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.

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.

The basin contains the richest oil-shale deposits in the world, an estimated 1.2 trillion barrels of oil. Two projects now moving ahead could produce synthetic fuel in the 1980s. But several other companies have scaled back plans.

Scooping out all this energy will take its toll, not least of all on another of the West's most coveted resources - water. Oil shale alone could consume as much as 600,000 acre-feet per year over the next decade and a half.

But there are other problems, including air quality, land reclamation, the unsettling effects of massive development on an area accustomed to ranching, recreation, and fruit growing. The smack of the gavel is echoing throughout the state as town fathers meet with company officials over how to pay for new schools, roads, sewers, and power plants. Over the next two decades, total capital investment in the state for services could top a staggering $92 billion.

Yet energy isn't all that is behind the state's boom. Along the Front Range, bits and chips are becoming as much a part of the state's lexicon as salt domes and shale oil. Ever since IBM first established a plant in the state in the mid- 1960s, electronics firms have spread rapidly. An estimated 350 firms are here now. Officials are banking on growth in the high-technology sector to steady the state through whatever rough economic seas lie ahead.

Denver is the state's most dramatic sign of prosperity. A quiver of new skyscrapers stab the sky, and the steel girders of several more rise nearby. During the 1970s, the Denver-Boulder area was the sixth fastest-growing metropolitan center in the country. Colorado National Bankshares Inc. predicts it will jump to fourth place for the 1980-1985 period.

Energy is fueling much of the growth. Denver is at the midpoint of an energy axis running from Calgary, Alberta, to Houston. At least 2,000 independent oil firms have set up here. A mass migration of engineers and other workers, many of them in pinstripes, has given the former ''cowtown'' a taste of high-stakes wheeling and dealing.

What happens in the paneled boardrooms along 17th Street, the Wall Street of the West, now touches other financial centers. Foreign money is flowing in: By one estimate Canadians have invested nearly $1 billion in the metropolitan area. Local banks have grown with the surge as well. ''Denver banks will grow at twice the rate of the average banks in the rest of the country,'' predicts Bruce M. Rockwell, chairman of the Colorado National Bank.

Still, some local leaders worry if there will be enough money left in the vaults for hardware-store owners and saddle-shop proprietors. Colorado banks have fewer assets per capita than the rest of the nation ($5,589 per person vs. who's being hit with this supposedly munificent growth, may be driven out of business because he can't keep his market share,'' says Roy Romer, Colorado's shirt-sleeved state treasurer.

If Denver bristles with prosperity, it also suffers from some gnawing problems. Its air pollution is among the country's worst, traffic snarls are becoming common, and affluent neighborhoods are elbowing in on the poor.''Downtown continues to turn eastward, westward, and northward, eating up all the low-income neighborhoods,'' complains Kevin Markey, local representative of the Friends of the Earth.

More worrisome to many is just how much the onslaught of civilization is going to mar the easygoing way of life. Irked by the area's changing face, many home-grown Coloradans as well as newcomers are becoming restless. A battle of bumper stickers has emerged across the state, reflecting part punditry, part protest. ''Native,'' snaps one sticker. ''Transplant,'' says another. ''Alien,'' goads a third. And, finally, ''Who Cares?''

Perhaps most visible of the state's efforts to plan for growth has been Governor Lamm's much-vaunted Front Range project, a citizen initiative. One spinoff from this is ''Project Colorado,'' a private-sector planning effort.

If nothing else, many argue, these groups symbolize a consensus-building in a state where distrust of central planning and government runs as deep as the rivers that etch its rocky exterior.

Yet others argue that it is time for less talk and more action. ''I think there is a good chance Colorado could wake up in a few years and find out the train has already left the station,'' says a government official. Still, it's a giddy time for Colorado. Over the next couple decades the state will be adding a prosperous new chapter to its colorful history book - one many others are watching with envy.

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