Film ‘Craig, America’ puts Yampa River at center of transition away from coal |

Film ‘Craig, America’ puts Yampa River at center of transition away from coal

Steam rises from the Craig Station just west of Craig, as seen from an EcoFlight tour of the Yampa Valley with Friends of the Yampa on Feb. 4, 2022.
Dylan Anderson/Steamboat Pilot & Today

By the end of December 2025, Unit 1 at the Craig Station is scheduled to shut down for good. In September 2028, Unit 2 is set to join Unit 1 in retirement. By the end of 2030, Unit 3 is expected to power down as well.

Tim Osborn, plant manager for Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association, put it bluntly: “The plant is going to close.”

“We’ve got to get away from the easy button — the plant was the easy button,” Osborn said during a panel discussion at the Bud Werner Memorial Library in Steamboat Springs on Sunday, June 5.

“We are going to transition,” he continued. “There is going to be change. What are we going to do?”

Osborn and others on the panel were recently featured in the 15-minute film “Craig, America.” The advocacy group American Rivers, a national nonprofit dedicated to protecting and restoring rivers, created the film, which puts the Yampa River at the center of what could help define Craig after the coal industry goes away.

“That is something we very much took to heart, that we were providing electricity to the rest of the nation,” said Jennifer Holloway, director of the Craig Chamber of Commerce, in the film. “The solutions to what we are facing all come down to us working together and cooperating between people and between the earth.”

Holloway projects the plant represents about 60% of Moffat County’s tax base. However, there are also a variety of efforts — Holloway called it a “buckshot approach” — to offset the economic losses.

There has been an emphasis on installing fiber internet to better accommodate location-neutral workers. The chamber also has a coworking space and strives to support entrepreneurs with any idea that could lead to another job or two.

But a struggle for Holloway in trying to plan for this uncertain future is a broader belief by many in the community that things won’t change.

“It’s this group-think mindset: ‘No. No change,’” Holloway said. “How do we crack that?”

Holloway said they have started at a basic level: “Love Moffat County.”

“You can’t make people change their mind, so instead it’s about love and educating,” Holloway said. “Can we at least agree that we love this place? … (That) we want to survive here and have a community where our children don’t get on the first bus, car or train out of here when they turn 18?”

Similar to how power production has always given the people of Craig a sense of pride, she hopes the community can rally around Yampa River.

Josh Veenstra, a former Tri-State employee who used sewing skills he learned at the plant to start his company, Good Vibes River Gear, said he hopes to see a culture shift, moving from a population that has long prided itself on hard work to one that can also embrace fun.

“You begged for overtime,” Veenstra said. “We hope to see a community that begs for more time off and more means to recreate … Maybe Craig doesn’t need $10 million. Maybe it needs $5 million with a bunch of people who want to ride bikes and have a great view of life.”

Craig Station, largely fueled by Trapper Mine, stands pumping steam as a huge pile of coal stands in the foreground on mine property. Trapper mine’s only customer is the power plant.
Cuyler Meade / Craig Press

The culture is already slowly starting to change, he said. The first river cleanup he organized had about three people show up, with two of them being Veenstra and his wife Maegan. The last cleanup had more than 60 people, he said.

Veenstra runs Craig’s only rafting shop, and he is working to buy more equipment to get more young people in Craig on the river and raise awareness about the river’s importance to Moffat County’s next generation of leaders.

“Those people are going to be the next county commissioners, and in the city, and the people that want to stay,” Veenstra said. “We can convince these kids how cool the river is.”

On June 18, Good Vibes is hosting the first annual Yampa River Roots Rock Reggae festival in Craig’s Loudy Simpson Park, an event Veenstra hopes will grow in popularity over time.

The Yampa River carves through the landscape of Dinosaur National Monument in western Moffat County, seen here from a camera mounted on an EcoFlight plane touring Northwest Colorado with Friends of the Yampa on Feb. 4.

Local nonprofit Friends of the Yampa is also working to increase river access in and around Craig. The city is moving forward with a whitewater feature and other park improvements in the city. Veenstra said he hopes these efforts will create a stronger recreation vibe among locals.

Jojo La, an endangered species policy specialist with the Colorado Water Conservation Board, is also featured in the film. The daughter of Asian immigrants, La grew up in Craig, and she said the lack of diversity was challenging.

In the film, she compares diversity of species and the good it brings to an ecosystem to the benefits diversity brings to a community. While plant closures could be devastating for Craig’s way of life, she hopes residents will embrace the variety of opportunities the Yampa River could provide.

“I don’t know what the future of Craig is, but I know where Craig has come from,” La said in the film. “I hope that they are able to embrace change and differences — and keep an open mind.”

Osborn said the catalyst for change is coming in just over three years.

“It will be very real in 2025,” Osborn said, referring to the scheduled Unit 1 closure. “Sadly, you cannot talk about it enough up front, but when they see it happen, that is going to be a real catalyst for change.”

Osborn has worked at the plant for 32 years. He is on multiple local boards in Craig and remains confident Craig will eventually be successful in its transition. But what that measure of success ends up being is still something the community needs to decide.

“Craig will be successful,” Osborn said. “So what does success look like and who gets to define it?”

Support Local Journalism

Support Local Journalism

Readers around Steamboat and Routt County make the Steamboat Pilot & Today’s work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.

Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.

Each donation will be used exclusively for the development and creation of increased news coverage.