People in rural places in this district, downriver from Telluride, don’t like “in-stream flows.” An in-stream flow is water allocated to the river, as if a river has “rights” similar to what a human user of water might have. In some circumstances, thanks to rules supported by environmentalists, water users aren’t allowed to draw so much water that the river runs dry. The sentiment is that human needs should have priority over trout.
But if people are so short of water that they have to consume every drop out of a river to survive, are they really surviving? Because in that case, never mind the trout, what will the people do when the river is dry? Maybe an in-stream flow is more than a measure to protect the environment. Maybe it’s also a form of discipline that forces people to think more deeply about our water consumption. Maybe the real underlying problem is that there are more demands for water than the amount of water that falls from the sky.
Maybe the in-stream flow is not really the problem at all. Maybe it’s just a target for thirsty people’s frustration upon learning that there’s not enough water to go around.
I’ve been to Nucla and Naturita a few times in the last weeks. There, water is an issue but so are coal and uranium. The influence of “tree huggers” on how these resources are managed is not at all welcome. Tree huggers are not seen as messengers, reporting that the resource is scarce and must be managed mindfully, or warning that there are externalized costs associated with utilizing the resource – like health and environmental impacts – that won’t be ignored. The tree huggers, in the view of many folks whose jobs are lost, are the actual cause of economic privation.
A lot of the people in Norwood, Nucla and Naturita can trace their ancestry to Telluride. Great-grandparents mined gold and silver in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Just when the mines started to shut down in the mid-twentieth century, there was a uranium boom in the West End, fueling the growth of the towns of Nucla, Naturita and Uravan. Norwood, in between Telluride and the Nucla-Naturita area, was perfectly situated to support farming and ranching, part of a regional economy that worked pretty well. While Nucla, Naturita and Norwood are still inhabited, if no longer thriving, Uravan was deemed to be so toxic after uranium mining ended that it was erased from the earth by an Atomic Energy Commission reclamation project.
Most of the miners in the region started out as Democrats, because they were laborers, and Democrats supported the labor movement and fought the exploitation of labor by rich mine owners. Over the years, Democrats and the labor movement dramatically improved the lives of the miners, raising mining from a job just marginally above slavery to a job that was still dangerous, but provided a good life. The unionized mining companies, at their peak, provided not only well-paying jobs, but health clinics, schools, and housing. A company town like Uravan was a good place to live. People who lived there remember Uravan with deep nostalgia.
With the decline of the company town as a way of life, those remaining miners and their descendants have turned bitterly against Democrats.
I was invited to the monthly Navajo Taco Night in Nucla by some of the handful of Democrats who live there. Navajo Taco Night is a fundraiser for the town’s Fourth of July celebration. There were thirty or forty people there. I was introduced and then made my way from table to table to hand folks a business card with my name, picture and some policy positions printed on it.
“What are you?” a woman asked, studying the card.
I wasn’t sure what she meant so she made herself clear: “Democrat or Republican?”
“I’m a Democrat.”
“We don’t like Democrats,” she said.
So much for my strategy of putting issues ahead of party, at least this time.
A younger man across from her and next to where I was standing growled, “Democrats kill jobs.”
A woman sitting with them sheepishly admitted she was a Democrat, not to express solidarity with me, but as a way of asking me to leave her out of the discussion.
The man was a coal miner, and the local coal mine and associated power plant are being shut down, a direct and immediate threat to the future of the town. He was likely already out of work, or soon would be.
“Well, coal use is being reduced everywhere,” I offered, not very helpfully.
“For no good reason,” the miner said.
“Because of emissions?” the first woman asked.
“It’s a complicated problem,” I said. “The utilities are moving away from coal because natural gas is cheaper. And even though some people don’t believe the emissions contribute to global warming, a lot of other people do, so there’s a global push to cleaner fuels like natural gas. It’s pretty hard for a place like Nucla to fight against huge global trends like those.”
“What about cars?” the woman said. “There’s way more cars than coal plants.”
“Well, there’s a move toward electric cars for the same reason,” I said. “And electricity from coal is a major source of carbon dioxide and natural gas is available as an alternative.”
“Coal is cheaper than gas,” the miner said. I don’t think I contradicted him, but it wouldn’t have been necessary. “China is building hundreds of coal plants,” he added.
“China is pulling back from that,” I said. “And China is also producing more and more energy from renewables, more than we are. And we already getting close to twenty percent of our electricity from renewables like wind and hydro and solar panels.”
“What about the other eighty percent?” he asked.
“Well, a lot is coming from natural gas, which is cleaner and cheaper than coal. It’s a transition fuel away from carbon.”
“Don’t try to argue with me about coal,” he warned. “I know more about coal than you ever will.”
He couldn’t deny his job had been lost, but he insisted “there was no need.” “No need” was his mantra, a sentiment anyone who has ever felt like the victim of an injustice can appreciate. The job was lost not to fate, but to the self-interested politics of tree huggers, Obama, and Democrats.
It’s important to note that the loss of coal jobs in Nucla and Naturita comes barely a generation after the loss of uranium jobs, for exactly the same reasons: it’s not economic to mine local uranium when there are huge supplies cheaper to mine in Australia, Canada and South Africa, and at a time when there is a diminishing demand for uranium. Moreover, there are environmental and health costs to mining and milling uranium, and generating electricity from it, which contribute to making it uneconomical.
This leaves the residents of Nucla and Naturita struggling to imagine a future without coal or uranium; and faced with likely water shortages. This is a riddle that would challenge the most sophisticated economic visionary. West End residents kick around ideas: How about a hemp industry? How about a new reservoir? How about the upgrade, already in the works, for Nucla’s airport? How about snagging some of the recreational tourism centered on Moab to the west and Telluride to the east? How about attracting retirees?
But retirees would require modern medical facilities and, in fact, all of those possible futures come with similar caveats that make them seem unlikely. Who’s to say hemp will ever take off, and even if it did, why would Nucla and Naturita have any advantage in such an industry? Who would pay the millions for a new reservoir and is there enough water to keep it filled? What will draw planes to land at the airport? Tourism jobs might be generated, but they pay minimum wage.
Add to all that the misery imposed on the community even before the closure of the coal mine and power plant. How many older couples are raising their grandchildren because their children are battling opioids or alcohol? This is not a random question. I’ve talked to people like this who are, understandably, both proud of what they’ve been called upon to do and embarrassed that they had to do it. How many Nucla and Naturita residents are on welfare? Someone who should know told me the number is 38 percent, though I haven’t fact-checked it. There is really no need; the community’s poverty is evident.
We can talk reasonably about common ground issues, and I try.
“My father was a uranium prospector here in the early 1950s,” I say, to break the ice. “I remember playing with a Geiger counter I found in his study when I was a toddler.”
“What was his name?” some old timers ask. Nobody has remembered him, of course, because there were thousands of lonely prospectors like him, roaming the canyons and mesas, Geiger counters in hand, looking for a fortune that only a few of them found. Had he staked a small claim and put down roots, I might have been born there, might have grown up there, could have become a Nucla old timer myself. The circumstance of our birth is the first momentous event in every life, and it sets the course for everything that follows.
I make it clear that, if elected to the state legislature, I will do everything I can to support the community’s heroic economic redevelopment efforts. I will fight for affordable health care and enough funding for education to allow the local school district to return from a four-day to a five-day school week. We can lament the harsh division in American society, and we can agree we have more in common than we have that divides us. We can find agreement on the wedge issues of guns, abortion and immigration.
But there is one wedge issue that is impossible to bridge, at least with true believers. His name is Donald Trump, the wedgiest of wedge issues, so I try to avoid him. Sometimes that’s not possible, because what these Trump voters see is an irrational hatred of Trump, and of them for liking Trump, on the part of the tree-hugging, job-wrecking Democrats. From their perspective, we “elitists” are the source of the deep division in American society, not them.
One woman told me she was horrified by the hatred on a friend’s Facebook page after Trump was elected.
“You would have found the same anger on my Facebook page,” I said. “For people coming from where I come from, we were in a state of shock after the election, because Trump was just not acceptable.”
“That’s how I felt about Obama, especially when he was re-elected,” the woman said. “But I accepted it. I didn’t go crazy over it and get nasty. I respected the office.”
This was not the first time I heard that argument. I heard it from a trainer at my gym right after the election, and have heard it repeated since.
“People on my side can’t understand that equivalence,” I said. “What did Obama do that was so divisive? I could understand if you were comparing Obama to Bush or Reagan. I didn’t like Bush or Reagan’s policies, but I didn’t find them intolerable, like Trump. Obama was so moderate, so sane, so decent. What did he do that you hated?”
“I admired that he was a good family man,” she acknowledged. “And I wanted to be proud that our nation elected a black man as president.
“But our economy died after he was elected.”
“The crash happened before he was elected,” I countered. “He turned it around.”
“Not here. And he killed coal.”
“He was in support of moving the economy to cleaner energy,” I agreed.
“Global warming is a religion,” she said.
“It’s science,” I said. “It’s as real as the medical science that is treating your husband.”
Perhaps that was unfair of me. She had earlier confided that her husband has cancer. She shook her head.
“If we don’t share the same facts, how can we ever find common ground?” I asked.
“How could people in Telluride think that our little power plant here was hurting them?” she replied.
“That would be a foolish thing for them to say,” I said. “The power plant here didn’t cause Telluride any direct harm. But coal is being phased out because natural gas is cheaper for utilities. And many people do believe the science, which says we need to transition away from carbon as quickly as possible and so any reduction in the use of coal is a step in the right direction. Maybe it’s not politics but reality, the reality of economics and the environment, that is killing coal.”
I understand it’s a short journey for anyone to take, from losing their livelihood to believing the war on coal is part of a global-warming hoax to voting for Donald Trump. Trump and other Republicans have added a bunch of additional cultural signposts to speed the journey to the politics of resentment: things like their unqualified support for gun rights and blaming immigrants for all kinds of ills. I have come to see that the most potent of these cultural issues is resentment of the “elites,” and that’s because it is undeniable that success in life is being increasingly concentrated at the top of the income ladder. The rich are getting vastly richer while the working class stagnates at best, and the middle class is squeezed, and along with that come all sorts of sharper cultural differences.
How Trump, as the epitome of privilege, has positioned himself as a champion of working people is infuriating, but not hard to understand. All Trump really had to do was embrace, for example, the fiction that there is a War on Coal. In an age of deepening tribal instincts, identifying with one of the two American tribes, red or blue, is just that simple.
I look, walk and talk like an “elitist.” I live in Telluride and wear too much black. And if there’s the slightest doubt, a person may ask: “What are you?”
With all of that, when I introduce myself to a Trump voter, that person assumes instantly that I think he or she is a dumb shit. This puts that Trump voter in a defensive posture. For me to validate the vote for Trump as a reasonable political choice is close to impossible, if I’m honest, because everything about Trump is anathema to me. It follows from the Trump voter’s perspective, that elitists like me are the source of the great division in American life precisely because we are so disdainful of Trump and his voters. To bring it back to Nucla and Naturita, there’s consistency in that view, because the War on Coal and our “religious” belief in global warming are, in fact, threats to their way of life.
We can discuss all of this amicably, but maybe this one time I lost it.
“I’m afraid you are in for a big disappointment,” I said to one staunch Trump defender. “Mueller has the goods on Trump and it’s all going to come out. A bunch of people close to Trump have already been found guilty. He’s a money launderer who was deeply in debt to Russians, and he conspired with Putin to win the election. The New York Times and The Washington Post are not fake news. They are reporting facts. It will all come out. It has to. What will you think then?”
“I will be very surprised.”
It was as if he’d only vaguely heard that Trump was being investigated and I was in the grip of a paranoid conspiracy theory. My belief that the Russians interfered in our election was as fantastic to him as his belief that global warming is a gigantic hoax was fantastic to me.
“Do you feel we’ve had a good, respectful conversation?” I asked, after that undisciplined parting shot. “Even though we see some things very differently, we agree on a lot of issues.”
“We’ve had a good conversation,” he said.
We had managed to lay it all out there, without expressing disrespect or anger. I felt we could be friends, but I wondered if he could bring himself to vote for me.
Though they are a distinct minority, there are also a handful of Democrats in Nucla and Naturita. I met with a group of them, at a meeting I organized with the help of a former resident of the area, Vicki Phelps, who now lives in Telluride, and Don Colcord, the beloved pharmacist who’s famous as a rare West End Democrat.
That’s where water and in-stream flows came up.
“What do you think about water?” asked a man, who I later learned was Richard Craig. Richard, who is rail-thin, with a long white beard, is running for Mayor of Nucla.
“A big subject,” I said. “There’s not enough of it falling from the sky to meet all the demands for it. So, it has to be managed very carefully.”
Water is essential to agriculture, of course, which is a remaining source of livelihoods on the West End, but another natural resource that, like coal and uranium, is subject to all sorts of regulation that can seem arbitrary and unfair. Trout Unlimited, which fights to protect in-stream flows, is deeply resented here, its very name often spit out like a cuss word. Our discussion turned to the proposal for a new reservoir in the area, and whether it is a good idea because it might help sustain the local economy. I was asked if I would support it. Not knowing any details about the proposal, I said I didn’t know, but agreed that additional water storage will have to be part of any reasonable water management plan.
The core issue is not water, of course, but whether Nucla and Naturita will survive or will be erased from the map, like Uravan has been. Without being able to mine and process uranium or coal, without enough water to grow crops, the most likely potential future is recreational tourism. The area is halfway between the tourist destinations of Moab and Telluride. Breathtakingly beautiful, it should be able to capture a share of tourist dollars. But tourism-related jobs, as everyone at the meeting knew, are low-paid.
One woman said that her son, laid off from the now-shuttered power plant, has had to take a 25-hour a week minimum-wage job in Telluride. Some Telluride employers limit jobs to part-time because working more than 25 hours triggers benefits the employer is forced to pay. That means that the formerly well-paid power-plant worker is now forced to work without either benefits or enough earnings to live on, plus a regular commute of more than an hour each way on dangerous mountain roads.
This group seemed mindful that the misery of their community stems from large economic, environmental and societal phenomena. Maybe this is why they were Democrats, albeit moderate ones. Yes, overregulation is a problem, but global warming is real and so coal isn’t likely to make a comeback. There is a growing gap between rich and poor, globally and nationally, not just locally, which means that many people can survive only if the social safety net is strengthened, not shredded. Immigrants, documented or not, should not be scapegoated as the source of problems, but in reality they fill agricultural jobs that keep the economy afloat. If Nucla and Naturita do move toward a recreation-based economy, that economy may not provide much prosperity.
This conversation was neither fueled by resentment of elites nor was it optimistic about the community’s future.
“What about guns?” Richard Craig asked. And then he sort-of cracked a joke revealing he was behind two famous Nucla trolls, both promulgated before the word “troll” was used to describe tweaking political opponents: the notorious Nucla Prairie Dog Shoot (July 1992) and an equally notorious town law requiring the head of every household to keep a gun in order to provide for his own self-defense (May 2013).
“I believe in gun regulations, but I do not want to confiscate your guns,” I said. “I’m not a gun grabber. And I understand that regulations can be unnecessarily burdensome. Let me ask you: Do you think terrorists or felons or children or the mentally ill should be allowed to buy a gun?”
“No, I don’t,” Richard said.
“So, we both believe there should be some restrictions on gun ownership, and the question is, What regulations?”
He agreed. And then, to my surprise, he said he didn’t see any reason for anyone to own an AR-15.
“If you tried to hunt an elk with one of those, there wouldn’t be anything left to eat,” he said.
And Richard said he opposed bump stocks and high-capacity magazines, which, like AR-15s, are only good for mowing people down.
“I don’t want to be characterized as a gun grabber and you don’t want to defend the rights of terrorists and mass killers,” I said. “The way this issue is debated, we are both forced into corners where we don’t want to be.”
“So, we agree on guns?” I said.
“We do,” he said. “And we need more money for mental health, too.”
“We need that regardless of guns,” I said. “Our prisons are full of people with mental health problems, who should be getting treatment instead.”
The room nodded in agreement.
“Let me ask you all,” I said to the group. “Would you like for me to come back and campaign here? Do you think there are enough people who would like to have a conversation like we’ve just had? Can I win votes here from your more conservative friends and neighbors? Could you invite them to another meeting like this?”
“It would probably be just the same group of us, again,” one man said grimly.
We all sat quietly for a moment.
“The third Friday of every month we have Navajo Taco Night at the Fire Station,” Richard said. “You could come to that.”
“I’ll come to the next one,” I said, “if some of you are willing to be associated with me, and you promise to introduce me around.”
“Sure,” Richard said, and volunteered himself and a few others.
And so he did introduce me, last Friday night, when I pursued the most urgent conversation in America today: the dislocation and alienation of so many millions by a world in rapid and drastic transition to an uncertain future; a politics that has failed to address the dislocation; and the rise of a fervent populism that to many of us seems like a threat to democracy and social stability, economic and environmental sustainability, and world peace.
Nucla and Naturita don’t have enough population to win me the election, even if I did manage to win the majority vote there. Most voters in the 58th House District are in Cortez and Montrose. From what I have observed so far in this campaign, the residents of Cortez and Montrose, while a majority voted for Trump, are more moderate than residents of Nucla and Naturita.
But Nucla and Naturita are where the issues that divide America are so stark that they come into sharp focus, with highly applicable lessons for Cortez and Montrose and beyond. One lesson is that threading the needle – balancing honesty with tact, expressing respect without pandering, and offering hope without a gloss of unreality – is both daunting and necessary, and is the only way I can envision out of this morass.