“I don’t know what we’re going to do if the mine closes.” The woman’s voice sounds strained and tired through the phone. “I’m going to have to find a job, and we may have to cash in our retirement fund. I guess we’ll move if we have to.”

I hadn’t meant to pry. I had just called to remind her of her daughter’s peewee basketball practice that night. But in a small, western town, you can’t help but run into the lives of your neighbors.

Like everyone else in town, I had heard about the fire in one of the underground coal mines, about the high levels of carbon monoxide that forced an emergency evacuation. And I knew people were worried the company might shut its operation down permanently, putting the top breadwinner in more than 100 families out of work. But that voice made it real. It suddenly registered that nearly half of the girls on my team had parents who worked in one of the three local mines.

I’m a slow learner, but I have my excuses. I moved here to Paonia, Colo., seven years ago, fresh off a stint with the Sierra Club, the nation’s largest environmental group, based in San Francisco, Calif. There, I was one of dozens of people working feverishly to protect the country’s air, water, and last wild places. We rarely discussed the people who worked the land and lived in small rural towns, and when we did it was not in flattering terms. We also talked a language of superlatives: Old trees were “ancient forests;” the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, under threat of oil drilling, was the “American Serengeti;” and the forces aligned against our last wilderness areas were all BIG: Big Oil, Big Timber, and Big Mining, just chomping at the bit to plunder the public lands.

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Of course there was a kernal of truth in our words. Corporations and wealthy industrialists have frequently grabbed for resources in the West with little regard for the health of the environment. The landscape has in places been irrevocably changed for the worse. And opportunists are still out there scheming new ways to make a profit off the public domain, though today the ski and off-road vehicle industries — Big Recreation, if you will — seem more a threat than the traditional bogeymen.

Back on the Ground

But the world of environmental politics left me feeling disconnected from community, which is one reason I left the city and moved to this small town. Still, I was a little apprehensive about settling in a coal mining town. Those miners were “big tough guys” who probably chewed up environmentalists for breakfast.

Reality, of course, is more interesting than fiction. The first miner I met was my neighbor, Bob, a tall, affable, sandy-haired father of two. Within a week we were regularly chatting over the fence about gardening, fishing holes, and the weather. He gave us some of his garlic crop; we gave him a young apple tree we didn’t know what to do with. Then there was Louis, the retired mine electrician who could talk you under the table about everything from how life has gone to hell since the unions left the valley to “those damn kids” who race their pickups down the alley between our houses. Under his feisty exterior, Louis has a warm heart. On more than one cold winter’s night, he has fixed our aging coal furnace.

Not all coal miners are sweetness and light, of course. Some are rough and violent. Coal mining is a difficult occupation, even in these modern times. Twelve-hour shifts, six days a week can take a toll on miner and family. Miners also fear constantly about their jobs. I caught a glimpse of this two years ago on a tour of another coal mine owned then by the giant ARCO mining company. We drove deep into the blackness of the mountain until we came to the massive longwall machinery. There a great blade shaved chunks of glistening coal onto a belt that ran like a swollen, lumpy river out of the mountain to the railroad tracks.

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Someone asked about the company’s commitment to the local community. “Oh, we’re not going anywhere,” said the mine engineer. “We’ve got another 20 years worth of coal down there, at least.”

“This is one of the most productive underground coal mines in the country,” the company executive seconded.

But the next morning, a small story in the Denver Post announced that ARCO had just put all of its North American coal mine operations up for sale. So much for stability.

Those miners kept their jobs because the new owners didn’t signifcantly change the mine’s operation. But it could have been hit-the-road time, just as it might be later this year for the families of the fire-stricken coal mine, should the owners decide to cut their losses.

Life isn’t black and white in the rural West. You can like miners and dislike the dangerous and capricious nature of their business, just as you can want to protect the environment, but still value mining and agricultural communities over exclusive ski resort towns.

The week of the mine fire, a few more fathers brought their girls to practice, including the husband of the woman I called on the phone. He seemed in good spirits and stayed for a while to shoot hoops with his daughter. I hope he’s back working underground soon.