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Without coal mining, Carbon County hopes tourism will fill in the economic gaps

Helper’s main street.
Sean Higgins
Improvements to Helper’s main street have helped draw tourists to the area.

For the first time since the late eighteen hundreds, there is no active coal mining taking place in Carbon County.

Nationally, coal mining has been declining as growth centers more on the production of environmentally sustainable power. But it's not without an economic impact.

“Eliminating the power plants and closing the coal mines is kinda like somebody has slit our throats economically,” said Price city council member Layne Miller.

In Carbon County specifically, Miller said a large part of the decline stems from decreased demand in California, where much of the power they generated was sent.

“A few years ago the California markets made the determination that they would no longer accept electricity that was generated through coal fired power plants,” he said.

Los Angeles used to get a quarter of its power from Utah coal plants. Now it’s working to phase out coal generated power entirely by 2025.

So Carbon County is looking to its past for new ways to sustain itself in the future. A past that includes dinosaur bones and other natural wonders.

“That’s where our focus has to be,” Miller said.

In addition to fossils, the area is home to beautiful and complex canyons that were carved out of sandstone, and – slightly more recently around 1,000 CE – the Fremont people carved some of the earliest examples of rock art in the state into those same canyons.

These sights have always been a draw for visitors, but the hope is that with encouragement from local officials, tourism can act as a much larger economic driver for the county.

Brooke Gross works at the gift shop at the Prehistoric Museum in Price. “I’ve definitely seen the shift from ‘oh we’re a coal area’ to ‘hey, we have all these wonderful things for people to see.’ So tourism’s definitely something we need to do,’” she said.

Part of that has come from initiatives to encourage tourism. Gross said downtown Helper has seen a lot of investment and improvement, and she loves sending tourists there.

Miller said the initiatives have worked and the county has seen a significant increase in tourism over the last three years, based on lodging tax revenues.

Still, he said tourism jobs don’t pay as much as union backed coal mining jobs. This is a concern, but he said they can’t give up.

“We can’t just throw our hands in the air and quit trying. So we’re going where we see our strengths are.”

Tilda is KUER’s growth, wealth and poverty reporter in the Central Utah bureau based out of Provo.
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