state's yardstick, which some here consider more accurate, the latest figure is 3.7 percent.
As a resource state, Colorado holds several aces. Beneath its scrubby, mountainous veneer lie big deposits of molybdenum (used in hardening steel), as well as lodes of uranium, gold, silver, and other metals. Its oil wells still pump plenty of crude, although in declining amounts. Natural-gas production is slowly climbing.
Its prodigious coal reserves - 16.2 billion tons - offer promise, but production is flatter than some expected. Increased production will depend partly on tapping new markets in the Far East. Colorado has less coal than nearby Wyoming and Montana, and its deposits are tougher to get at. But Colorado's bituminous veins are lower in sulfur.
By one estimate (optimistic?) coal production in the state will hit 40 million tons annually by the year 2000 - triple the amount of just a few years ago. King Coal's rise has already resulted in boom towns like Craig, Colo., a small northwestern outpost where the train cars now stretch out as far as a coyote yelp can carry.
More than coal, however, looms the potential of a gray-pink marlstone laced through a pinon-studded section of western Colorado called the Piceance Basin. Here, amid corniced buttes and mesas, erector-sets of pipe and steel and cement rise from several sites where companies hope to produce a fuel for tomorrow - oil shale.