The freight trains that chug through this mountain haven are almost as much a part of the landscape as the magnificent West Elk Mountains.
For almost 100 years, the tracks from the coal mines have been a lifeline for the economy - bringing jobs for residents and, as it turns out, "clean" coal for electric-power plants, mostly in the East.
But now, demand for this coal has grown so much that trains are shuttling day and night across the valley - raising safety and quality-of-life concerns for Paonia residents. Says farmer Wayne Talmadge, who on occasion has found the only road to his house blocked by an immobile train: "We've had to park our car on one side of the train, and crawl underneath it to get to our house."
Now, with output from the mines expected to double over the next several years, a struggle has emerged over finding the right balance between rural quietude and economic bustle. With a coal-mining boom under way, it's a debate that's playing out in many communities across the West, and as in those, it's been complicated by the new demographic diversity of the region.
Just 30 years ago, a coal boom would have prompted jubilation here in western Colorado's North Fork Valley. But today, Paonia's economic base has broadened, and fewer residents work in traditional industries like mining and ranching. Retirees and urban refugees seeking a simpler way of life are moving here, helping to double the local population in just five years.
Many of these newcomers - as well as some longtimers like Mr. Talmadge - hadn't bargained on so many inconveniences from the coal boom. Railways in the valley cross roads more than 100 times, without a single overpass or underpass and almost invariably without gates or lights.
Indeed, the scenario at the Talmadge farm is not so unusual. "Our whole town shuts down when the trains come through," says Steve Hinchman of the Western Slope Environmental Resource Council in Paonia. Locals complain about delays for commuters, school buses, and daily travel, but their bigger worry is that one day a train will block fire trucks, ambulances, or rescue crews from responding to a serious emergency.
Sandra Higman has already had exposure to that problem. Injured while in-line skating with a friend, she learned that the ambulance was delayed 7 minutes waiting for a 100-car coal train to cross the highway. "It wasn't such a big deal," says Ms. Higman of her own ordeal. But "let's not wait until we have a serious accident."
Higman and her husband moved here five years ago from the big city. They built their home on a mesa high above Paonia. But instead of the tranquility they dreamed of, they are awakened each night by coal trains.
"They blow their whistle three times at each crossing, and there are eight crossings in Paonia," she says. "The question is, how much coal can be hauled out of this valley without destroying the quality of life?"
In the past decade, coal production jumped from an annual 1 million tons to 10 million tons. That amount now is set to almost double - just in the next year - under lease applications being reviewed by the US Bureau of Land Management (BLM).
"They're talking about doubling production, and it doesn't work now," says Carolyn Johnson of the Citizens Coal Council, based in Denver and Washington. "This is going to just overwhelm the community."
The law, however, does not require coal companies to mitigate impacts like those being felt in Paonia. In fact, the BLM cannot weigh "social impacts" when considering mining applications, says Allan Belt, BLM field office manager. Instead, the agency urges give and take between mine operators and residents.
The coal companies, for their part, are trying to address concerns. "Coal companies are becoming more cognizant of the effects on communities," says Bill Bear Jr., a third-generation miner and manager at the Bowie Resources mine. There is talk, for example, of upgrading crossings with gates and lights, and establishing radio communication between emergency vehicles and trains. "It's not the homogenous community it used to be ... and now there's a search for what the ground rules will be."
The low-sulfur coal found here is in high demand, largely because the federal Clean Air Act (as updated in 1995) requires power plants to reduce sulfur emissions. With most low-sulfur coal reserves in the East depleted, Western mines are producing as never before. At the same time, technology has revolutionized the industry, transforming it from labor intensive to highly automated.
Today, coal mining supplies less than 4 percent of county jobs. But mining wages are by far the highest, averaging $37,000 compared with a countywide average of $18,000. Coal royalties and taxes also supply millions of dollars in revenue. Considering the economic benefits, not even opponents want to drive the coal companies out.
"The community has said, 'We don't care how much coal you mine, as long as you can solve our impacts,' " says Mr. Hinchman. But there are practical bounds to the concessions coal companies can make and still stay in business, says Kathy Welt, the environmental supervisor at nearby Oxbow Mining. One thing she says area mines won't consider is limiting production. "We are a free enterprise, like any other industry in the nation."
Some opponents find that stance unacceptable.
"It won't be everything that everyone wants," agrees the BLM's Mr. Belt. "You're never going to have a completely harmonious melding of these cultures. I'd say that's synonymous with the West."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society