Old West, New West, Same West

Essay by Steve Voynick

The West – August 1998 – Colorado Central Magazine

ALTHOUGH VAIL AND LEADVILLE are just 28 miles apart as the ravens fly, they seem to stand at opposite ends of the West.

Vail represents the New West, a place of contemporary chic, luxurious living, trophy homes and money, all revolving around a vibrant economy based on tourism, recreation, and land. Leadville is the Old West, where century-old memories and lonely shaft houses watch over mine-scarred hills. Leadville’s economy is sluggish at best, and many residents commute to low-paying service jobs in Vail and resorts in Summit and Eagle counties.

At first glance, Leadville and Vail seem as different as night and day.

Leadville, after all, was founded on the get-rich-quick attitudes that characterized the precious metal rushes, along with a boom-bust economy and chaos that defied efforts to achieve social and economic stability. The legendary disregard for the environment has been roundly chastised, usually by the New West’s residents and visitors.

Vail, of course, was never tainted by such unsavory baggage, for it was born on the drawing boards of the enlightened New West. Vail didn’t stoop to extractive industries. It embraced a clean, laid-back economy of tourism and recreation.

Yet the surrounding Eagle River Valley, a place of pastoral beauty just 25 years ago, is now paved with parking lots. Row upon row of cloned condos are crammed on absurdly small pieces of land.

Every day, bulldozers level more land on the south-facing hillsides for trophy homes for part-time occupancy. Workers’ trailer courts are driven farther west, just as the Utes were driven west earlier.

To the east, Summit County, with its congested traffic, discount outlets and two-mile-long strings of fast food signs, replicates the class and ambiance of the strip malls of West Colfax. High-rise condos sprout like weeds, intent on blocking the view of Dillon reservoir to all except those who buy the penthouses.

Social and economic disruption? Vail and the other I-70 resorts, masters at exploiting cheap labor, have for years dumped the educational and medical responsibilities for its workers’ families on towns like Leadville.

In their wild growth, the Vails of the New West now burden us all in other ways. I-70 is critically overcrowded. Yet if these resorts didn’t exist, the highway would be more than adequate for years to come. When something is finally done to ease the congestion, federal and state tax dollars will pay for it, not the resorts, whose fortunes are linked to I-70, just as Leadville’s fortunes were once linked to the railroad. Although Vail has no mine speculators, it has hordes of real estate agents and developers who exploit mountain land, the richest ore of all.

The key is to keep land values increasing, approve the CAT IIIs, and blade the last trailer courts out of the valley. Develop every last square inch, because open space doesn’t earn a dime.

A Vail radio talk-show host recently discussed possible effects on elk and lynx habitat. The guest commented, “We’re not here primarily to worry about habitat. We’re here for profit.” I grudgingly admit a certain respect for his candor, if nothing else.

In The Legacy of Conquest, University of Colorado history professor Patricia Nelson Limerick writes, ” … contemporary Americans ought to be well informed and well warned about the connections between past and present. But here the peculiar status of Western American history has posed an obstacle to understanding. Americans are left to stumble over — and sometimes into — those connections, caught off guard by the continued vitality of issues widely believed to be dead.”

Among such issues are greed, exploitation of land, labor and the environment, and a willingness to inflict social and economic disruption — the same issues that fueled the Leadville boom more than a century ago.

Despite the 28 miles and 100 years between them, Vail and Leadville are the same. Truth is, there never has been an Old West or a New West –just one West, a place where greed, exploitation, and profit are the name of the game.

Steve Voynick lives near Leadville, and his latest book is Riding the Higher Range: The Story of Colorado’s Coleman Ranch and Coleman Natural Beef. This essay was originally published in the April 26, 1998, edition of The Denver Post and is here reprinted with permission.