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The Nation | COLUMN ONE

This city knows the drill

Rifle, Colo., prospers amid a Western energy boom, but not without growing pains. And old-timers recall what often comes next: a bust.

January 19, 2007|Nicholas Riccardi | Times Staff Writer

Rifle, Colo. — LIKE many Western towns, Rifle is a plain-looking community in a remarkable location.

The town is wedged into a gulley carved by Rifle Creek as it trickles from the northern plateaus into the Colorado River. Most of Rifle consists of a narrow grid of modest clapboard and midcentury houses.

It's the scenery that commands attention here. Looming above town are enormous sagebrush-studded plateaus, framed by rocky triangular hills that recede into the horizon. Winding roads lead into notches and hollows that cradle ranches and homes.

The setting is spectacular in another way too: One of the richest natural gas fields on the continent lies beneath the ground.

The gas deposits of the Piceance Basin lay trapped beneath hard sands, too costly to extract for decades. But technological advancements and sky-high gas prices changed that just as the Bush administration opened more public lands for exploration.

Drilling rigs have mushroomed on the wind-swept mesas here. Big-rigs hauling drilling equipment and waste rumble down dirt roads that previously saw cattle drives.

Rifle is prospering. Its population has risen 20% in the last six years to 8,500. The state projects it will reach 40,000 by 2020. Talk of the town's changing character is thick at the Elks Lodge and in cafes and butcher shops. Locals still can't get over downtown's two-hour parking limit imposed last May.

"It's changing from a small town into more of an industrial area," mortgage broker Liz Lippitt said. "It's bringing a lot of money into town, but also some icky stuff."

Rifle residents aren't the only ones torn by the energy exploration that has transformed the West over the last few years. In gas- and coal-rich basins in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico, rural towns that struggled for decades are also enjoying booming economies. But some Westerners are distressed at the sort of communities the good times are creating.

"These are areas that attracted people for the hunting, for the clean air, and then you've got a lot of industry going in," said Walt Hecox, an economics professor at Colorado College in Colorado Springs. "But a lot of people have been waiting two decades for this boom to come back.... It's a mixed blessing."

It has been especially bittersweet in Rifle and other ranching towns strung along Interstate 70 on the state's western slope, an area brimming with so much fossil fuel that Hecox referred to it as "our Saudi Arabia."

Rifle's four motels are booked solid as energy firms compete to find housing for their workers. Apartments are packed: The vacancy rate is less than 1%. Spacious split-levels are sprouting on farmland at the north end of town. Home values have soared to levels comparable to those in Denver, 184 miles east; a three-bedroom ranch house that sold for $167,000 in 2000 fetched $295,000 in August.

On the southern edge of Rifle, a new Wal-Mart is making life easier for residents who used to drive 25 miles to shop. Downtown, which holds four blocks of old brick buildings, now features a bistro and an eatery that declares it is "more than a restaurant," along with a new yoga studio. Those signs of gentrification share a block with a hunting shop that has a plastic buffalo on its roof.

Nearly everyone in town has a job, city officials say. Some ranchers who've struggled for generations to eke out a living running cattle and sheep are suddenly flush with royalty payments from energy firms drilling on their land.

"People tell me, 'Paul, we're the fifth generation on this outfit and we're the first generation to ever get a regular check,' " said Paul Bernklau, a representative for the Colorado Cattlemen's Assn.

WESTERN Colorado has seen many booms followed by busts. The most dramatic began in the 1970s, when the energy industry poured millions of dollars into the area to find a way to extract the oil shale embedded in the plateaus. On May 2, 1982, Exxon, the main company in the effort, announced it was pulling out because of plunging energy prices. Newly constructed subdivisions became ghost towns. Businesses failed and land values plummeted.

To this day, Rifle's old-timers host a "survivor's party" every May to commemorate what they call Black Sunday.

"We seem to have short memories about energy, and how rapidly it can come and how rapidly it can go," said Bernklau, 72. "There'll be a big hole here again."

Energy companies and independent analysts say that, despite a one-third drop in the price of natural gas in the last year, prices are still at historic highs and they expect the boom to continue. But the change is a reminder that volatile energy markets can easily bust.

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